Why this CHRO is bringing ‘safety first’ to life

Susan Baxter never intended to end up in HR. She studied biology before earning a degree in business administration and working in retail management, where she discovered her passion for working with people. A number of mentors pushed her to pursue that passion through HR early in her career, which has included HR leadership roles on Wall Street, at QVC, Zulily and Amazon, and at several staffing firms. Four years ago, Baxter joined Integrity Staffing Solutions–a national staffing organization with locations in 20 states and client placements across North America–where she now serves as senior vice president of HR and safety.

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Safety has been central to her work at Integrity, especially recently. With 500 internal staff and 20,000 associates at client organizations to support, Baxter has spent the last six months working to prioritize and protect the health and wellbeing of employees–from instituting new protocols to promoting safety education and benefits like telemedicine.

With the course of the pandemic–and its impact on HR–uncertain, Baxter says she tries to approach questions about when the crisis will end with a dose of realism.

“It’s not ending, it’s just changing how we move forward,” she says. “This will be our new normal.”

Baxter spoke with HRE about HR’s new normal, and how Integrity is stepping up to the challenge.

HRE: How has the pandemic changed your day-to-day as an HR leader?

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Susan Baxter

Baxter: My day-to-day has become all-encompassing around COVID-19 and business continuity as a whole. The first thing we did was ensure the safety of our staff and associates–making sure everyone in our corporate office was set up to be remote and providing them the proper tools. That was key because we have so many offices and we had to ensure they were all set up appropriately. We went into all the facilities to ensure that, if we had an orientation, there were no more than 10 people in an area and everything was spaced at least 6 feet away. We ordered a ton of supplies–hand sanitizer, gloves, wipes, masks–for all of our associates and staff. We also had to make sure flexibility was key. We had schools closed and that’s created a lot of different challenges for staff and associates, so we needed to be more flexible.

HRE: From a wider lens, what are some of the trends you’ve seen in light of the pandemic?

Baxter: Telemedicine is critical. We had just renegotiated with our benefits broker so we were able to quickly add telemedicine for all of our associates and staff to use for free.  We’ve also done a lot of education on wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing, making sure people understand they’re critical. We’re also getting temperature kiosks in some places.

We’re doing more virtual recruiting, and we have plexiglass at all of our facilities in locations where there is candidate contact. We no longer touch IDs and, if a candidate needs to use a pen, they now keep it. We’re even doing contactless drug tests.

Related: How health, safety and ethics will become the heart of HR

HRE: You have mentioned that you are a firm believer in “managing by walking around.” How have you sought to do that creatively despite the distance?

Baxter: Zoom is extremely important. We have an IM system and I’ll often send somebody a message and just ask if they have time for a quick Zoom, so I do pop-ins that way. We still get the face to face that way. I don’t mind working remote but one thing I do miss about being in the office is when people could just walk in to talk about something they wouldn’t necessarily pick up the phone to call about, so that’s why I think those Zoom check-ins are critical because we don’t always just talk about work. I also do skip-level meetings not only with my staff but also with our operations team; I’ll call [employees] a few levels down to touch base and get a feel for what’s going on.

HRE: Your title includes the word safety. What was the original intent of that title and how has it changed since the pandemic?

Baxter: To me, HR always has included safety because it’s always been about the employee. Health, safety and wellbeing all work together. What’s changed now is that there’s a lot more of a focus on OSHA requirements, keeping up with what the CDC and WHO are saying and making sure clients are up to date and following proper safety procedures. Safety is now more in the forefront but it’s always been a partner to HR.

HRE: Can you identify one or two of your primary accomplishments you’ve worked on at Integrity that you think will have the most long-lasting impact?

Baxter: Introducing telemedicine before it was really recognized widely was a huge win for us and a differentiator within the industry. Outside of the pandemic, we introduced Next Step U, which is a partnership with a company called Penn Foster, where we enable associates to take classes for free to help upskill them, keep them on the job longer or just increase their knowledge.

See also: What the pandemic is teaching us about benefits

HRE: What differentiates Integrity from other staffing organizations?

Baxter: We advocate for our associates and staff more than anyone else. I had a staff member at corporate who ended up with COVID. We quickly made sure she and her family had the proper supplies–cleaning supplies, masks, hand sanitizer–and anything else she needed from the store and dropped it off at her house. Even when I worked at a Fortune 10 company, they wouldn’t have done that. We do those types of things because of how we care about our people. The people part always comes first.

HRE: How did you get your start in HR?

Baxter: I always liked the aspect of helping people. I didn’t go to school for HR; I initially went for biology and, when I graduated college, I ended up in retail. I was managing multiple people and was very close with who was, at that time, the personnel manager and she became a good mentor of mine. I was leading a group of 20 people and, from there, I went into the staffing industry and then later into AIG on Wall Street. I implemented a temp system for them and had some really great mentors there who challenged me to do more and pushed me into the HR side, which I loved. I loved to see the impact I could have on people’s lives and being able to give someone a job and opportunities; that’s just beyond fulfilling both personally and professionally. I really give a lot of credit to the great mentors I had along the way, including my current boss.

Related Why investing in safety training is good business right now

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Baxter: My four dogs. I have two Boxers and two Doberman puppies; they just turned 1, and are 97 and 78 pounds. My dogs are absolutely my passion, and I’m also passionate–especially during the pandemic–about wine and craft beers.

HRE: Based on your career thus far, what advice would you give someone just entering HR today about how to find success?

Baxter: I’ve always lived by the idea that HR should be a business partner. Also, never forget that the word “human” is in HR. Never forget the people. Integrity is also important, so make sure you are truly saying what you mean and aren’t making promises you can’t keep.

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 hreletters@lrp.com.