HR’s Rising Star: Striving to be an ‘agent of change’ in a changing landscape

When Fiona Sityar joined government contracting firm Highlight Technologies in 2017, she was a one-person HR department, supporting the organization’s 65 employees. Within three years, the workforce grew to 250. And then, COVID-19 hit.

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Unlike many other industries that slashed headcount amid the pandemic, hiring exploded at Highlight, thanks to a 400% surge in business from a Small Business Administration contract. That year, the Highlight workforce grew to over 1,000, with employees in almost every state in the country. Sityar, promoted to director of HR, matured the department to manage the influx—and has since navigated layoffs that reduced headcount to about 500, focusing on both compliance and communication; about 10% of laid-off workers were re-hired or transitioned within the company.

The ability to help employees through those ups and downs of the past few years was exactly what Sityar, who studied psychology and business administration at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, says she was craving from a career in HR. That Highlight is a mission-driven organization—for instance, through its SBA contract, it helped small businesses facing closure amid COVID access disaster loans—is especially resonant.

“I knew I needed to be in a role that allowed me to interface with people on a day-to-day basis; I wanted to be in the thick of it,” says Sityar, one of Human Resource Executive‘s five HR’s Rising Stars for 2023. “It’s not just working in the back office; your footprint is bigger, although it may not seem like it in the day-to-day.”

Connecting on engagement

HR's Rising Star Fiona Sityar of Highlight Technologies
HR’s Rising Star Fiona Sityar of Highlight Technologies

With such a significant number of contractors in the workforce—many of them new and mostly remote—one of the most pressing day-to-day challenges facing Highlight’s HR function in recent years was engagement.

To boost connections, Sityar helped spearhead a series of new team events, both in-person and remote, and rolled out a recognition strategy that includes an annual awards program and leverages platform Bucketlist—driving up formal recognition efforts by 86%; each month, more than 65% of employees now engage with the tool to thank colleagues.

“Many of our people are government-facing so they’re not necessarily speaking to people on the same team or in the same program, so I’ve really enjoyed seeing people connect in this way,” Sityar says.

An opportunity to continue to foster connection arose in 2021 when the company converted to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan—which allows employees to own shares of the company. Sityar, who became the company’s go-to plan expert, says the new model wasn’t just a “driving force” for talent acquisition but has also become a tool to drive community among the existing workforce.

“They know they’re part of a team and everybody has a stake in the game,” she says. “Everybody’s trying to grow their own value but, bigger picture, everybody else’s value, too. That’s been something we’ve really tried to lean on to increase engagement and maintain morale.”

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Soliciting employee feedback has been a key component of that strategy—for instance, employees vote on the Employee of the Month and also offer input through bimonthly pulse surveys. The performance-review process similarly got a refresh: When Sityar joined the company, Highlight relied on an annual review; it has since evolved to quarterly, less-formal conversations—intentionally rebranded as “check-ins.”

“It feels much less like a sit-down, formal discussion and more just a prompt to make sure they’re going over goals, accomplishments,” she says. “I think it lends itself more to that relationship-building.”

Sityar’s work in this area may be a key driver of Highlight’s improved employee metrics: For instance, it was certified as a Great Place to Work in 2022 and 2023, with its rating rising from 85 in 2017 to 95 today.

“To finally be able to cross into that threshold of being a Great Place to Work was, to me, a summation of all the work we’ve put into the employee experience at Highlight,” she says. “That was really a shining, shining moment.”

Optimizing the tech process

The performance-review overhaul was supported by Highlight’s HRIS, through which managers can now administer their reviews—including updates for raises and promotions—facilitating a more streamlined workflow. In the past several years, Sityar has focused on optimizing how Highlight uses its HRIS—such as the 2021 addition of a chatbot to answer employee questions and the ability to leverage the platform for employee learning and training.

Sityar has particularly worked to enhance the self-service potential of the HRIS.

See also: Top insights for improving your HRIS experience in 2023

For instance, employees can now complete benefits enrollment entirely themselves online—reducing HR administration time to just a few minutes per employee.

“Instead of us pulling information from our applicant tracking system and filling it out on behalf of the employee, the employee is now responsible for filling that out themselves,” she says, noting that, in addition to reducing administrative time, the shift is also giving HR more accurate demographic information about employees.

During Sityar’s tenure, employee usage of the HRIS has grown from 70% to more than 99%.

DEI at the core for being a change agent

While Highlight is increasingly looking to technology to facilitate its people strategy, the human touch HR professionals bring to the field is always top of mind, Sityar says.

In particular, she has approached the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion journey with empathy at the forefront. Highlight is a woman-owned small business that features significant minority representation among the employee and leadership ranks, but leadership recognized the opportunity to keep the moving ball forward on DEI, she says.

“Everybody wants to see themselves reflected in the company where they work, and they didn’t always necessarily see that,” Sityar says.

To deepen Highlight’s DEI commitment, she engaged with a team of consultants, as well as sought input from employees through focus groups and surveys. Sityar helped launch a town hall series, in which employees and senior leadership can directly interface about DEI topics. Acknowledging that the first few sessions were a bit “awkward,” Sityar says she’s pleased to have seen the collaborative nature of the event gradually build.

That goal involves a corporate mindset shift—no longer viewing DEI as a program, but rather a journey, one that is embedded in how the organization operates.

“[DEI] is braided into the decisions we’re making—it’s less of an initiative and more so just at the core of what we do,” Sityar says.

On the move for this HR rising star

This spring, Sityar received another promotion at Highlight: to director of people and culture, a position that brings recruiting into her purview.

“I believe internal mobility and career growth are key indicators of a rising star, and Fiona embodies this concept,” says HR’s Rising Stars judge John Klein, a former winner and the people and operations leader at a stealth start-up. He notes that Sityar “has exceptional potential based on her ability to adapt, learn and execute. I look forward to seeing her career growth in the future.”

Looking ahead, Sityar says the new recruiting responsibility will help her develop into an even more well-rounded HR professional—and, ultimately, a strategic “agent of change.”

And, given that she doesn’t come from a recruiting background, her new position demonstrates her capacity to “jump right in,” which, she predicts, will serve her well in her future HR career.

“HR success is about stepping into a role, making connections with employees and then getting to lead change and growth.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].