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HR in America: Diary of an exchange visit

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Lynn StarsmoreHR manager Lynn Starsmore shares her experiences of a month-long exchange trip, organised by the Rotary Club, which saw her flying over to Southern California to expand her knowledge and experience of HR across the pond.


The journey

On the way to the airport last-minute nerves kicked in and I was thinking, how could I possibly leave family, friends and work for a whole month? However, the panic subsided when we met up with Bill Kerr, the group study exchange organiser, who managed to calm my nerves. We then began our journey from Leeds/Bradford heading down to London Heathrow, across to San Francisco and then on to Ontario, California – a grand total of 19 hours travelling! This is when the excitement soon wore off and boredom set in.

Area 1: Riverside & Corona

On arrival in Ontario we were greeted by numerous Rotarians cheering, clapping and waving a large Union Jack flag. This was a great start and demonstrated the warmth and generosity that we were to be shown throughout the month.

Educational days

One of my educational days involved a visit to the Sherman Indian School – one of the largest schools specifically for Native Americans in the area. This is an important facility as many Native Americans do not attend school due to various beliefs and customs.

“The three-metre rule means that if a person is within this distance of you, you smile, ask them how they are and if there is anything you can help them with.”

So, it is quite a special place where the students are not only taught the basics in English, history and maths etc, but also their native crafts such as bead work and painting.

This is essential as a majority of students return back to their tribes and continue with their traditional roles, albeit with a broader education under their belt.

We looked around the facility and spent time with four students chatting about their traditions, experiences at the school and expectations for the future.

They were interested in our country and customs and were intrigued at the differences in the weather, health and school system. They were also obsessed with our ‘soccer’.

Vocational day

My first official day at work was spent in two very different medical centres. The morning was spent with the HR director of Corona Medical Centre, where I discovered that even though California has a lot more legislation than the UK, the HR procedures are very similar. For instance, standard practices of recruitment, records, appraisal, disciplinary and training, and so on, are the same.

The Americans are extremely customer-focused. Each member of staff is not only trained within their area, but also undergoes basic customer service training, irrespective of their role.

This involves the three-metre rule, which means that if a person is within this distance of you, you smile, ask them how they are and if there is anything you can help them with. This may sound a little cheesy but, in practice, actually creates a friendly and warm atmosphere. No-one quickens their pace and tries to avert their eyes. Instead people smile and converse while going about their daily jobs.

“The focus towards training and development is key, and as a result nearly all the places that I worked at had low staff turnover and high staff morale.”

They too have reward schemes for service and also something that they call ‘GEM’ awards, which means ‘going the extra mile’. People are rewarded with lunch or something similar and posters in the hospital highlights their achievement.

Each medical centre also did spontaneous things for the staff like ‘pizza days’ or buying them an ice-cream. Appraisal and review schemes monitoring the success, achievements and aspirations of employees are taken extremely seriously and carried out religiously on a set schedule.

The focus towards training and development is key, and as a result nearly all the places that I worked at had low staff turnover and high staff morale. To help achieve this they looked at what motivates people, what keeps them happy and what each employee needs to progress and move on within the business.

I believe this is important for all businesses in order to move on and progress. This was reflected in a statement written on the wall of the Mission Inn in Riverside (one of the oldest buildings in Ontario) which reads: “Where there is no vision, people perish”.

I found that visiting all these places and carrying out presentations to large groups of people, who were interested in what we had to say, was beginning to have a positive impact on my confidence.


Lynn Starsmore is HR manager of The Wensleydale Creamery in North Yorkshire.

  • Look out for part two of Lynn’s exchange diary next week.
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