I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Harlos, Manager of Compliance and Diversity Programs for both Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. A journalism student initially, Laura shares how she became rooted in HR, the benefits of resource groups and her insight on compliance.
Can you tell us about your company?
Yes, together Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air have about 13,000 employees. Alaska and Horizon are sister companies and over the past several years we have implemented shared services integrations in an effort to streamline and increase productivity while balancing those unique traits in each organization that are part of what has made us successful. Alaska is equipped with one of the most environmentally conscious single fleets out there, flying all Boeing 737’s. Horizon is in the process of migrating to an all Q-400 fleet which will enable us to further optimize the route system and benefit Air Group as a whole.
I think you told me in a previous conversation you started in Alaska as a commuter kind of airline? Is that right?
Yes. We have quite a history in the state of Alaska. It started out in 1932 with some bush pilots taking supplies and such in and out of some remote areas. It’s one of the hardest places to fly in and out of in the United States and the state of Alaska continues to be a very important part of our business from the larger locations such as Anchorage or Fairbanks and all the way up to Barrow and other more remote areas.
Can you explain your role and history with the airline?
I started with Alaska Airlines in 1998 while going to college, so I worked summers and winter breaks which was a great opportunity to start learning the industry and what it takes operationally to run an airline. Then, in 2001, I came back permanently to work in the recruitment department where I stayed for a few years until getting an opportunity with Employee Relations. I worked with Employee Relations for about a year before getting accepted into Alaska’s Management Development Program, where I did about a two and a half year rotations within the human resources division. Through this program I spent time with our compensation, diversity, benefits and HR field teams gaining thorough experience in the field of Human Resources. I went on to work as an HR generalist for two years until 2008 when I started my current role Managing HR Compliance and now Diversity Programs.
Did you go to school for recruiting or for HR?
I actually have a degree in journalism and public relations.
Journalism and PR!
I feel like I‘m on your side of the fence here.
It’s interesting doing these interviews. I usually ask how people got started in recruiting because it’s not usually a typical, ‘Oh, I went to school, I got my degree, I did an internship and this is what I’ve always wanted to do.’
No, it’s kind of an accident. When I was actually ready to come back full-time, I had been through a couple of internships – one with Red Cross and one with the Washington Education Association. I knew I wanted to come back to Alaska Airlines and ended up in the recruitment department.
Can you tell us what a typical day is like for you, if there is such a thing?
I don’t know if there is a typical day. The easiest part of my day might be my drive in. Once I open my email box or check voicemails, things could change in an instant from what I might have had planned. I handle compliance for a whole division, overseeing compliance efforts pertaining to a myriad of Employment Law wage and hour, employee medical relations, health and welfare, drug and alcohol, ERISA compliance, Discrimination and so on. In addition to ensuring compliance with the various laws we are bound to I also make sure we are in compliance with our own policies, which at times are more strict. My group also puts together all of our affirmative action plans, IRA’s and mock audits. We handle all the OFCCP audits when they come in. We’re working on one right now. And it’s a big priority for us. So really, the day can change pretty fast around here.
My team also manages the company’s diversity programs, so we work with people at all levels within the company playing an integral role in our Diversity and Inclusion strategy every year. We have 11 employee resource groups which are affinity groups developed by our employees. Each one has an executive sponsor at the Vice President level within the company and is uniquely tied to our business initiatives. For example our Latin Culture Resource Group has helped us translate documents and determine a solid direction for our Spanish Websites. Our Generation Y Employee Resource Group is helping the company strategize around getting younger customers signed up with a mileage plan account, one of our customer groups that utilizes this program the least. Additionally, our resource groups help us educate all of our employees on the value of diversity of culture and thought. It is a great partnership and one I don’t think would work without the consistent support we get from Company Leadership.
It’s a great resource to tap into and say ‘You’re our audience…what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong?’
Absolutely. And it brings a lot of different things to light. For example, we went “cashless cabin” and only accept credit cards now on the aircraft. It was interesting to learn that it is very difficult to get a credit card in Mexico. We were creating a barrier for a big customer group. It was interesting for our Latin Culture Resource Group to help us trouble-shoot. Our resource groups have really helped us understand our customers, and on a new level…on a better level. And our ERG’s are only one way that we are doing this. We also have Integration Group Leaders which are Director level and above employees that help us reach our leadership on a 1:1 basis and act as a resource to our ERG’s. We also have a Diversity Business Council that is a rotating group of individuals assigned to work a key initiative every year.
Going back to your compliance role, you are managing a very big area. Where do you get your information when you’re seeking guidance or need best practices?
This is a great question. I do a lot of reading, trying to keep up with the regulations and changing agency environment. I am the Vice Chair of our local Northwest Industry Liaison Group which is an important way to network with other Northwest Companies dealing with compliance issues as well as an important partnership with the EEOC and the OFCCP agencies. I am also a member of the National Labor exchange committee consisting of 6 state agencies, 6 employers, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies and Direct Employers representatives. Together we are able to discuss how best employers and state agencies can connect in an effort to get people employed. We are also a member company of the equal employment advisory council (EEAC). They put together briefings once a week and send out weekly emails. It really helps us stay involved and close to what is going on with all the legislative items that we need to keep tabs on. They publish memos on new laws or regulations, like the ADAAA. Then, they have authors of those articles available if you have questions, which, we have taken advantage of and found very helpful when trying to wade through some complicated regulations. When it gets to be the point of ‘What does that mean to Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air and what are we going to do about it?’, this is when I would meet with our legal department to discuss all the angles together and ultimately determine our best way for moving forward.
That sounds like a great resource. I know we have a lot of Members that also belong to the EEAC and get a lot of value from it. Can you tell me more about the challenges you face in your role and what keeps you awake at night?
Yes. It all comes down to interpreting a regulation or a law, and you want to make sure you’re interpreting it in a way that’s going to protect the company and reduce liability as much as possible. Making sure you’re thorough while also meeting deadlines. With the new administration that came in this year, there have been a lot of changes and many things have rolled out very fast. Some changes we’re just watching and waiting to roll out, trying to be proactive by developing a plan, so once we know where we’re mandated to comply, we’re ready. Some of it is just…how do we get ahead of it?
When you’re looking at your organization and talking to other people outside of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, what are some things you’re proud of?
I’m proud of our companies for a lot of things. One of our number one goals has been, since I can remember, to be number one in safety and compliance. Ultimately, we want our customers and our employees to be safe and one way you do that is by putting an emphasis on compliance as a company. When it comes to compliance I know I will have the support I need to make sure we are in good shape. People here understand how important it is and I think we have developed a very compliant culture within our companies.
That has to feel really empowering to know your company is so committed that it makes it a strategic goal and that your job responsibilities are directly tied to that.
Absolutely. Another thing that I’m really proud of is that both Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air have this culture or mentality of doing the right thing. It’s not always about complying with the letter of law, but complying with the spirit of the law and going above and beyond – figuring out what’s the right thing to do in a situation, and trying to always be above the line.
I love that. I mean as you are aware, DirectEmployers is very involved in a lot of different military and diversity outreach and helping our members get down to the correct place. Not just saying here you can check a box, but it’s actually meeting the spirit of the law.
Exactly. And that’s why I think that our partnership with DirectEmployers has really been healthy. We’re both mentally or culturally in that same mindset of ‘How do we do the right thing here?’
I agree wholeheartedly with that one. Why do you think it’s important that Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air is a Member of DirectEmployers?
I think it’s been extremely important to us in that, as you can tell, we have a lot going on and at any flip of the hat, we can be going in one direction versus another. DirectEmployers really helps us be consistent and to continue to do the right kind of outreach, and make sure the jobs that we have available are pushed out to the right groups of people and in front of as many as possible. It really alleviates some of the burden on our side and we can in turn spend more time fostering relationships within the communities in which we serve and using our time on actual outreach because we know that DirectEmployers is helping us take care of the data push to various organizations through the technology they provide. It helps us sleep a little better at night.
We have a Member who loves to say, ‘You take care of things while I sleep. I don’t even have to worry about it – it’s done while I’m sleeping.'
Absolutely. On the compliance side, when I do get an audit and need to provide information to the OFCCP on what outreach we did, what jobs we posted, where we posted our jobs, it’s nice to go to our friends at DirectEmployers, log in and pull the reports we need to provide. Then we can spend time sharing all of the physical outreach we did as an Air Group.
Do you have a favorite member benefit of DirectEmployers?
I think I’m most excited about some of the things DirectEmployers is embarking on right now like the military and .jobs stuff. We’ve had the opportunity to share it with several people within our company, including those who traditionally hire a lot of military folks. They are really excited about what that means to us and to our military folks looking for civilian jobs.
That’s great! The people who are completely for it and support it, like you, truly want to help the military, the job seeker and the employer make that connection. Our mission has always been, and always will be, to help employers and jobseekers connect faster, better, easier and make that connection stronger. That’s no matter who the employer or the job seeker is. It has so much potential and therefore it scares some people.
Change is always a little bit scary to everyone and I think just having that relationship, or reaching out to the job seeker and getting jobs out to the right job seekers, can expedite the process. The employer and the job seeker can unite a little bit quicker.
I really appreciate the insight that you’ve given us into Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air and what a not-so-typical day is like for you.
It’s never dull. I’ll say that much. I’m always kept on my toes.
Alaska Airlines is one of the most respected names in aviation, with national and international recognition as “best carrier” from Condé Nast, Travel+Leisure, Air Transport World, Zagat, J.D. Powers, USA Today and others. The airline’s story has been in the making for over 75 years, and sets itself apart through pride, passion and perseverance; otherwise known as “Alaska Spirit.”
Launched in 1981, Horizon serves cities throughout Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Baja California Sur (Mexico), and British Columbia and Alberta (Canada). Horizon prides itself on a special culture made up of thriving partnerships, helpful co-workers and family-like environment. It’s these special traits that have helped the airline endure in a time where many airlines have come and gone.