This CHRO approaches health and wellness with a legal mindset

Maxine Carrington, a speaker at Spring HR Tech, brings an analytical outlook to her work helming HR at New York's largest health system.
By: | March 3, 2021 • 11 min read

Maxine Carrington describes herself as 90% HR leader, 10% lawyer.

It’s a realization that came to her gradually throughout her diverse career journey, which includes roles as assistant general counsel and later as a manager with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations. She relied on that background when she became manager of labor relations at Northwell Health—New York’s largest private employer with 75,000 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).

Maxine Carrington

Carrington ultimately became deputy CHRO in late 2018 and a little more than a year later, together with her team, took on one of her biggest challenges yet: the COVID-19 pandemic. With 23 hospitals and 800 outpatient centers across New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut—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 challenge, 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.

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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 strong and robust emergency management infrastructure and framework even prior that we immediately activated at the beginning of this crisis. We had tremendous learnings from previous emergencies to draw from; take a severe weather event like Hurricane Sandy or preparing for Ebola or even labor-strike planning. We had processes in place for how we bring people together, activate our emergency operations and all the checklist items we’d need to think about. Also critical was our culture; we have a highly engaged workforce and had just achieved the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the first time ever, meeting a goal we’d set for ourselves, i.e. to make the list by 2020. Throughout this crisis, as we make certain decisions, we’ve been asking ourselves, “What would a Fortune 100 Best Company to Work For do?”

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 administer a survey to all team members to assess their particular wellbeing needs and help us identify vulnerabilities. Our behavioral health partners were reviewing learnings from Wuhan as well as tapping into crisis response guidance. Questions we asked early on included: How do we help people manage their priorities, how do we keep them inspired, how do we communicate regularly? These would have to be addressed alongside any counseling or therapy we we’re going to provide.

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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 our Employee Assistance Program or to clinical services for follow-up. We also increased our virtual offerings: virtual fitness, cooking classes, deep breathing, meditation, yoga and even story time for our team members’ children.

Tranquility tents were installed at every one of our hospitals if they didn’t have a tranquility space already in place for team members. We literally brought in and stood up tents right outside of the entrance. So, whenever team members were going in or out or just needed a break, they could stop in and participate in deep breathing, speak to a chaplain and even dance to salsa, depending on the day and site. In addition to wellbeing providers, furloughed team members helped staff the spaces to provide support and connect team members with resources.

Team Lavender was also critical, a crisis response approach (like when a code is called for a patient in distress) allowing team members to call a Team Lavender code and immediately receive onsite “time out” support. Trained professionals and colleagues are deployed to talk with and support an individual or team that might have just experienced a patient loss or other serious incident.

We’ve also held webinars and provided resources for leaders on resilience as well as how to identify and respond to signs of trauma in themselves or team members and colleagues. We held a wonderful wellbeing conference that even included a focus on energy management with instructors from Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute.

We’re a wellbeing organization—that’s just the business we’re in—so we had a lot of these tools in place before COVID and we’re grateful we did because they have been used exponentially. One key improvement (that we’d been working on but had to accelerate) was the establishment of a dedicated website as a one-stop, go-to site for team members to access all our resources. We similarly created an “all-in-one place” print guide that will continue to evolve as we change or develop new offerings. Also helpful was the use of increased storytelling on social media channels, allowing team members to share their experiences and encouraging them to access help and lean on each other—helping to nudge others and make it ok to get support.

HRE: What are a few of the ways that Northwell has relied on or enhanced its use of emerging technologies to push through the challenges of the last year?

Carrington: We have an incredible HR technology team and a workforce intelligence team, which help to enable and speed all that we do. For example, our workforce intelligence team has been providing us with the real-time insights we need to inform our COVID vaccine participation strategy. We were able to quickly identify potential populations in our organization we’d have to build trust with to achieve vaccine acceptance.

Our HR technology team, prior to COVID, was leading us toward go-live on a multiyear project to transition our systems into Oracle Cloud from PeopleSoft, create a first-time ever internal careers site for our team members and more. We had to press pause (for the most part) when COVID hit and, as we moved into recovery following the first surge, we turned the lights back on and went live.

During the first surge, the team led the creation of a reservist system to help us facilitate team member reassignments other parts of the organization. The platform remains in use going forward and allows us to match reservists to needed roles during emergencies. The team developed our testing, symptom monitoring, vaccine scheduling platforms and more. All of these are still in use.

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: We were researching and monitoring this national trend prior to COVID and had been also formalizing a strategy to accelerate efforts to support the career experience of our female team members We’d created a new team in HR over a year ago called Fair Employment Practices, which leads our workforce equity, diversity and inclusion strategy. As part of this, we reassigned a team member from another part of HR to join the FEP team and be 100% devoted to the career experience of women. That team member recently replaced me as co-chair of our women’s business employee resource group. So much work is being done.

Then, enter COVID. Childcare for one thing … we worked with Bright Horizons and other partners to expand the network of available care locations and make them easier to access. We provided additional subsidies to offset childcare cost, even if the provider was a family member or friend.

We implemented leave accommodations where needed and also advanced a supportive culture where team members were not shamed, but supported, if they were working remotely and their children were “joining” their Teams calls or they needed to adjust their schedules for caregiving responsibilities.

For team members whose offices were closed, we furloughed them—with pay—to preserve income and prevent a macro issue, i.e. households without income. Eventually, they were able to be reassigned to help in our call centers, wellbeing spaces, etc.

Guides were created and more learning resources are being developed to provide guidance on supporting caregivers in the workplace.

We also just rolled out phase one of our “reimagined career experience” at Northwell, inclusive of the career experience site I mentioned earlier; clarity around professions in the organization; a career conversations model for team members to engage in talks and planning with their managers regarding their career aspirations; and more.

Thankfully, we have not experienced high turnover. Turnover has actually declined. We typically run between 9%-9.5%, which is really good for healthcare and likely many industries. We closed out 2020 under 9%, and today we’re running at below 9%.

HRE: What was the transition like moving from labor law to the many other areas within the HR function that you now work in?

Carrington: I had a feeling years ago that I probably wasn’t going to practice law forever; I always loved contributing and serving in some meaningful way—however, that manifested itself. I’d been inspired by Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (to name a few) and I knew that legal training would allow me to serve others and help with whatever path I’d eventually take.

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? Could we have avoided this? What feedback was this person getting? Were they truly developed?” I didn’t know why I was thinking these things or what to do with it. I learned through work experiences that I liked process improvement; I was always looking at the way things were being done and trying to figure out a better and more efficient way to do it. While at the Office of Labor Relations, I helped create and then manage a pro bono program for law firm attorneys to pick up some of the City’s cases. I discovered that I really loved that type of work, including ensuring that the firm’s attorneys understood our objectives and were prepared.

With that mindset and those realizations in mind, the transition into healthcare wasn’t all that difficult. It was an opportunity to join others in helping to improve care, improve the way we work and improve the experience people were having. I’d also by then been reading a lot about innovation and evolution occurring in the workplace and I was drawn to it.

What is helpful is that, as an attorney, my brain is trained to think liability, risk avoidance and about consequences in general. 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 can try to 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: Outside of your work, what are you passionate about?

Carrington: I was just appointed to the board of a not-for-profit on Long Island that has an incredible history, mission and impact. 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, including food insecurity, housing and even legal status issues. I’ve always been about community, whether it’s through giving or service or mentoring, generally focused on vulnerable populations.

I wish I could say I’m exercising consistently and, certainly, I try and hope to be more consistent one day.  For now, I’m running after my 4-year-old, who turned 4 on Groundhog Day. It has been awesome watching him grow and develop. He keeps us on our toes!

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 and I was able to listen in (while multitasking and 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. His story’s amazing—growing up poor in Ireland to becoming who he is today. By the way, that’s not a shameless plug—I’m actually reading it!

Submit your nomination for HR’s Rising Star today. Click HERE for more info.

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 hreletters@lrp.com.