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O'Roark put the 'human' in Human Resources

  • Retiring
    Retiring  Earleen O'Roark had two careers at William & Mary, the last as associate vice president of Human Resources. She is retiring at the end of June.  Stephen Salpukas
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The face of Human Resources will change effective July 1, 2012, as Earleen O’Roark, associate vice president for Human Resources, will be retiring from the College.

O’Roark first came to the College in 1979 as the benefits and transactions manager in Human Resources. Seven years later, she left for Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) to become the director of Human Resources. As director at TNCC she expanded her knowledge and scope of responsibilities in all areas of human resources management as well as serving as the College’s Equal Opportunity Officer and managing the payroll function. She also taught courses in Human Resources Management.

While she valued the experience she gained at Thomas Nelson, her heart remained at William & Mary.

“I’m packing up my things and walking down the sidewalk, going into Thomas Nelson, and I’m thinking, ‘What have I done? Why am I leaving William & Mary?’ ” she recalled. “I know now that was an important part of my professional growth.

“To me, William & Mary is really a special place, so when the Human Resources Director position opened up I thought I would love to go back. I applied for the position and here I am, almost 11 years later.”

The department she inherited was a policy- and transaction-driven unit. The office environment wasn’t customer focused and the service wasn’t collaborative, she says. O’Roark understood that Human Resources must be a strategic partner with the college community it serves and not a place that just processes paperwork and enforces policy.

Her work at the College is testimony to the success of her philosophy.

“To be truly effective, a Human Resources operation needs to focus on its customers, those people whom it is serving, and provide them with clear, timely and complete information about a range of matters very important to each of them,” said President Taylor Reveley. “Good HR also needs to understand what managers are trying to accomplish and help them get there. And HR must be concerned about merit as a crucial factor in compensation, not simply time in grade.

“Under Earleen O’Roark’s leadership, HR at William & Mary has taken giant steps forward in all these directions. The transformation has been striking. Earleen has our warmest thanks and best wishes.”

To effect the transition, one of the first things she did was to send the entire HR staff to generalist training, which helped build the consultative skills they needed. Her expectation was that HR was not only to provide excellent customer service to the college community and the public, it was to dispense knowledgeable and useful advice to managers and employees.

“We’re all about our customers, regardless of the level or type of employee,” O’Roark said. “They’re going to get the best service possible from me and my staff.”

She is proud of her dedicated team that works together to make the office successful and the College a better place.

“Her greatest attribute is her flexibility and ability to look at issues from the perspective of the manager,” Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Dave Sheppard said. “She truly understands that ‘one size does not fit all’ when working with personnel issues.”

A visitor drops by to ask why O’Roark has decided to give up all of the fun come the end of June for life as a retiree. The simple answer, she says, is “it’s time. It just feels right. I’m comfortable with my decision.”

That wasn’t the case a year ago. O’Roark first thought she would retire in 2011, but the list of improvements she wanted to accomplish was still missing a couple of check marks. So she stayed, because it’s not in her nature to leave a job undone.
“She is truly a working associate vice president,” colleague Rita Metcalfe said. “She does not ask us do anything that she would not.” 

Turning Human Resources from a transaction-driven department into a “strategic partner” with the college community is one of her three proudest accomplishments. The other two are serving as the project lead in implementing the HR module for Banner, and the development and implementation of the new university human resources system.

"When restructuring required the College to develop an entirely new set of personnel policies for operational staff, professionals and professional faculty, Earleen's experience, thoroughness and good judgment were critical to the success of the project," said Provost Michael R. Halleran, who worked closely on the project with O’Roark.

Her most recent initiative – the partnership program – figures to send her out with a smile on her face. In it, new employees are matched with a volunteer partner who is a current employee. They meet regularly for the new employee’s first two or three months, with the veteran mentoring the newcomer. Thus far, there are more existing employees signed up than newcomers, a trend O’Roark hopes to change before the end of her shift.

In a way, however, that reinforces one of her beliefs about the College being a special place and its people’s love for it.

“It sounds like a cliché but the strength of an organization is its people,” she said. “There are people who were here in 1979 who are still here. The dedication and commitment of so many employees is phenomenal. They are here because W&M is where they want to be and that speaks volumes about the College as a place to work. They’ve had other opportunities but they have a bond with the College. That’s why I came back.”

Although well respected by her work colleagues, they still find several things to tease her about: her affinity for trips to Las Vegas, the chair at staff meetings that no one – no one, Sheppard emphasizes good naturedly – dared sit in. Then there’s the fact that she always seemed to have a project – or three – in progress at the same time.

“I call her ‘The Energizer Bunny,’” Metcalfe said. “She just keeps going and going.”

Retirement will be no different.

Among a host of other activities, O’Roark will travel overseas and domestically to visit grandchildren, perhaps expand her jewelry-making efforts, possibly return to teaching, stay connected to William & Mary by attending a variety of events, and keep in close touch with the many friends she has made at the College over the years.

“While it is really going to be difficult to leave W&M, I have plenty to keep me busy,” she says. “I have never been one to sit around watching the grass grow.”

Whatever she does, wherever she goes, O’Roark leaves having made a profound impact on the College and its people.

“Earleen’s commitment to her work and to our employees has made an immeasurable difference at the College,” said Anna B. Martin, vice president for Administration. “She is the best kind of human resource professional, a combination of knowledge, skill, empathy and tough love.

“Earleen has set a very high bar for her successor.”