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Hernando's new human resources director has a lot to do in little time

BROOKSVILLE — When Cheryl Marsden applied to become Hernando County's director of human resources, she figured she was qualified professionally and, on a personal note, could finally get closer to her daughter's family in Central Florida.

She fired off a resume, then went online to do some more in-depth research.

Hernando County government and outgoing HR director Barbara Dupre were in the headlines a lot, she learned. And none of the headlines were good.

A report from a Tampa law firm that the county hired to review racial harassment complaints from utilities department workers exploded into a host of scandals involving other departments.

Many of the criticisms came back to Dupre, including botched investigations of serious complaints, failure to fix problems identified by auditors, unprofessional behavior and poor job performance.

Workers complained to investigators that they had no confidence in the HR department under the direction of Dupre, who resigned amid the controversy.

Marsden pressed ahead with her application and eventually, she had an interview with County Administrator David Hamilton, who didn't mince words about what she might be walking into.

There had been tremendous upheaval in the upper ranks of county officials, and Hamilton was in the midst of churning it up even more with an ambitious plan to reorganize the entire county government.

There would be plenty of work for the new HR director, ranging from helping with that reshuffling and drawing up a plan to entice top managers to leave their jobs early to rewriting lax county policies and devising a new pay plan.

Also, county employees were preparing to vote on whether to join the Teamsters Union, which could change the timeline of everything else that Hamilton was trying to do.

Marsden accepted the job anyway, although she does admit that she gave her decision some serious thought.

All of that is behind her now as she enters her fourth full week of heading up the county's human resources department.

So far, she has participated in a number of staff meetings throughout the area where Hamilton has been telling employees about his plans for the county and how they should embrace, rather than resist, change.

Marsden has told workers that she wants to regain confidence in the department.

"I think there was a real lack of trust with the HR department, that there was a real need for someone to come in and be able to rebuild that trust and turn things around,'' she said.

"To me, the core values of HR are consistency, fairness, confidentiality, being able to establish good relationships with all employees, both staff and management.''

Marsden, 48, spent the past seven years of her career as the director of human resources for Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill. Previously, she worked in human resources for private companies.

Experience has taught her, she said, that issues in human resources are the same everywhere, and that it is always possible to learn something new. For instance, she arrived at the college without any experience in dealing with labor unions, and soon she was dealing with four of them.

She's ready to handle those issues now if a union is approved.

While the county's position on the union is neutral, simply encouraging employees to educate themselves before the vote, she said she and Hamilton are hoping that employees will give them a chance to make the changes promised.

Hamilton considers the human resources director to be a critical part of the county's leadership team, which Marsden said is encouraging. In many organizations, she said, human resources isn't always invited to the big table.

Along with the detailed initiatives Hamilton has given Marsden to complete in a short amount of time, she has on her plate a goal to impress on county workers that her office is a resource to them. She also wants to increase training for workers and supervisors.

Then, there is a refocusing of her office's authority to implement.

Under a policy put in place just two weeks ago, all disciplines of workers from a written reprimand on up must go through Marsden first.

In reviewing county policies, she noticed that some of them granted supervisors discretion in disciplines. Even where the policies did not specifically say that, past practice was that this was how day-to-day business was conducted, she learned.

Hamilton said such discretion had to end, and Marsden received full authority to make certain that disciplines, investigations and all human resource activity are conducted consistently.

Allowing such discretion "can be dangerous,'' Hamilton said. "It's one of the reasons why things were going wrong.''

While Marsden has been encouraged by the commitment she has seen from county employees to their jobs, she is also realistic that in the months ahead she'll have to do the part of an HR director's job she dreads.

Longtime employees will be lost. Part of her job will be to explain to those workers that shrinking tax revenues are behind the need to cut staff, and that "it's a business decision.''

None of this discourages her from the challenges that lie ahead.

"I go in with a positive attitude, go in and try to make a difference,'' she said. "It's an opportunity to improve things. That's how you keep yourself up and motivated.

"There is a lot to do, but if we can make some changes to improve this place so that people feel better about coming here and working here … if they feel they've been dealt with fairly and consistently, that's when I've done my job.''

On a personal level, Marsden also has goals. One is to make sure that every one of her birthdays is special.

She rode in a hot air balloon for her 25th and took her first, and last, flying lesson for her 30th when she was eight months pregnant.

Her plans to skydive on her 40th were thwarted after she heard a motivational speaker describe, in stunning detail, what it felt like to let go of a death grip from an airplane to take the dive.

"I decided I wanted to live long enough for my grandkids to grow up,'' she said.

Still, all the daring isn't gone from her life.

"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a risk taker,'' she said. "I'm here at midlife and I'm starting completely over. Whole new town. Whole new job. You have to build new relationships, new friends. But to me it's exciting.

"It's exactly what (Hamilton) said. Change is the only constant. You have to embrace change.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando's new human resources director has a lot to do in little time 12/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:33pm]
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