Managing Through Transition

For Janice Bultema, accepting the top HR post at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics meant tackling the biggest challenge of her career. 

By Mark McGraw

This article accompanies Leading the Talent of Tomorrow and The 2012 HR Honor Roll.

Janice Bultema was quite content with her job when she got the phone call in 2003.

Then the director of human resources at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Bultema had no intention of leaving her post. But the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics recruiter on the line wasn't deterred. His offer: a cup of coffee and a discussion about UWHC's vice president of HR vacancy during his upcoming trip to the Second City.

"I said I wasn't looking. But he convinced me to have coffee when he came into town," says Bultema. "Coffee lasted an hour-and-a-half. The job sounded intriguing, but I told him I was happy at Northwestern."

By the end of those 90 minutes, however, Bultema had agreed to meet at UWHC headquarters in Madison, Wis., to discuss the role in more detail. "One of the questions he asked me over coffee was, 'Wouldn't you like to have your thumbprint on something that you were leading?' I thought about it, and I agreed to come for an interview. And, when I did, I immediately felt connected to the organization."

She ultimately took the job. Now the senior vice president of human resources at UWHC, Bultema's "thumbprint" can be found all over projects and programs she initiated or helped develop -- for example, an academy to provide non-clinical and electronic health-record education; multiple leadership, physician excellence and community service awards; and a "School at Work" program geared toward improving the reading and writing skills of employees at or about the ninth-grade reading level, just to name three. 

A nurse by trade, Bultema sees a thread connecting the nearly 20 years of experience as an RN and the two subsequent decades she's spent as an HR leader.

"In nursing, you're taught to assess qualitative and quantitative data, come to a preliminary diagnosis and implement a plan," she says. "HR is really the same thing. It's using the data in front of you, building relationships, developing a plan and adjusting as needed. For a nurse, it could mean developing a plan for a patient. But the patient won't want to follow that plan unless they have a part in making it. The same could be said for an employee.

"Careers," she adds, "are about staying open to new possibilities rather than having a set path." She took her first steps down the HR path during a 10-year stint at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., where she managed the psychiatry division's in-house staffing pool and messenger service of 12 full-time equivalent employees.

Moving on to Northwestern in 1991, she orchestrated the organization's 1996 move into a new, 2-million-square-foot hospital and ambulatory care facility. Offered the director of human resources post three years later, she saw the position as a natural progression.

"What I loved about nursing is being able to make a difference in peoples' lives. I could do that with hundreds of patients. Now, in HR, I can make a difference in the lives of employees who touch thousands of patients' lives."

In March 2011, thousands of UWHC employees' lives were touched by legislation that presented Bultema with a challenge unlike any she had encountered.

Signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the new law stripped many state employees of their collective-bargaining rights, which meant UWHC employees, faculty and academic staff would be required to pay more of their retirement-plan contributions and healthcare premiums. When the law was implemented, about two-thirds of the organization's employees belonged to a union (there were four representing UWHC employees at the time), with all of the unions' contracts set to expire within three years. Throughout UWHC's 50-plus clinics, unionized and non-unionized employees alike wondered if their years of retirement planning were about to go by the wayside in the coming months.

To help employees understand the law's impact on them, Bultema developed and implemented a hospital-wide communication plan, and coordinated with state officials to provide accurate and easy-to-understand responses to employees' queries.

"Jan immediately recognized that employees were experiencing significant transitions, and the need for effective and timely communication was critical," says Donna Katen-Bahensky, UWHC president and CEO.

The key component of the plan was a comprehensive online FAQ document that Bultema and her staff developed as an employee resource. The team logged questions as they came into managers and the HR department, crafting and compiling answers in a document that broke down common queries by categories such as health insurance, salary and retirement, for example.

"This ended up being an 18-page document. Whenever we updated it, we'd wait a week or so and send out a new document to employees, with changes highlighted in yellow," says Bultema. "People were confused. They were asking, 'If we're a public authority and receive no state funding, then why does [the state's handling of benefits] impact me?' We had to explain how our benefit structure is written in the state statute, which we have to follow. A lot of people didn't know that, so the FAQ document helped explain it."

The legislation dictated that employees paying into the state's retirement system would see nearly 6 percent of their salary taken for contributions, whereas employees paid nothing before the new law's passage. To help non-union employees absorb this immediate financial blow, Bultema developed a supplemental pay plan. For six months, these employees would receive a 5-percent pay increase, followed by a 4-percent increase for the next six months, and then a 3-percent increase after that.

"That went a long way toward easing the transition," says Bultema. "We even got emails thanking us for taking care of our non-represented employees."

During this time, Bultema also initiated "HR listening sessions" that she led at various UWHC sites, inviting employees at each clinic to come see her with salary- or retirement-related questions and concerns. For the first few months after the legislation was enacted, she took a benefits specialist along on each visit.

"Never before in my tenure was there more of a need for the HR team to respond," says Katen-Bahensky. "And Jan and her team really outdid themselves. As an HR leader, Jan is known locally, regionally, nationally and internationally as a real star routinely called upon by others for her expertise. We would be wise to continue to learn from her."

Looking ahead, the shift toward a non-union represented workforce is but one challenge that Bultema sees for herself and her peers in HR.

"We need to be more efficient and deliver higher quality at lower costs," she says. "I see a huge role for HR in utilizing the expertise of line staff to look for quality improvements, use ideas to improve the workplace and improve patient care while decreasing costs."

Read also:

Janice Bultema: In Brief

Leading the Talent of Tomorrow

The 2012 HR Honor Roll

Past Winners

About the Competition



Oct 1, 2012
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