In July, we had the opportunity to interview Marion Anderson about her experience as a J-1 exchange visitor training in the field of Human Resources. The J-1 visa program, officially known as the Exchange Visitor Program, is a U.S. Department of State initiative that brings over 300,000 foreign citizens to the United States each year through 15 different programs to study, teach, research, share specialized skills and receive on-the-job training. While SHRM (in affiliation with CFGI prior to 2018) has been a sponsor of J-1 visa programs for more than seven years, it’s rare that we work with HR interns or trainees. Seems strange, right? Being that we are an HR organization – what better field to support and what a great opportunity to share U.S. best practices with international students and professionals in the field! So when Marion, a SHRM member, and her host company approached us to sponsor her visa, we were delighted to say the least. And now, after over eight months of training and an international pandemic, we wanted to hear from her about her experience.
Marion Anderson, Chartered MCIPD, graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) in Scotland in 2014 as a mature student after discovering a passion for driving business results through people during her extensive leadership career in international retail operations working for brands such as Levi Strauss, Calvin Klein and French Connection. While working in a front-line People Leadership role with Apple Retail in the UK, she decided to undertake a Master’s program at GCU in International HR Management. Her passion for developing true global professional experience inspired her to pursue the professional standards curriculum set by SHRM, as well as accreditation by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). So far she has lived and worked in Mumbai, Kuwait, Dubai, London as well as at home in Scotland and is now completing an 18-month program in Orange County, California under her SHRM sponsored J1 visa with the award-winning digital advertising agency Channel Bakers. She has been a SHRM member since 2013.
Why did you opt for a J1 visa sponsorship with SHRM?
I became a SHRM member when I started my MSc program because of the SHRM program alignment and it’s always been a dream of mine to have some professional experience in the U.S. (which has always been one of my favorite countries in the world!). I had been working as a freelance HR consultant focused on international projects back in Glasgow after returning from working in the Middle East for about five years when the opportunity came up to work on some UK-based HR projects for Channel Bakers. We had a blast working together and when the opportunity presented itself to come out to their U.S. HQ for 18 months for a deep-dive learning experience into the business, I grabbed it! It was amazing to find that SHRM could sponsor my J1 visa, especially as I was already a member and HR professional and it’s been an incredibly enriching experience so far.
In what ways does HR in the United States differ from that in the United Kingdom?
This is a great question! There are many similarities in terms of best practices and processes and yet a lot of huge differences. In Europe, we are blessed to have a very employee-friendly approach to working hours and time off in general and the EU Working Time Directive is still streets ahead of the working hour practices in the U.S. We are also very fortunate to have an incredible National Health Service in the UK that will never turn its back on you, no matter your personal or work situation. It’s fairly shocking to us Europeans how expensive healthcare is in the U.S. and its accessibility challenges. U.S. Employment Law has been really interesting to learn and experience. We grow up watching U.S. TV shows where often someone Is yelling “you’re fired!” to an employee which is very different from the practice in the UK! However, I now know it is somewhat different in reality and not quite as shocking or straightforward as TV likes to depict!
What HR lessons have you learned as a result of COVID-19?
I guess I have learned that even though you have tons of professional and academic experience behind you, there is no playbook for navigating your way through something like a global pandemic. I’ve always been a true believer that even with sound academic qualifications, HR is nothing more than acting with common sense and compassion and that has been our approach to getting through this crisis.
How have you and your company had to adapt due to COVID-19?
The biggest challenge has been how to continue to recreate and substitute those organic social learning and collaboration opportunities, such as those moments on your way to make a morning coffee or using the printer. We have been fortunate enough to continue to hire during this time, therefore we have had a lot of new employees join in the last few months who have not yet set foot in our amazing office space because they were onboarded and inducted fully remotely. Protecting their onboarding experience, the sanctity of the training, and making them feel part of the bigger CB family requires a lot of agility and ‘out of the box’ thinking. Connecting virtually in meaningful ways continues to be paramount, and technology has been key to enabling us to do so. One of our favorite activities is known as “the 4.40”. Every Friday at 4.40pm, the entire U.S. organization gets on a Zoom call (many of us with a cocktail!) and we share and celebrate our wins and successes for the week. It’s a great way to bond, reconnect and start the weekend off right!
What has surprised or impressed you with the way your HR department in the United States has handled COVID-19?
I’m really proud of how our People & Culture team has responded to the challenges of COVID-19. We are the sort of HR team that truly operates with common sense and compassion and our core tenet “we exist to help people” is our North star. We are nimble enough to take swift action without too much bureaucracy and my background in international HR has been really valuable when contributing to operational decision-making across our different global locations.
How has working remotely impacted your training?
Our Executive Leadership team at Channel Bakers have been focused on keeping up to date with the Coronavirus situation, which has been really reassuring. As a global organization we were acutely aware of how this was impacting our clients in other parts of the world as far back as January, before it really took hold in the U.S. A decision was made swiftly to activate a fully remote policy early in March and we have been 100 percent remote ever since. Despite the challenges and uncertainties, my learning program has not been interrupted much at all. Ultimately through the support of technology, keeping me connected with the team and the strong bonds I had built across the organization pre-COVID19 it’s not been too hard to adapt. We have had to be agile and draw on those foundational L&D principles to re-engineer some of the learning exercises to be equally as robust as the original learning interventions, but it’s not been difficult and if anything, it’s added to the experience.
How, in your opinion, working remotely and self-isolation may affect the future of HR?
This is a really interesting question and something I have been reflecting on a lot recently. Whilst a lot of roles naturally lend themselves to easily being remote, HR is in my opinion not necessarily one of them, at least not 100 percent of the time. Given that my stakeholder group is our entire People population, it never occurred to me that HR or L&D could really be fully effective remote roles. I definitely appreciate being home and know I get a lot more work done when I can focus without interruption. However, I’m a huge advocate for HR being visible and really connected to the business from an effectiveness and credibility standpoint and that’s harder to sustain when all are remote. I want to meet our employees by the coffee machine and chat about the weekend or spitball creative ideas that will benefit the organization in general. It’s important to me to be accessible. Ultimately, I think I’m in favor of balance. I’m a massive supporter of the movement and benefits of being able to work flexibly, at the same time I want to (safely) see my stakeholders and be a tangible and accessible asset to them. The impacts of self-isolation, mental health at work and psychological contract cannot be ignored. Now more than ever we have a responsibility to be as close to our people as we have ever been and really keep a pulse on how they are thinking and feeling.
Please discuss the diversity and inclusion practices and challenges that you have experienced internationally versus what you have experienced in the U.S.
This is such an important question. Everything that has happened in the U.S. recently in relation to the very sad death of George Floyd has heightened my awareness of my own Diversity and Inclusion practice and how much I want to deepen my knowledge and really be effective in this area of HR architecture. It has prompted me to seek out advanced learning in this area and sharpen skills so I can be a better-informed and effective partner across our diverse organization. I am proud that at Channel Bakers we have a hugely diverse team with employees from all over the world including Mongolian, French, Brazilian, German, Pakistani and Filipino to name a few. I love educating our team around the fundamental cross-cultural theories and skills such as Hofstede, Project Globe and their practical applications. Working in the Middle East was an incredible professional experience but often challenging as there is without a doubt an abundance of bias that takes place in all forms, unconscious or otherwise. It was my intention every day to try to make a difference and, often, I could. But ultimately many of the practices did not jive with my values and in the end, I felt it was not sustainable for me long-term, either professionally or personally. This experience led to me being more progressive in my own approach to People leadership now and always striving for innovation and “better than best” practice.
What are your major takeaways – professional or personal – from your training experience in the U.S.?
Professionally it’s been a really enriching experience to learn a new industry. I come primarily from a retail HR background working for companies like Apple Retail, IKEA and the large retail franchisor in the Middle East, Alshaya. Digital Advertising is a new space for me to learn and it's been incredible having the opportunity to deep-dive into each of the divisions of our organization (Creative, Advertising, Engineering, Planning and Analytics, etc.) and really get into the weeds of what they do, which ultimately helps me be a more effective business partner to them.
From a professional standpoint, it’s been amazing to be in California for an extended period of time. I have a lot of friends here and it’s been such a joy being in the same time zone and having quality time with them (albeit virtual!). And there is of course the weather. Scotland might be the best small country in the world without a doubt, but you cannot beat California sunshine!