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A Day in the Life of Jim Thomas Moving HR from Control to Service

June 1, 1998
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession, Your HR Career
Tuesday, April 7

Denver, Colorado
—To understand Jim Thomas, who heads the HR function at Denver International Airport (DIA), you have to understand the environment in which he works. First, there are the electronic security badges. Every employee uses one of these badges to get in—and out—of buildings, offices, meeting rooms and elevators. The badges are typically worn on cords around the employees’ necks, making them look like they’re part of some undercover government laboratory. I was given a badge and limited security clearance in order to spend the day with Jim. During that day, he used his badge at least 10 times to navigate the airport’s administration building. Although I couldn’t imagine working in an environment where a magnetic strip regulated every move—mostly because I’d have to remember the badge—for Jim, the high level of security is a source of pride. "This is one of the safest airports in the world," he explains.

But this is just one of the many things he’s proud of about the airport. As a 23-year veteran of the City of Denver, Jim was involved with DIA during the planning stages, he lived through opening day in February 1995, and he has spent the last three years working out the kinks in an 880-employee human resources system that’s responsible for 88,000 passengers and 1,100 flights a day. When I tell him I’m a frequent flyer, he thanks me for the revenue.

From his small ninth-floor office, which overlooks DIA’s white-tented terminal building, Jim tells me about the challenges of managing a new international airport. "We’ve spent the last several years working under enormous stress," he admits. "Getting the airport open and putting out fires turned us into a task- and crisis-driven organization."

But now, with the fires put out, employees are taking a collective deep breath and looking at how to become more process-driven. "We’re refocusing our energies and are starting to look at the long term," he says. "We’re working hard to become an HR function based on service, as opposed to a personnel department based on control."

On the day I spent with Jim, it was clear to me he’s smack in the middle of this transition. All day long, his work alternated between administrative tasks and strategic ones; between directing employees and supporting them. Here are some of the highlights:

7:30 a.m.
Jim arrives at work.
His office is neat: file folders sit upright on the edges of his desk, photos of his family top a small bookcase, and a framed wilderness poster hints at what this tie-and-pager wearing executive likes to do on his off time. I meet Jim here and reassure him I’m not out to get dirt on DIA. Instead, I tell him I want to learn about his typical workday. "Typical?" he asks. "I don’t think there’s such a thing." Before we have more time for chitchat, in walk two of Jim’s direct reports who’ve come to ask questions about a disciplinary case. It’s unusual, I learn later, for people to drop by his office so early. Why? "Because," Jim admits, "I have a reputation for being somewhat unapproachable in the morning. I get mentally ready for work at 6 a.m. and by the time I get here, I’m flying. One staff member tried to get me to lighten up by sticking a yellow smiley face on the outside of my door. When I closed the door, he came in and put another smiley face on the inside. I finally got the message." Far from being upset about the negative feedback about his personality, Jim welcomes it. "I give feedback and routinely ask others to give it to me. I believe we’re judged as much by how we’re perceived as what we’re doing."

This belief becomes evident as one of Jim’s peers comes in to talk about a touchy political situation. Glancing over his shoulder and lowering his voice, he asks Jim: "Was I off-base last night? I know I made a couple of people mad, but still, did I get my point across?" This launches a 25-minute conversation about personality differences, budget issues, turf battles and communication problems. Jim listens quietly, asks the occasional question and provides gentle reassurance.

In two brief meetings, it’s clear this is a man others trust.

8:15 a.m.
The phone rings.
A lengthy conversation about budget and payroll analysis follows. Although it’s only April, the city has already started its 1999 budgeting process and Jim’s department is trying to pull together better information for managers. "We need to show how payroll costs have been allocated better than we have in the past," he explains.

The process isn’t easy because the city’s information systems aren’t capable of extrapolating all the HR data Jim’s staff might need. But because he now reports directly to the airport manager, Jim plays a greater role in overall resource allocation. "It’s my job to keep the manager informed about the employee population," he says, no matter how difficult that is.

9:00 a.m.
Time to get busy.
In the past 75 minutes, Jim has scheduled two meetings, dealt with a disciplinary action, diffused a political situation, talked about budgets and answered staff questions. Looking at me, he deadpans, "Gee, I hope things start picking up around here."

9:15 a.m.
Three floors in 15 minutes.
We leave Jim’s office for a meeting with Jeanne Batey, associate manager of employee services. Although her office is just three floors away, it takes a good 15 minutes to get there. Why? Because Jim knows every employee he passes. He stops to talk to people in a conference room, he chats in the hallway and he teases employees in the elevator.

9:30 a.m.
Searching for the cutting edge.
Jim and Jeanne spend the next 1 1/2 hours talking about a wide range of topics, including temporary workers, training, staffing vacancies, budget issues—even security badges. During these discussions, it becomes obvious to me how painful it is for HR professionals who are trying to transform the function from an administrative to a strategic organization.

Jim and Jeanne talk about the difficulty of working within a municipal personnel system that limits what they can do in terms of recruitment, hiring, job classification, compensation and employee policies. Although DIA operates somewhat autonomously, the HR function must still work within the city’s structure. At the same time, the airport is Denver’s pride and joy and managers here are expected to be on the cutting edge. The pressure to perform is especially great from the airport’s major customers: the 21 airlines that rent gate space.

It’s not always easy pleasing the airlines, internal managers and the city personnel department all at the same time. This becomes apparent as Jim and Jeanne talk. For instance, in discussing how to fill staffing vacancies—a continual problem thanks to Denver’s 3 percent unemployment rate—they’re careful to consider what all their customers need to be successful. In fact, they use this exact language.

During the meeting, Jim plays devil’s advocate, explains the impact of organizational politics and provides insight based on overheard conversations. "I have greater hands-on involvement with individual issues than I want to right now," he says. "But this is because we’re in the middle of a change." He’s looking forward to the day when managers will be better equipped to handle their own HR issues.

1:15 p.m.
Back in another meeting.
After checking voice mail, returning calls and grabbing a bite to eat at an airport restaurant, Jim is back in another meeting. This one is with his two employee relations directors who spend over an hour in a small, windowless meeting room reviewing employee grievances, disciplinary actions, FMLA requests, ADA issues and employee recognition programs. Here again, Jim lets his staff do most of the talking.

3:00 p.m.
Tour of airport operations.
Usually, at this time of day Jim would be in his office working independently on projects or responding to crises. In fact, a good 25 to 50 percent of his time is normally spent solving problems. Today, however, the pager has been quiet and he has decided to take time out to show me the scope of airport operations, from the crisis command center to the runway snowplows. As he drives me around, I get the feeling Jim thinks of the airport as "his."

4:00 p.m.
Tutoring an 11-year-old.
I leave Jim a little earlier than expected. Normally, he works until 5:30 or later but today, he’s promised to tutor his 11-year-old grandson at 4:30. As I depart, I’m thinking how easy it is for us journalists, when reporting a story after the fact, to make the work of HR seem a little too easy. But after seeing the real work of a human resources professional unfold minute by minute, I realize it’s anything but.

Lost in my thoughts, I also forget to turn in my security badge. Two days later, Jim calls and nicely suggests that I get it back "as soon as possible."

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 81-83.

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