The Port of Oakland's Christopher Boucher improves HR operations at all levels -- air, land and sea.
By Carol Patton
This article accompanies Ever Upward.
Within six months of being hired as the director of HR for the Port of Oakland, Christopher Boucher entered into labor negotiations with four different bargaining units representing more than 95 percent of the organization's 500 employees.
The port oversees three business lines: Oakland International Airport, the Oakland seaport, and commercial developments that include Jack London Square and hundreds of acres of public parks and conservation areas.
"Being the new guy here, to make an impression in a truncated period of time, I knew I didn't have a whole lot of time to waste," says Boucher, who was hired in 2014 at the age of 29. "Previous negotiations were not productive or did not build trust. It was a very negative experience on both sides."
A 2016 HR's Rising Star, Boucher completely changed the face of HR at the port. Just in the last two years, he successfully negotiated four different union contracts, updated personnel rules and modernized job classifications for airport employees. Still, he's determined to accomplish much more, hoping to further enhance the port's operational efficiency, strengthen partnerships and manage other business enterprises to positively impact the overall community.
While serving as the port's chief labor relations officer, Boucher worked with Sara Lee, the port's chief financial officer, senior HR director and managing director of corporate administrative services, on a data-driven approach to inter-space bargaining, a term coined by Harvard University to describe situations in which both sides focus on their shared stake in an entity's success.
According to Boucher, HR was very transparent about its costs, business outlook, potential revenues and business challenges. This practical and reasonable approach enabled labor unions to better understand the port's financial position. Unlike in the past, he says, this transparency helped lay the groundwork for a collaborative and productive negotiation process that was completed within several months.
"It really was a win-win outcome . . . and also about ending the negative cycle," says Boucher, who is a SHRM senior certified professional, certified labor-relations master and International Public Management Association certified professional. "When the word 'negotiation' came up, [people] started rolling their eyes, saying it was going to be months and months of chaos. We were able to secure labor agreements, ensure continued vitality for the port, and . . . make operational improvements as part of the labor agreements."
At the same time, Boucher also invested his time in other HR projects. One priority was to analyze and review job classifications, one operational unit at a time. He started with the airport by developing, negotiating and implementing a major reorganization to better reflect current operational needs. He updated seven different job classifications or titles, and introduced clear career paths to enhance employee recruitment and retention.
He discovered that some of the job titles -- such as telephone operator -- had not been updated in decades and their responsibilities were siloed or narrow in focus. Not anymore. Now these jobs are versatile, he says, requiring employees to perform a broad spectrum of tasks. For the first time in the port's history, promotional paths were also established, enabling employees to advance their careers within the organization.
Likewise, decades-old personnel rules involving leave administration, layoff procedures, workplace accommodations and recruitment had to be revised. Consensus regarding proposed changes had to be reached, which involved numerous meetings between Boucher and the labor-union officials, employees, Civil Service Board members, the Board of Port Commissioners and port management. A reward and recognition program was later introduced, which has since become "wildly popular," Boucher says.
Even the testing process for job candidates was changed. It's now more creative to enable recruiters and hiring managers to better assess a candidate's skills and competencies. For example, he says, some individuals applying for senior-management positions are required to conduct a mock board presentation regarding the port's five-year business plan.
"This port has been struggling for a very long time to have the right HR leadership," adds Lee, Boucher's boss. "When you overlay civil service and the high concentration of unionization at the port, we were very much looking for an HR director who could bring in both practical experience and knowledge, roll up [his or her] sleeves and also have the leadership [skill] to implement and effect change. Chris has been all of that and much more."
She says his strong credentials and decision-making skills have resulted in operational efficiency and significant cost-savings for the port.
Others have noticed his leadership skills. Boucher is president-elect for the Northern California Chapter of the International Public Management Association and is finishing his last year at Abraham Lincoln University School of Law in Los Angeles. He believes HR professionals are "lawyers without a degree" and jokes that, if any employee is going to cost the port millions of dollars, it would be him, since one bad judgment call can produce serious financial consequences.
Meanwhile, he says, his work is just getting started.
"There's a lot more . . . to be done in modernizing this organization," says Boucher. "Hopefully, at the end of the day, they all add up [and] I can leave a small trail of contributions to the port."