This food bank’s new HR leader is staying calm through the crisis

The mission of City Harvest is to end hunger in New York City, an issue that has become even more important due to the COVID-19 crisis.

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Karrien Francis, who became City Harvest’s new CHRO in April, got right to work focusing on workplace culture, employee wellbeing, diversity and performance management, all of which are being affected by the pandemic. She brings years of experience with her, having worked at Target as the senior executive team leader for the New York Tri-state area, and the director of HR at the Jewish Child Care Association. She also served as director of talent and organizational performance for Northwell Health and received the Corporate & Social Responsibility Award for Diversity from New York-based publication City & State in 2017.

HRE connected with Francis to discuss how City Harvest is working to overcome the challenges presented by COVID and how HR leaders can develop strategies to improve company culture.

HRE: City Harvest has had to adapt to new operational needs to meet the needs of the people in New York. As demand for food continues to grow amid the economic crisis, how are you keeping your employees engaged, despite the extra workload?

Francis: Given the increased need for City Harvest’s services across New York City due to the COVID-19 crisis, my team and I are focused on engagement activities for staff. We have been doing things like trivia night, stress buster activities and wellbeing events, such as meditation moments hosted by staff members. I also firmly believe that, during these difficult times, information has been key. We have hosted regular Q&A sessions with our executive team and senior leadership (that) have been critical to ensuring that important information is disseminated across the organization.

See also: How HR tech can improve culture during the pandemic

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HRE: What is the most difficult part of being CHRO during a global pandemic, especially at a company such as City Harvest, which now has so many more people in need of food?

Francis: It is such a blessing to work with colleagues who are so mission-driven. Our teams who work in communities across the five boroughs understand that their presence is helping hundreds of people in need each day. City Harvest’s mission truly drives everyone who works here. My role as the CHRO is always to ensure my colleagues’ safety–and that is what keeps me up at night during these uncertain times. This means not only ensuring they have the proper personal protective equipment but also taking into account how they are doing mentally and emotionally. My priority has been offering enhanced benefits and services that address all of their needs during this time. With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting people of color, and with City Harvest having such a diverse workforce, strengthening the existing mental health benefits program was a priority when I began in this role. It went beyond our regular employee-assistance program to include things like having a licensed therapist available weekly. The work that City Harvest staff members do is not easy, so things like mental health services and meditation events have been key.

HRE: What are your short- and long-term goals in this new position, and how are you planning to accomplish them?

Francis: When I think about my short-term goals, a lot comes to mind. One piece is facilitating and enhancing existing benefits programs for staff who have been affected by COVID-19. Another piece is continuing to respond to workforce-management changes. As we shift some of our workforce models, it is critical that we remain flexible and train people to do new jobs that are now needed as we respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, I aim to build up a diversity and inclusion platform that creates safe spaces for employees to discuss the social-justice consciousness that is spreading across our country. I am dedicated to ensuring those types of courageous conversations can happen at work.

When I think about my long-term goals, I think about the future of work in this post-COVID-19 world, because we do not know how long COVID-19 will be with us. With unemployment in New York City hovering above 18%, we know that the impacts of COVID-19 are going to linger for years. With this in mind, City Harvest is scaling up our operations significantly to meet the heightened need we are seeing right now and expect to see for many years. Our growth model includes strategizing what our workforce’s needs will be in the coming months, prioritizing recruitment and retention, creating a comprehensive training-development program and creating a talent-management program.

HRE: How did you get into HR?

Francis: My passion for human resources began with a work-study job I had while in graduate school. The job was within the HR department, and I very quickly became the go-to person within the department. One of my signature strengths that I realized while there was mediation and employee-relations issues. This experience introduced me to HR, and I ended up going back to school to get a second master’s degree in human resources.

HRE: What kind of HR mindset shift did you have to undergo when you joined City Harvest, compared to your previous positions?

Francis: I have worked in the corporate and not-for-profit sectors for most of my career, and I think the not-for-profit space is where I thrive. When I look at City Harvest’s mission, it is a full-circle moment for me. I grew up in Brooklyn and was food insecure. I remember growing up and having to go to food banks with my mom to make sure we had enough food for myself and my siblings. The City Harvest mission is one that hits very close to home for me.

HRE: How do you think your experience at companies like Northwell Health and Target will help you lead HR at City Harvest?

Francis: I worked in healthcare at the start of the pandemic, and that experience allowed me to see firsthand the impact it was having on our first responders. Taking that experience and coming to City Harvest has helped me to think critically about how I can do more for our frontline workers. I am that HR leader who will hold your hand and cry with you. I was personally affected by COVID-19, so I understand the strain that this moment is putting not only on the workforce, but also on employees’ families. My experiences have allowed me to become more vigilant in ensuring frontline staff members are protected because I know it is not easy right now.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: What does your typical day look like at City Harvest?

Francis: I have been at City Harvest for more than three months now, and I still learn something new every day. The typical day at City Harvest is really hearing from the team–what’s going on with them, what’s working for them, what’s not working for them. My role has always been, and continues to be, removing obstacles so my leaders can be successful in reaching their goals and objectives. From operations to finance to administrative, my hand is in everything. Other than that, my typical day is hectic. I listen to a lot of employee issues and concerns and then troubleshoot them. I also assure all employees that it is OK if they are not 100% right now. There is a lot happening and going on in our world, so it is OK to take moments for yourself. Being CHRO, I also try to take moments of gratitude. I am grateful for the team at City Harvest and our ability to help New Yorkers in need during these difficult times.

HRE: What is something about you that not many people know?

Francis: I am a Girl Scout troop leader out on Long Island, where I live. I also volunteer a lot in the community, helping with social-justice causes and initiatives.

Skyler Zur
Skyler Zur was an HRE summer intern.