Maxine Carrington describes herself as 80% HR leader, 20% lawyer.
It’s a realization that came to her gradually throughout her diverse career journey, which includes roles as assistant general counsel and later manager of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations. She relied on that employment law background when she became manager of labor relations at Northwell Health—New York’s largest private employer with 74,000 employees.
Less than one year later, she started climbing the HR ladder at Northwell, and a few years later, HRE named her one of the 2013 HR’s Rising Stars (nominations are now open for this year’s contest—click HERE for more information).
Carrington ultimately became deputy CHRO in late 2018 and a little more than a year later took on one of her biggest challenges yet: the COVID-19 pandemic. With 23 hospitals and 700 outpatient centers across New York City, Long Island and Westchester—areas hard hit by COVID-19 early on—and a workforce in the trenches of the pandemic every day, keeping employees safe, motivated and engaged is an ongoing struggle, Carrington says.
She will share how the HR team has tackled those obstacles during next month’s Spring HR Tech in a session called “HR Hot Spots: CHROs Answer Today’s Burning Questions,” moderated by John Sumser. Click HERE to register for Spring HR Tech.
Before the conference, Carrington gave HRE a preview of what Northwell has been working on:
HRE: How did you even begin to tackle all of the HR challenges the pandemic brought?
Carrington: We had a good infrastructure and framework even prior, so we had learnings from previous crises; take your average weather event—Hurricane Sandy certainly being a big one—preparing for Ebola or even labor-strike planning. We had processes in place for how we bring people together, how to establish an emergency operation center, all the checklist things we needed. But we also had to look at employee experience. We had just achieved the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For for the first time ever, meeting a 2020 goal. Throughout this whole thing, we’ve been asking ourselves, “What would a Fortune 100 Best Company to Work For do?”
HRE: So, what were the first priorities?
Carrington: One was quickly recognizing the basic needs of our staff. Childcare—how do we unencumber people to allow them to come to work and be there to really deliver, not knowing how long this thing was going to last? Also wellbeing. We knew this was bound to get stressful so we had to think about what do we have to do today [to support employee wellbeing] and also how over time can we continue to get insights into and monitor the needs of our team members? Recognition has also been important. So we took those areas that we had already focused on every day anyway and looked to amplify them and adjust where we needed to.
HRE: Especially given the work that Northwell employees are doing, how has the organization sought to support their mental health?
Carrington: One of the first things we did was push out a survey to all team members to assess their particular wellbeing needs. Our behavioral health folks took learnings from Wuhan and what folks were experiencing there and the literature coming out as well. We knew we would need to tap into aspects of stress resilience: How do we help people manage, how do we keep them inspired, how do we communicate regularly? Those are just as important as any counseling or therapy we’re going to provide.
So, we scaled our employee assistance program knowing the need may be greater. We created a hotline for support, which is still open today. Folks call the number, get triaged and might be routed to the EAP or to something more critical for services. We also increased our virtual offerings: virtual fitness, cooking classes, deep breathing, meditation, yoga.
We’re a wellbeing organization—that’s just the business we’re in—so we’ve done everything from fitness discounts to pushing out articles about care. We’ve held webinars for leaders, we had a wellbeing conference with leaders from the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute as well as internal partners. We trained leaders around their own resilience and also how to look out for signs of trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder in their employees. We created a dedicated website as a one-stop, go-to place for team members to see all of our resources. We also have a print guide that will continue to evolve and be refined. We used the power of team member stories on social media channels, allowing them to share their experiences of what they’ve gone through and encouraging them to access help and lean on each other.
We also have tranquility tents. At every one of our hospitals, if they didn’t have a tranquility space for team members, we brought in and stood up a tent right outside of the entrance. So, whenever team members are going in or out, they can stop in and something cool will be happening—deep breathing, dancing to salsa—and there are resources as well as chaplains on site.
Team Lavender is also picking up in popularity. When a code is called, that’s for a patient in distress so this version is for team members. When a team member is in distress—for instance, if they’ve just experienced a patient loss—Team Lavender gets called and team members immediately deploy to wrap support around that person. That was another one that has been scaled for the purpose of COVID. We had a lot of these things in place but this work was about making it more consumable and accessible for folks to be aware of and understand.
Carrington: We have an HR tech team and a workforce intelligence team, which is all things data for us. Today they give us reports on who’s getting vaccinated and their demographics. We’re getting incredible insights; we’ve discovered the highest hesitancy to get the vaccination is among African-American team members and then we can layer on marital status, education level, for instance. So, we’re able to look at all these aspects and go to team members like our business employee resource groups, show them the data and get their insights about how to move those numbers up.
Our HR technology team is an amazing function within the organization. When it comes to the technology itself, prior to COVID, we were in the middle of a multi-year project to transition our systems into Oracle Cloud from PeopleSoft, which was a millions-of-dollars investment. And at the same time, we were working on an internal mobility transformation; we had over 10,000 job descriptions in our health system and were looking to get that number down and more clearly define the professions within our organization. And then COVID hit. We put it all on pause for a few minutes but once we moved into the resurgence we got everything back online. We went live Nov. 1 and also launched a new internal careers portal.
We built a database during COVID for reassignments to help team members get redeployed to another part of the organization. They can sign up that they’re willing to be a reservist, their manager’s cool with it, what their skills are and the next time a crisis rolls around—i.e., the second surge—we were able to go in, mine it for the skills we need and tag them to be redeployed. From there, we also needed to figure out how to pay people who were moving all over the organization, and that’s where HR tech steps in. We also created a new portal for employee health that’s particularly focused on testing and symptom monitoring; every day before we come in, we go on and self-report any symptoms or lack thereof.
The HR technology team is finally now starting to take some days off; they’ve just been working 24/7 on all of this. Our COO says we’re crazy but continues to be amazed at what this team can pull off.
HRE: Northwell’s employee population is 72% female. Are you concerned about the trend of women leaving the workforce in the last year, and what have you been doing to try to curb this?
Carrington: The things we had been focused on before COVID really helped us be prepared. We created a new team in HR a couple years ago called Fair Employment Practices, which focuses on equity, diversity and inclusion on the workforce side. We reassigned a team member from another part of HR to come into that group and focus just on women; 72% is great but there are still opportunities in historically underrepresented roles and in leadership. We also have a business ERG focused on women that launched a couple years ago that I co-chaired until recently when I turned it over to a team member. So, we already had that mindset, focus, perspective and insight knowing that we’ve got to keep doing more here.
Then, enter COVID. Childcare for one thing … we worked with Bright Horizons and other companies we partner with to expand the network of available care locations and make them easier to access. And if team members have a community member, family member or someone they trust caring for their children, we’ll provide a daily subsidy to help offset that cost. Unencumbering people has been the biggest piece with childcare.
We also have a good group of team members who couldn’t be immediately redeployed but who had no work and we maintained their salary. We furloughed with pay because we understood that people are losing their jobs, spouses are losing jobs and we didn’t want to create a macro issue of people waiting on unemployment checks for who knows how long.
We also created guides around remote work to show people they need to be forgiving, flexible and supportive around working parents. Their kids may join Teams or Zoom calls and you can’t let them apologize profusely because there’s nothing to apologize about. We also advised to let them rearrange schedules if they need to.
Turnover has actually declined. We typically run 9.5%, which is really good for healthcare and many industries, and we closed out 2020 under 9% and today we’re at 9%.
HRE: What was the transition like moving from employment law to the many other areas within the HR function that you now work in?
Carrington: I knew I never wanted to practice law forever; I wanted to contribute service in some way. I had that Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg bug. I knew I would eventually parlay it into something else.
When I was doing arbitration cases years ago, I’d be sitting there thinking, “How did we get here? How did we get to termination? What feedback was this person getting? Were they truly developed? Did they have any fair warning?” I didn’t know why I was thinking these things or what to do with it. I learned I like process improvement; I was always looking at the way things were being done and trying to figure out a more efficient way to do it, something creative. I helped create a pro bono program for law firm attorneys to pick up some of the city’s cases. I built that program and managed it day to day and discovered I really love this stuff. The transition into healthcare wasn’t all that difficult; I had been for a long time reading about innovation in the workplace and not knowing why I was so drawn to it.
What was helpful was, as an attorney, my brain is trained to think liability. I always ask, “What are the unintended consequences?” Though I’m an optimist and a glass-half-full person, I always think about what could go wrong so we avoid pitfalls. Even if something is seemingly fun and exciting, is it fair? Who doesn’t have access and who does? Is this a risk we want to take? I’ve retained that mindset without the litigator coming along for the ride.
HRE: You were one of HRE’s Rising Stars in 2013. Looking back on that time, is there any advice you would give today to your younger self?
Carrington: I love reading and learning, and I probably would’ve done even more of that and been more disciplined around carving out learning time. Today I do that. Every day, as my direct reports know from seeing it on my calendar, I have “study time.” It’s just a half-hour but it’s time to listen to a podcast, read an article, read a newspaper about what’s a trend, what are people talking about. Also, I would have networked more. Reaching out to HR professionals outside of the organization has really served me well.
HRE: Outside of your work, what are you passionate about?
Carrington: One is my 4-year-old; he turned 4 on Groundhog Day. I was also just appointed to the board of a not-for-profit that has a great story. It began as a soup kitchen years ago and expanded services to shelters and then started thinking more about how to set people up for long-term success. They wrap total support around someone in need: food insecurity, citizenship issues—they think about the whole person. I’ve always been about community, whether it’s through giving or service or mentoring, again focused on vulnerable populations.
I wish I could say I love exercising and hopping on the bike, but I don’t need a treadmill now that I’m running after a 4-year-old. Also, I love to read. I just finished The Henna Artist, which was a beautiful read; a local library did a discussion with the author the other evening so I was able to listen in while catching up on e-mails. And I just picked up Michael Dowling’s—our CEO—new memoir, After the Roof Caved In, and I’m on chapter two. I’m getting it for members of our team. His story’s amazing—growing up poor in Ireland to who he is. That’s not a shameless plug—I’m actually reading it!