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Radio Active

RadioShack's Francesca M. Spinelli transformed a scattered HR function into a cohesive, service-focused department.

Thursday, November 1, 2001
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Although the advertising slogan for the RadioShack chain of electronics retail stores is "You've Got Questions, We've Got Answers," finding the answers to questions about internal company policies and procedures wasn't all that easy when Francesca M. Spinelli joined RadioShack Corp. in July 1998 as the firm's new human resource chief.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based company's HR function was fragmented, with employee insurance residing in the accounting department and retirement plans the purview of the legal department; meanwhile, employee records were split between field and corporate HR. Lacking central direction, many business units simply filled their HR gaps by hiring staff and developing policies on their own.

The firm's HR department functioned primarily in an administrative role, ensuring legal and policy compliance. The result was a company that lacked many of the advantages a strategically focused HR department can bring: Management development was nonexistent, for example, while internal-customer service was an unfamiliar term.

Today RadioShack's HR department has been transformed, and so has the company. The term "service" is one that's very familiar to employees these days because Spinelli worked hard to instill the concept of internal customer service among the staff. She's also spearheaded team projects that have resulted in a workplace culture that is more family friendly and more conducive to team involvement for the retail chain's 30,000 employees. Spinelli's efforts have garnered her a place on this year's HR Executive Honor Roll.

Blank Looks

Upon taking the helm of RadioShack's HR function, Spinelli set about repositioning it as a service function for the entire company.

She rechristened the department "People" and brought the previously scattered HR functions under the new People umbrella. With the help of interdepartmental teams, she began implementing consistent HR policies and practices throughout the company.

Transforming the HR function into a cohesive unit that provided excellent customer service wasn't exactly a cakewalk at first, Spinelli recalls.

"I didn't encounter resistance so much as lack of understanding," she says. "I got a lot of blank looks when I started talking about internal customer service -- people would say, 'Our job is to enforce policies.' "

Part of Spinelli's approach to this problem was to attach the word "service" to various functions within the People department -- payroll became "payroll services," for example -- while developing incentives to further permeate Radio Shack's culture with the spirit of internal service. A major part of that effort was the creation of a new intra-company award called Serving People with Excellence, to recognize those who went the extra mile.

"I think this recognition has encouraged people to proactively develop improvements and enhancements; people take more initiative," says Spinelli. "For example, one of our team members took on our relocation program -- he felt it was time to review and update that program."

In another instance, the "Serving People" award was given to an HR staff member who had worked very closely with a number of nonprofit organizations to help former welfare recipients find jobs.

"[The staffer] developed a transitional program to help bring those individuals into our company and we gave her the internal recognition award for that," she says, adding that the staffer's program went on to win a prestigious award from the Texas governor's office.

Vacation? What's That?

Spinelli did more than simply introduce RadioShack to internal customer service. She also helped initiate a cultural change throughout the company to help it become an organization in which personal motivation, employee involvement and open communication now reign.

Part of that effort involved the creation of action teams comprised of employees from various cross-sections of the company. These "Best Company Action Teams" surveyed thousands of people, including employees, customers and other companies, in order to benchmark current practices and find out what RadioShack employees and their families desired from the company.

"The teams included retail clerks, administrative assistants, project managers and vice presidents, and we even had some spouses to get some outside perspective," says Spinelli. "We trained these teams in problem-solving processes and we gave them a problem to pursue, and they did research."

One notable finding by the teams was the need for RadioShack's employees to loosen up a bit, she says.

"When I first got here, people felt guilty about taking vacations," Spinelli recalls. "We have a very committed, engaged workforce and people take a lot of pride in their jobs. Still, we felt we had to give employees that extra nudge to go and recharge their batteries."

The company's vacation policy was modified so only one layer of managerial approval was needed for an employee to go on vacation, while disapproval now requires two levels of managerial action, she says. Spinelli also partnered with the corporate communications department to spread the word to employees about the need to "recharge."

"We put on a skit that poked fun at our work-obsessed culture by showing one of our employees 'on vacation' wearing Bermuda shorts from the waist down and business attire from the waist up," she says. The company also created "Vacation Escape," a partnership with a local vacation-planning service that received 23,000 phone calls from RadioShack employees last year alone.

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The teams' findings also pointed to the need for more family-friendly benefits. So Spinelli and her own team implemented flexible spending accounts for health-care benefits, flexible work hours, business-casual dress, a telephone- and Web-based employee assistance program and Lifeline, a service designed to help employees find reliable child-care services.

Other changes made as a result of the teams' findings included a revamped employee orientation program featuring reduced paperwork, benefits videos for both corporate and field staff and trivia questions to add some fun to the process, says Spinelli.

"We also split up the orientation process, so on their first day, employees learn all the things they need to know, then 30 days later we do a follow-up orientation to see how they're doing and make sure they're not encountering any problems," she says. "There's only so much information a person can absorb in one day, so spacing things out gives them a chance to become comfortable and think about questions to ask us during the second part."

Employee-opinion surveys reveal Spinelli's changes have had an impact. Over the last two years, gap-score increases indicating increased satsifaction were up by 16 percent for work/life balance, 20 percent for feeling that individual opinions count and 24 percent for employee benefits.

Spinelli is quick to share credit for her successes with RadioShack's communications department.

"There's a close partnership here between HR and corporate communications -- they've helped our employees gain a better understanding and appreciation of the benefits we offer at RadioShack," she says.

Spinelli's background points to her own appreciation of solid communication. Prior to joining the HR profession 15 years ago, she served on the faculty of Case Western Reserve's department of communication sciences. Though she eventually realized her long-term goals and objectives pointed to a career outside academia, the experience helped prepare her for her new calling.

"I've found the research and problem-solving skills I developed as an instructor have served me well in HR," says Spinelli, who, prior to joining RadioShack served as vice president of HR for McLane Co., a division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

In her spare time, the Chicago native enjoys working out, reading and writing fiction, and hiking. She also serves on the board of several Fort Worth-area arts and cultural organizations.

What does the future hold for Spinelli and RadioShack?

"We have a really good foundation here and the challenge is continuing to build on that foundation and getting to the next level," says Spinelli. "Other than the staffing challenge that all retailers face, the future looks pretty easy."

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