HR Purpose & Principles across 3 Generations – What’s Changed? What Hasn’t?

Sandra Deer

Director, Human Resources Southern Operations at Interfor

Learning Objectives

One family's experience as HR senior leaders across 3 generations. A lot has changed over the span of a century, but there are many core principles when it comes to people that have not. I will share from my own experiences as well as those I was taught and observed. This unique perspective comes from growing up and being mentored by both a father and a grandfather who were senior HR leaders and pioneers in the field.

Key Takeaways:

  • Know the why - principles that will keep you grounded

  • Know the what - what really matters

  • Know the how - recognizing when to change course

"What I have personally found is you don't always get an invitation. Sometimes, you have to invite yourself. "

Sandra Deer

Director, Human Resources Southern Operations at Interfor


Hello, everyone. I am so glad to welcome you to this session: The Purpose and Principles From Three Generations of HR—What’s Changed and What Hasn’t. I’m Sandy Deer, and I’m the Director of HR for Southern Operations for Interfor. I am happy to share with you some of my own experiences from my own self, and from my predecessors within my family—three generations of HR.

When I was thinking about this presentation, what struck me was probably how a bit unusual it is to have three generations in one family that have worked their entire career in human resources, its labor relations, or related. I feel very proud to be able to share some of the experiences from myself and from my family that, hopefully, will be interesting for you.

A little bit about my family. This is my grandfather. My grandfather started his career in HR or in labor working for the American Federation of Labor. He was a clerk for Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor. He worked with him for several years before Samuel Gompers passed away. Samuel Gompers actually died when he was out traveling in Mexico City. Then, he passed away in Texas on his way in with some conditions that were serious. My grandfather actually was involved in notifying his family of his death. So kind of an interesting family story there.

When Samuel Gompers passed away, he became the assistant to the new president of the AFL, William Green. If you look in the picture on the far top right, you’ll see a picture of William Green standing there with my grandfather. He worked very closely as his assistant with William Green for the majority of his career with the American Federation of Labor.

Then, he was approached by a company to become their Director of Labor Relations. In that role, he was in charge of all labor negotiations for the company, and traveled all over the US negotiating labor contracts for 22 years. The time that he was working, the time period was, as mentioned 1918 to 1963.

Just to give you a little bit of context of what was happening during that time, there were two wars—the World War II and the Korean War. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was passed that’s known as the Wagner Act. Also, during that time, AFL CIO merged in 1955.

A few of the other pictures are just for interest. The top left picture is a picture of my grandfather when he first took his position at Reynold Metals where he worked. The bottom left picture is him in the tie, and my own father is the baby in the picture. The article is just a picture of the Union and Company when they came to an agreement that he was involved in.

My father was a second generation in this story. He had a progressive experience in both labor relations and human resources, but ultimately, the top of his career was the Vice President of Industrial Relations for a Manufacturing company. During this time, we had a Cold War or the Vietnam War. There was a heightened amount of union organizing activity, but also of unrest or divisiveness between unions and companies. There were some large national strikes, and there increasingly was a focus on Union avoidance. We’ll talk a little bit about that later.

One interesting thing, family wise, is that the first six years of my career, I was actually working for my father and he was actually my mentor. So I had the privilege of him passing many things on to me during that time. In fact, I actually grew up being mentored by him in many ways as I would travel with him or speak to him about the things he was dealing with, and we would talk about business and leadership books and theories and principles that he use. It was quite an honor to be received that level of mentorship from him in early in my career.

There’s me—the third generation—and my career, of course, is still ongoing. All of my experience has been working in the heavy manufacturing industry. It’s focused on manufacturing. The historical context for me has been the decline of the labor union—US decline in manufacturing. So many manufacturing jobs had gone overseas. Major increase in advancement in technology. In the news, we’ve had y2k, Enron, 911, heightened terrorism, and COVID. So a lot has changed over the time that we’re talking about here. The labor movement is one of the ones that I want to speak to a little bit more.

In the rise of labor, labor unions really haven’t started much of it after the Wagner Act was passed. There was a period of increasing organization and increased demand for companies to really work with unions in order to be able to continue to operate. Then, the trend kind of went the other way. In 1983, 20.1% of employees were in a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2019, 10.3% of employees were in a labor union. This change has certainly been in the backdrop of things that have influenced the world of HR.

Business philosophies regarding employees have changed in the 100 year span that we’re talking about. Economics and business need to change dramatically. There has been a decline in US Manufacturing, which all three of us worked only in Manufacturing. The job market has changed dramatically in this time, and it’s changed many times during that time period as well. Until this year, and more recently, we have been dealing with full employment, where we’re really there was the employer, we are the ones competing for the people.

Well, some things have not changed. I want to talk to you about what hasn’t changed for a minute. These are principles that I think will help you stay grounded, and they’re very important for you to consider. When you’re doing your job every day, and you’re dealing with business crisis, your to do list, and all of the things that you’re being asked to do, I have found, personally, that if I don’t step back and reflect on a regular basis, I can get very quickly wrapped up in what’s going on and forget why I’m doing it and why it matters. Then, sometimes focus on the wrong things because of that.

So it’s important to know why. Why are you doing what you’re doing? The first question that you should always ask is, what are the business needs? What is the mission that we’re driving toward? What is the vision of the organization? What is are the values that are the foundation for that organization? How will these be achieved through people? We need to think about why we do what we do, and does it support the mission, the vision and the values. Those are questions we need to be asking on a regular basis. This is true for my grandfather, my father, and myself, and I think for anyone that’s in a leadership role in HR.

For my grandfather, if we could speak to him, he was asked to come to this Manufacturing company. They had a mission of growth. They wanted to have workforce stability because they weren’t going to grow without workforce stability. So they tapped someone to take on the labor relations for their company, namely my grandfather. What a likely choice. Somebody who spent 22 years working for the American Federation of Labor had close connections with Labor Unions. He was able to go into that situation, and immediately have the unions he was dealing with respect him, trust him, and be able to worked with him. My grandfather was very proud to say that, in 22 years, he never had a single strike. This was very valuable to that company, because they needed that stability, and they weren’t going to be able to grow with strikes and disruption that would have been the result of that. His mission was to keep the peace with the unions, and it was very clearly connected to the mission of the organization.

My father, in his career, was dealing with an increase in adversarial relationships between unions and companies. This was the nature of that time. There were large national strikes going on as a backdrop. These were a huge distraction for business. So these companies that he worked for in Manufacturing were looking for business continuity. They were also looking for flexibility. The unions that they dealt with often put restrictions on that would prevent them from getting the business needs met, and being able to be efficient, cost effective, and be competitive. Those were driving forces in their mission and their goals.

My father’s job was to to keep unions out. So union avoidance was a very key to his role, and that fit directly in with that mission. It was he built strategies and approaches to how he would do that. Many of those approaches that he took are still being applied today, there’s principles around how we hit deal with employees that are still in place in most organizations. They grew out of this time period when the focus was on maintaining non union status. So that was certainly a key item that was directly tied into the mission of the organization.

Myself, early in my career, also had an important goal of union avoidance. But many of the principles of union avoidance strategies that were taken were in place. Over time, they the union’s impact lessened, and we saw a decline in the organizing activity. We still needed to have employees that were engaged in order to engage, involve, and contributing fully an active team. What that did was it drove into the mission of efficiencies, cost effectiveness, and developing people for growth. Those were all things that were in the core to the mission of the organizations that I’ve been involved in.

In many ways, technology was also a part of that because the company needed to have implementing technology, and improvements in the processes. We needed people that we knew had the skills to be able to do those things. You can’t develop those skills, jobs without being able to retain your people. So increasingly, that focus became retention—reducing turnover and retention—and how do we keep people, how do we develop people so they can move to the next level, and they can take on this new automations and technologies and processes, and be able to operate them. These are things that directly fit into that strategy and mission of the company.

So what really matters? I think this is part of what’s been true for the full 100 years of our three generations in my family. What matters in HR, as a leader? We need to be able to build and maintain trust. That is a very important piece of what we do. If people don’t trust you, they are not going to work with you, they are not going to consider you a business partner, and they’re not going to include you in the decision making that you could really make a difference with and supporting.

You need to understand and stay connected to the business. This is vital. We need to understand what the business is, what’s driving the business, what are the issues and challenges. We need to find ways to contribute to solving those issues and improving the areas that need improvement. We aren’t going to be able to do that if we’re not at the table and we’re not involved in the conversation. So it’s very important to be in that conversation, to be at that table, and to stay connected to the business.

What I have personally found is you don’t always get an invitation. Sometimes, you have to invite yourself. You have to find ways to be involved in the business so that they’ll want you to be sitting at that table. It doesn’t happen automatically. This is something that I have applied throughout my career, and I believe my father and grandfather have to. It really just comes down to being available, asking questions, and being in the room when things are going on as best you can.

Make sure you’re adding value. This is something that my father taught me from a very early age, and I have never forgotten. Interestingly enough, I was speaking to my daughter recently, who is off in a completely different career, but she still remembers me and my father saying this to her too, that it is very important that you add value. If you are not at least adding enough value to earn your own salary for your company, then you should take a look at what you’re doing. We need to be adding value. That’s how people will invite you to the table, and keep you involved in the business when they feel like your value is key to the success.

We need to treat everyone as adults. It’s the most respectful thing you can do. Honestly, if you’re not treating your employees as adults, they’re not going to respond as adults. This is really a key principle that I relay to all of my team, and also to any leader that I ever talked to is, we must talk to employees and treat employees as adults. No matter what generation we’re in, people that are treated as adults will respond as adults. Sometimes, adults have to be told things they don’t want to hear. So sometimes the best thing you can do is tell someone the truth, even though it might be painful, and not fun, and they might not always react well. But if they’re an adult, and you’re treating them as an adult, it’s still the most respectful thing to do.

We need to value people over process—people over process. What I find is that many times, increasingly, in the field of HR, there is a focus on technology. Technology is where it’s at, whether it’s how we pay people, how we develop people, or how we evaluate people. There are wonderful systems out there for all of these things. We just need to remember that people are at the core of what we do—people. So the process and the systems are there to support the people and the business.Wwe need to make sure that that’s what they’re doing, and they’re not just there to be there. You may have a very elaborate system, but if it doesn’t actually meet the business need, is it really what you should be using? Is it really what you want to spend your time and your focus and your money on. Some things that I think are very important.

Finally, get out and see what’s happening. In HR, it is very easy to get buried in paperwork, it’s very easy to get buried in processes, and in systems. But ultimately, you got to get out and see the people—people in the business. This has been very important in my career, and I know that it was for my father, and he and I talked about it a great deal. A perfect example of this, early in my career, I found myself sitting at a desk with a very long to do list, feeling a little overwhelmed, and wondering how I would get it all done. I needed a break, so I got up and I walked out into the plant where I was working, and I walked around. I talked to people and I watched what was happening in the process or in the manufacturing process. I heard about some of the challenges with quality or with production. I learned about various things that were going on in the facility.

I talked to employees and I learned what they were struggling with. What they were frustrated with? What was bothering them. When I got back to my office after a couple of hours, what I realized was the list that I had been so overwhelmed by half of the things on that list actually didn’t matter. There were a whole new list that I had of things that really mattered, and were going to move the dial for the business and help me to be more connected with the business. So get out and see what’s happening. This is really important for success.

Finally, how? We need to recognize when to change course. The how change a lot over time, business needs change, economics change, technology changes, competition changes, talent pools change. All of these things may be a reason to consider doing things differently, doing the how differently.

I think the other thing that is important is to be prepared to think outside the box. It’s a bit of a cliche, it’s a probably overused phrase. but the truth is that many of us—all of us—at some time or another, will get caught in the box. These are the things that we do, and so we do them. We did them before and we’re going to do them again. We always have done it that way. Sometimes, it’s very important to step outside of that box and say, what should we do now? Should we do the same thing? Should we do something different? How can it be different and actually address the need better? These are things that we need to always be asking. It’s very important to step away from your day away from your problems, your challenges, long enough to ask these questions and to recognize when it’s time to make a change in course.

I want to thank you today for your time. I hope that you found this informative, or at least interesting, and that there’s something that you’ll take away from it that maybe will be helpful for you in your career. I’ve really enjoyed speaking to you, and sharing from my own personal experience. I just want to thank you. Have a pleasant rest of the day.

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