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Christa Johnson – DHL Global Business Services

Seeing the human side of the law is a strength, not a weakness

Christa Johnson vividly remembers her first human resources class at Cornell University. Taught by her passionate professor Florence Berger, it completely drew her in. Five years after graduation and inspired by an internship at the University of Denver Career Center as part of her masters program, Johnson found herself working in human resources at a big glam hotel.

However, it wasn’t long before the fond memories of working at her father’s law firm as a teenager pulled her away from a career in HR and she gravitated toward law school. After completing law school in 2003, she found the perfect combination of her interests—balancing HR and law—by focusing on employment law. And, after stints at two law firms, she joined DHL in 2006 as legal counsel in employment.

Christa Johnson – DHL Global Business Services Vanguard Law Magazine

“People are a critical part of the success of any business, but especially at DHL safeguarding the legal rights of the workforce allows me, in some small way, to help them feel more comfortable in their work environment and connect to their passion and purpose. I guess that is part of my Christian foundation,” says Johnson, now the associate general counsel of employment and labor at DHL Global Business Services. “I always knew I wanted to work with people and do what I could to make their lives better.”

The challenge, she says, is finding a way for the business to be legally compliant while ensuring that the needs of a workforce of approximately 15,000 domestic employees across 100 locations are being met.

Here, there and everywhere

DHL is really a company without boundaries, with 360,000 employees in 220 countries. While Johnson only deals with a portion of that, it still makes her job both interesting and complex.

Daily she is focused on supporting her business and human resources partners within two segments of the business, DHL Express and DHL Global Forwarding, encompassing a union and non-union workforce of approximately 15,000 employees (not including service providers and independent contractors in smaller locations).

The biggest challenges in meeting compliance issues in the United States, she says, are due to stalled efforts in passing employment legislation at the federal level, leaving the door open for states to legislate things like minimum wage, sick leave and sexual harassment policies. Add to that, city and county laws like those in San Francisco and Chicago as well as specialized agreements with unions regarding progressive discipline and sick leave, which can differ from local laws.

It’s enough that help is needed.

Let’s get digital

Without a doubt, advancements in technology—along with an HR audit and digital enhancements to the employee handbook—will help DHL track issues that crop up at any company. Plus, gaining efficiencies in compliance will ultimately achieve a cost savings by nipping conflicts in the bud, Johnson says.

As an example, she points to an HR project she began working on in June 2015, using an online tracking system for employees requesting reasonable accommodation under federal and state disability laws. Nine months into the project, Johnson and the HR programs manager decided to switch gears and look for a company to which they could outsource the work.

Christa Johnson – DHL Global Business Services Vanguard Law Magazine

In August 2016, the DHL Express group initiated the reasonable accommodation program through a third-party administrator, and they haven’t looked back.

Johnson says her patience and flexibility with the process paid off. The number of individual disability lawsuits filed against the company dropped by 60 percent between the year prior to the start of the program to the two years following.

“This is a huge win-win for the business and the employees,” she says.

Lessons learned

Compliance aside, Johnson balances out her very full days as a trainer for the HR team on employment law topics and as a specialist for the legal department on laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA.) She also helps develop numerous HR policies, including pregnancy accommodation and paid pregnancy disability and parental leave.

Even though many years have passed, Johnson has never forgotten the lessons learned from Professor Berger, whom she says was ahead of her time by cultivating sensitivity to two key industry buzzwords that resonate today: “diversity” and “unconscious bias.”

Christa Johnson – DHL Global Business Services Vanguard Law Magazine

“The lessons that I learned from Professor Berger about diversity and respecting other cultures have been instrumental to me in working for a global company where the HR, management and legal team leaders really walk the talk when it comes to these issues,” Johnson says. “I also use the skills she gave me on a daily basis of working to find a solution that will ensure legal compliance and be a win-win for both the business and the employees. This only comes from actively listening to gain a better understanding of the needs of all the stakeholders.”

Johnson not only gleaned lessons from her collegiate experience, but from a career that included service to hotels and several law firms as well. The journey has been rich in its experience, lending insights to her position now.

“So much of it is about customer service; all the principles are the same as in hospitality—it is interactive relationships and gaining trust … if they don’t know me why would they trust the advice I am providing,” Johnson says. “My goal, as well as the challenge, is to ensure legal compliance while also supporting the operational needs of the business and helping to create a work environment where employees are engaged, safe and respected.”

Published on: July 15, 2019

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