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Union Roots Inform IBM HR Leader's Actions

June 7, 2007
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Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Change Management, Featured Article
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I BM human resources chief Randy MacDonald says growing up in a union household helped steer him into HR. In recent years, labor advocates have criticized IBM’s U.S. job cutting and movement away from traditional pensions. But MacDonald says his father’s union work has influenced him to make decisions about workers with integrity.

    Workforce Management: How did your father’s union involvement affect your career path?

    Randy MacDonald: My dad was a local union president of the typographical union in upstate New York. My father had a lot influence on me in many, many different ways. One of the things he taught me, and one of the reasons why I ultimately went into human resources, was that there are adversarial ways of running businesses and then there are harmonious approaches, and being provocative and being different was acceptable. One of the things he was most proud of was that in all the years he was union president they never had a strike, but his people felt that the contracts were fair.

    I listened to his conversations at home on the phone with the company negotiators on an off-the-record basis. The integrity of those conversations proved to be very worthwhile. I practiced that going forward.

    WM: You had to deal with unions at GTE.

    MacDonald: That’s right. At IBM, we have a union-free environment here in the United States. We have unions elsewhere in the world. We manage them differently, because they tend to be European unions. But all of those experiences are relevant to me.

    WM: Boston University’s Fred Foulkes says that at times as an HR leader you’re the arm of the business, and at other times you’re the hand of the worker. Have you ever found yourself saying no to Sam Palmisano or other IBM executives because what they proposed wasn’t good or fair to the employee base—say, in the job-cut decisions that are made or the benefits moves?

    MacDonald: There are moments when I will remind people of decisions or statements that we have made to our employee base when confronted at the table with a difficult dilemma. I will say to them, "Let’s stop, ladies and gentlemen. We have to be consistent here because six months ago, we said this. And unless we have a strong rationale for changing our position—and by the way, sometimes we do—we need to remember that we have a sense of trust that people have given us, and that we have a level of personal responsibility as senior leaders that we have to acknowledge."

    I learned a long time ago that on any given day it is impossible—impossible—to satisfy all the different constituencies: employees, clients, shareholders, the communities. There will be some push and pull. The difference is that the leader has to have, one, balance in his or her decision-making and, two, a sense of integrity about that decision. And whether you like the decision or not as an employee, a shareholder or a client, if you understand the rationale for it, it is easier to accept.

Workforce Management, May 21, 2007, p. 23 -- Subscribe Now!

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