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Avakian discusses plans for HR

After five months at MIT, Laura Avakian, vice president for human resources, talked with Janet Snover, special assistant to the executive vice president, about Ms. Avakian's plans for the department and the reasons for changing its name from Personnel to Human Resources.


Snover: Why is it important to call your department Human Resources, rather than Personnel?

Avakian: There are several reasons for the name change. One of them is to have clarity and a common name for a set of related services. For example, my title is vice president for HR, so it makes sense for the department to have the HR name as well. More importantly, though, the term "human resources" gives emphasis to a vital asset of the organization -- our employees and faculty -- and I believe that MIT's people are its principal resource in delivering its mission.

The HR title and its services encompass a broader scope of activities than the classic personnel function in that our role is to help the Institute plan its future staffing needs as well to help recruit, develop and retain the workforce. We also help to create an environment in which all of the human resources of MIT can thrive and succeed. HR staff serve as internal consultants to managers in identifying and addressing workplace issues that affect morale, productivity and individuals' well-being.

We will, of course, continue to provide the traditional functions that people associate with the personnel department, such as ensuring that hiring is done legally, that we administer competitive pay and benefits programs, that we intervene in difficult situations, and that employees have a place to have their problems heard.


What are some of the ways in which you see the department playing a broader role in the future?

Overall, I think we need to support people in ways that enable them to do their very best work. So I want us to look at issues like employee development and at flexible schedules and alternative work arrangements, not as trends but as ways that could make current and potential employees' lives easier and better. Human Resources should play a key role in helping to shape services around issues that really matter to people.

MIT currently has a turnover rate of about 14 percent. That's not bad, but it could be lower. And I think there are options we could offer that would make MIT an employer of choice for more job seekers.


Many members of the MIT community were very pleased that President Vest reestablished the Council on Family and Work. How will that group interact with Human Resources?

Rae Simpson of the Family Resource Center, which is part of HR, is co-chairing the council with Professor Claude Canizares. I know the council will look at a number of issues, such as workplace flexibility, that are of great interest to our employees. Like other committees at MIT, the council will study issues and then make recommendations to the senior administration, which always has to weigh the value of new programs or policies versus the cost.

I expect to be involved in the council's work because of the nature of what they'll be reviewing. Human Resources will provide background information and support to the council, and I can serve as an advocate for approving and implementing new programs. I understand from Rae that the council will have more specific news to share with the community later this spring, including the names of council members and initial work plans.


You mentioned employee development as one of the focal areas for Human Resources in the future. Can you say a little more about that?

One of the things I've noticed about MIT is that career opportunities or paths are not very clear to many people on the staff. So, I'd like to explore the idea of establishing something like a career renewal center to assist employees. We've only just started to discuss this, but a center like that could provide both advice and tools for career planning. For example, employees could talk with an HR officer about finding a mentor or establishing a job rotation program for themselves. We also could provide tools for doing self-assessment of skills and offer workshops on topics like r�sum� writing or how to get a promotion.

There is a new tool already available called CompQuick, which is a web-based interviewing guide. It's designed to help managers interview candidates in a way that determines whether they have the behavioral competencies that will make them a good fit in a particular position. There also will be new resources for employees to use in evaluating and improving their competencies.

We plan to provide a major tool for performance management, which we define as practices that help managers and employees understand and establish goals and then plan the necessary steps to reach them. In that way, ongoing improvements become a shared responsibility between a supervisor and an employee.


Do you have any other thoughts you'd like to share with the MIT community?

The senior managers in HR have been working with me to define and prioritize where we want the department to focus its efforts. I feel very strongly about the need to keep the MIT community informed about these plans and to regularly solicit feedback. I hope employees will read HR-related articles in Tech Talk, look at our web pages and let us know how we're doing.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2000.

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