How this ‘through-the-ranks’ leader excels with agility, empathy

Erik Alicea

Erik Alicea joined the Acacia Network 10 years ago as an HR file clerk. Because of his job performance, strong grasp of HR principles and passion for the profession, he received frequent promotions: first to HR coordinator and then HR generalist followed by HR manager. Last year, at the age of 33, he was promoted once more to HR director.

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In his new role at the New York-based social service agency, which serves more than 150,000 people annually, he immediately faced two challenges. He had to manage the same group of employees he once worked with side by side. Would they trust his judgement, value his decision-making abilities and respect his leadership skills?

At the same time, COVID was in full force, respecting no one. While many employers were laying off workers, Alicea was committed to keeping his workforce intact while almost half–45%–of employees began telecommuting.

Alicea came to the office every day to ensure that services to the organization’s vulnerable populations were not disrupted. He also met with managers to plant the idea of rehabilitating troubled workers instead of firing them by addressing training and the high cost of recruitment.

“I told managers that we spent a lot of time, effort and money to recruit them,” says Alicea.  “I said, ‘Let’s not throw these employees away because they made a few bad decisions. Let’s train them.’ ”

Managers listened. So far, he says, fewer than 10 workers have been let go since last year while the organization’s turnover rate has been slashed by at least 25%.

Stepping stones

Since the organization delivers diverse social services, ranging from home healthcare to transitional housing, the pandemic escalated its need for additional employees.

To help meet this growth demand, more than 500 people were hired last year between April and September under Alicea’s leadership. He also identified the need to better manage worker demands, which led to implementing an HR helpdesk solution that mirrors a ticketing system used by IT departments.

However, not everyone was eager to jump onboard at first. Alicea met with each of the company’s leaders to demonstrate how the new system would streamline HR services. He received buy-in from all members of the leadership team and led the system’s implementation. Now, employees submit ticket requests regarding their questions about training, employee benefits or labor relations, for example. Since it was launched, the helpdesk has provided faster responses, better outcomes, happier employees and improved HR productivity.

Meanwhile, Alicea is focused on evolving the organization’s culture, partly by holding listening sessions with frontline workers to learn about their specific needs and concerns. Alicea, who serves on the organization’s DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Council, recently created a “subdivision” of the Council. Its eight members are working to build a more welcoming culture for the organization’s frontline workers along with their clients or patients who are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As the first in his family to graduate from high school and college, Alicea’s career ambitions are set on high. One day, he hopes to serve as the organization’s top HR leader. Until then, he’s working toward becoming an expert in systems management and obtaining a SHRM-CP certification. Since he’s a key member of the organization’s negotiating team, which works with seven unions, each with a different collective bargaining agreement, he also plans on attaining a mediation certification.

Alicea’s skills and accomplishments have been acknowledged by those inside and outside the organization. His boss–Katrina Jones, SVP of HR–says he acts as a “culture and change steward by recognizing, articulating and helping to shape an organization’s culture.”

Likewise, Rising Stars judge Ben Brooks, himself a former Rising Star winner and also the founder and CEO of Pilot, says, “Erik represents the best of a through-the-ranks emerging leader … He possesses a real sense of agility and empathy.”

Alicea, however, credits his career success to one basic attitude:

“Many times, we forget the ‘human’ in HR because we’re so focused on policy and procedure,” he says.  “We forget that we’re doing these things for people. Just remembering that is key.”

Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at