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New Avalara CHRO putting employee health and safety first

Kathleen Weslock shares lessons from managing through 9/11 and her main concern during COVID: families with extra responsibilities at home.
By: | July 22, 2020 • 6 min read

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, Kathleen Weslock stepped into her new position as CHRO of Avalara, a leading provider of cloud-based tax solutions designed to help businesses maintain compliance.

Bringing with her 20 years of leadership experience and an extensive background in HR—including as CHRO of Cisco Systems, SunGard Data Systems and Livent—Weslock has made it her goal to focus on employee wellbeing and safety throughout the pandemic.

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HRE recently spoke to Weslock about how Avalara is taking care of its employees, the challenges of working remotely and how companies can address the racial-justice issues affecting the workplace.

HRE: As chief of HR, what are your main goals during this pandemic?

Weslock: COVID-19 has changed everyone’s world, not only for the past few months, but perhaps forever. The priorities really needed to focus on employee safety, so myself and every other HR executive immediately focused on taking care of employees. I had started doing that at my prior job at Livent and now am taking over the reins from my predecessor, Shaunna Duffy, who is still handling COVID-19 for Avalara, and she is doing a fabulous job of protecting our employees.

HRE: How would you advise HR leaders to create an environment where employees who are returning to their workplaces will feel safe at work while still performing at a high level?

Weslock: While the state and the federal government cannot agree on when we should return to work, this becomes a “what makes sense for your workers” [situation]. I think companies need to err on the side of being protective. Essential workers, of course, have to go back into the workplace, but now, I’m seeing a change from some of my HR executives who were planning on sending their employees back to work but have to do some course correction and reboot because it is not safe to go back. While usually you need to stick to a plan, in this environment, it is impossible because things are just changing so quickly.

HRE: In your experience over the past 20 years, have you ever faced a situation similar to this? If so, how were you able to overcome that difficulty?

Weslock: I have been through some other pandemics, but the biggest crisis I had to manage through was 9/11. I was in New York City and was the head of HR for a law firm, Shearman and Sterling, when the planes hit the Twin Towers, so we had to mobilize and make sure that all our employees were safe in a matter of minutes. On that day, I saw HR executives who could handle the crisis and other HR executives who panicked, and those are not the people you want when dealing with a pandemic. I have learned a lot through my history, but the most important thing is to make sure you have a team around you that is calm, pragmatic and thinking through issues.

HRE: What personal skills do you think have helped you find continued success throughout the rapid changes that have occurred in the HR industry during your career?

Weslock: I actually love what I do, not only because I can be strategic and think holistically about HR, but I can also do the HR work myself. Keeping up with my skills, what is on the horizon and knowing the basics has served me well. I have never been one to just go with the latest HR program or focus on the cool stuff. It has to be very pragmatic, it has to be authentic and it has to relate to the business’ needs.

HRE: What are some of the benefits and challenges of working virtually, and how do they affect Avalara’s future?

Weslock: This has been a workforce experiment like no other, and any company, including Avalara, went into this with some level of skepticism. I think what it has proven is that, if you have employees you trust, who work hard and who are part of the team, people can work anywhere, and they can work anywhere successfully. To me, the critical issue here is trust. Do your managers and employees have the level of trust and communication, so you know that work is getting done? And more importantly, what we also must look at as leaders is that people don’t burn out from working at home. People are working under tremendous strain and pressure.  They are working around the clock, so as leaders, not only do we have to make sure the work is getting done, but that we are also concerned for the welfare of our employees.

HRE: What are some long-term plans HR leaders should be using to prepare for another wave, whether it is six months from now or a year?

Weslock: My biggest concern is really what are we going to do for those families who have additional responsibilities at home, such as caring for older parents or young children, that add to their stress levels. We are looking at all kinds of options on how we can help our employees as we go through this. We do not see this stopping any time soon, although every state is different, so I think the best thing that we can do for this is to be in constant contact with our employees. At Avalara, our CEO is a tremendous communicator. He sends out weekly emails to the company and has monthly live chats with all the employees to stay connected. We have remote work welcome kits that we sent home to new employees to help them onboard better. We’ve brought in health and wellness experts and we even have a channel called “Avakids,” where we provide different virtual activities and programs for our employees’ children to entertain them for part of the day. We have to think creatively and out of the box to figure out what we can do to help longer-term.

HRE: How do you think the racial-justice conversations happening now are affecting businesses and HR leaders?

Weslock: Just when we thought we had the pandemic under control, racial issues in this country were brought to another boiling point. Our CEO, Scott McFarlane, wrote a heart-felt note to all our employees discussing the crisis. He has had conversations that are very difficult to have with employees on the subject. Our leadership team is going through a 21-day racial equity challenge—reading books, reading articles and taking action around racial injustice. All of this is very important to Avalara’s culture, but it’s also being led by our excellent head of diversity, Amelia Ransom, who has been very creative and has made our commitment to racial injustice stick beyond just a note from the CEO. We truly are taking a close examination of what we are doing at the company currently and what else we need to do to ensure our leaders understand the expectation to create and foster an inclusive culture.

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See more Insights from a CHRO here. 

HRE: If you could describe your own personal mantra, what would it be?

Weslock: Know the roles, read the playbook, then rip it up and make it your own.

HRE: What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

Weslock: I grew up playing a lot of sports, from softball to field hockey to basketball, so I will always revert back to a team mentality than an individual one. I think that a team sport gives you perspective, and it creates balance, particularly in a time of crisis.

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