HR’s Rising Stars: A Big Transition

This article accompanies Shining Examples.

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is, along with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of the nation’s two nuclear weapons research facilities. The scientists who work at its sprawling campus (dubbed “the smartest square mile on Earth”) on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area pursue breakthroughs in fields ranging from counterterrorism and nonproliferation to defense and intelligence, and energy and environmental security.

Renée Breyer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Renée Breyer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

After 55 years as a public institution managed by the University of California, in 2007 Lawrence Livermore transitioned to being a privately managed company owned by the federal government. Among other things, this meant the laboratory would now have to abide by California’s relatively strict labor laws as well as federal laws it didn’t have to worry about under UC’s oversight. It also meant that, as part of the process, 8,500 employees would have to be offered – and formally accept – positions in the new entity, and their data would need to be seamlessly transferred to new systems.

Luckily for Lawrence Livermore, it had 2015 HR’s Rising Star Renée Breyer, who began her career there in 1992 as a systems analyst and developer in the finance department and switched to HR in 2006, becoming a division leader overseeing workforce analytics and employee records.

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As she puts it, “I was familiar with HR even before I formally joined it.”

The laboratory’s transition from a publicly managed entity to a private one was all the more challenging due, in part, to the organization’s academic nature – committee and consensus is a way of life, and the laboratory’s employees expect to have input on major decisions via multidisciplinary “red teams,” says Breyer.

HR’s Rising Stars strategy: Improve onboarding

“One of the things that’s very different here compared to most private organizations is that we’re very academically oriented; we create a draft document and then everyone bleeds on it – that’s why they call them red teams!” she says.

Breyer carefully reviewed the lessons learned from similar moves by other national laboratories. Typically, those transitions had been paper-laden, costly and inefficient, she found. She created an automated offer letter and response system for moving the laboratory’s 8,500 employees over to the new entity as seamlessly as possible. The automated system saved the laboratory an estimated $500,000, while the zero-error data transfer helped it avoid an estimated $2 million in potential costs.

Shortly thereafter, budget shortfalls led to the laboratory’s first large-scale layoff in 30 years – and only the second in its 60-year history. Given that most of the laboratory’s employees had spent their entire careers there, the news of impending layoffs sent shockwaves through the workforce. Ultimately, 1,200 employees left the organization through a mix of voluntary and involuntary separations.

This was exacerbated by the laboratory’s cumbersome layoff policy, which hadn’t been updated since the early ‘70s, says Breyer.

“Within this one policy were multiple other policies for different employee populations,” she says. For example, scientists who were to be laid off had to be given 120 days’ notice, while other employees only had to be notified 30 days in advance.

HR’s Rising Stars Strategy: Streamline processes

Tasked with overseeing the workforce restructuring, Breyer and her team were able to ensure that all employees and their managers were kept fully informed during the process and the U.S. Department of Energy rules (the laboratory falls under the auspices of the DOE) were adhered to. Breyer collaborated with the HR system development staff to deliver tools to help managers analyze the workforce and put in place a comprehensive workforce-restructuring plan.

The automated voluntary separation process they initiated saved the organization valuable time and money, while the updated layoff policy they created was much simpler for managers and employees to understand and explain than the previous one.

Breyer’s efforts to streamline the laboratory’s complex processes extended to its scientific job classification system. Under the old system, scientists were classified according to their particular discipline. With the new system, they would be classified by the actual work they did – this would make it much easier to do things such as conducting compensation surveys.

As with other large-scale changes at the laboratory, however, this one generated controversy. Breyer says the lab’s many constituents were ultimately won over to the new system through multidisciplinary teams collaborating together. As with other initiatives, she says, consistent communication was the key to success. “It’s not just about systems and technology; it’s about communication and pulling teams together,” she says.

By 2011, Breyer was appointed to her current position as the HR function’s second-in-command, which includes oversight of benefits administration, design and compliance. Her performance has won her praise from many corners, including her boss, Art Wong, the laboratory’s associate director for the strategic human resources management directorate.

“[Breyer] exhibits innovation with her ideas and is excellent at collaborating across the company,” he says. “She’s independent in thought and balanced with a team focus.”

For Breyer, one of the most rewarding parts of her job is the opportunity to help staff members develop their potential.

“One of my proudest accomplishments is seeing other people rise up within the organization,” she says.

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Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.