21. Super-human resources

Less than 24 hours before Katrina hit, Mike and Lisa Zainey were in I-10 bumper-to-bumper traffic inching west to Lake Charles.  Zainey was Hibernia’s highly regard Human Resources chief.  Around Donaldsonville, a church group was handing out refreshments to the creeping cars, wishing people god-speed.  “We got ice cream,” he said with a chuckle.  The trip took 12 hours, but Zainey felt good about where they were and about storm preparations his human resources group had made.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘An amazing scenario’

MIKE ZAINEY: 'Longterm housing No. 1 issue' / Photo: Russ Hoadley

MIKE ZAINEY: ‘Longterm housing No. 1 issue’ / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Mike Zainey, 49, was executive vice president of human resources. A 25-year employee, he and his wife, Lisa, had two children, 23 and 20, both enrolled at Louisiana State University.

The couple went to Lake Charles, where Zainey worked from a borrowed office until late September.  Then, he brought his far-flung group back together temporarily in  Metairie, pending the integration of HR into Capital One and the dissolution of most of his department.

His staff worked through months of employee issues with great dedication, even though many were scheduled to be terminated.  Zainey himself retired as a result of the merger in June 2006.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

His payroll department, a tier 1 mission-critical area for obvious reasons, was set up in Shreveport under its indomitable manager, Yvette Soniat.  His other areas, benefits, for example, were believed less critical, and he knew where all of his managers were going and had their phone numbers.

A varied career

Zainey was a true-green company man.  He marked his 25th year a few days after the hurricane.  He’d had an interesting and varied career.  He came to the company from the New Orleans Federal Reserve.  He first worked as a bond trader under the legendary Bob Close, Hibernia’s brilliant funds manager whose financial wizardry helped save Hibernia during hard times in the early 1990s.

He later headed up the administrative services area, in charge of the entire physical infrastructure and purchasing. In 1996 was promoted to human resources director, responsible for hiring and recruitment, payroll, benefits, employee relations – all things related to employee welfare.

His broad knowledge of the bank, and fierce loyalty to it, made him an extremely valuable member of executive management.  He had a knack for dealing with individuals at all levels, from basement to boardroom, and he had a remarkably able staff, shaped by a friendly but high-standards brand of leadership.

A member of the important IMT (Incident Management Team) overseeing recovery, Zainey thought this hurricane event probably would be like others in recent years.  “I was not concerned at all, because I was going to be back in New Orleans in three days and back in my office,” he recalled ruefully.

He felt comfortable about his children, too.  His daughter was at her LSU sorority house in Baton Rouge, and his son was in Crowley visiting a friend.

First reaction: relief

As he watched the hurricane on TV, his first reaction was relief.  “At the last minute, it took a zag to the east.  It looked like the city had survived fairly well, but we were told that places east of New Orleans – where we had a dense population of employees – got hit directly, so I knew there were going to be problems … but the city proper had survived.”

At first, Zainey could not get through to recovery conference calls because the 800 number was down.  He walked to the Lake Charles bank around 6 a.m. Monday and found email working.  Messages were mostly routine.  “As of Monday morning, I was not overly concerned.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

She became a one-person HR department.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

His began getting in touch with his employees to “make sure they were all okay, then make contact with the Incident Management Team, make sure they knew what was going on, because all I heard were news reports at that time.”

He found he could “talk” to payroll manager Yvette Soniat in Shreveport by email.  “She was the first person I was able to contact.  We stayed connected throughout …”

Soniat rose to a huge challenge.  In addition to running payroll, for a while she became a one-person HR department, the only contact for hundreds on the recovery team in Shreveport and for many scattered employees trying to get answers about medical care, retirement funds and other HR matters.

A barrage of emails

The HR director quickly found himself immersed in 20-30 emails per hour, working from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.  “The only solace I had was the 15 minutes that I walked to the office and walked to the hotel,” he recalled.

“On Tuesday, when we realized what was going on in the city, it opened up a lot of issues.  What were we going to do about housing, our families, about work, are we going to have jobs?”

“I thought our No. 1 thing at the time was to calm our employee base down … trying to keep up with 3,100 who were displaced was tough.”

He couldn’t even account for everyone in his own department, about 70 people.  One, B. J. Powell, a Hibernia veteran and respected Employee Relations expert, could not be found for about 10 days.  She had evacuated to North Carolina and could not get through by phone.  Two others, Jackie Bruce and Lynette Broussard, left with their children, but their husbands stayed behind.  “We did not hear from their husbands for weeks.”

Soon Zainey could see that housing was going to be important.

“On the first day, I got a phone call from Matt Schuyler, director of human resources at Capital One.  I remember saying that long-term housing was our No. 1 issue … I was scared to death that all these people that we had in all these cramped quarters in Shreveport and in Houston were just going to quit us.  I never discussed it with anybody, but I thought the company could fail.  Strange as it sounds, operations did not concern me.  I thought we were fine with what we were doing (to recover operationally).”

However, “How are we going to run this thing if all these people quit?  We got calls every day and heard that these people were working until 1 or 2 o’clock every morning.  We had families separated in hotel rooms, and I was expecting to hear about divorces, people fighting with each other.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Not surprised at how well our people did.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Then we heard about the devastation in the city, and I just wondered, ‘How do you deal with 10 people in a hotel room, having lost their home, having to work until 2 a.m. to keep your job, how do people deal with this?’  I was concerned about suicides … I was really concerned.”

As it turned out, despite the stress and occasional meltdowns, employees worked on, often heroically.  Some said later that work was all they had left that was normal, and they found it both comforting and energizing.

Not surprised

“I was not surprised at how well our people did.  I would have been surprised if our people had not done as well.

“Everyone was so caught up with what they were doing.  I also think there was an appreciation gained because people saw others working as hard as they were.  Groups that never had worked together before saw how each other were putting forth effort.”

When he went to Shreveport, “and saw these people working so hard, shoulder to shoulder, and everybody trying to help everybody out, it was an amazing scenario.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Felt good the bank stuck up for the employees.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After the bank offered emergency assistance, obtained lodging and began other forms of help, Zainey felt better about how things might work out.  He was the chief architect of a number of novel relief programs, some of which lasted well into 2006.

“I felt good the way the bank stuck up for the employees,” he said.  “The emergency assistance that you[1] and I did in about 15 minutes on the phone.  I remember suggesting $1,000 and you said, ‘okay we’ll do $1,000.’  How about housing?  Let’s do $3,000 the first month.  I remember you and I going back and forth on that … but the bank stepped up for the employees without batting an eye.  I think for the most part the employees understood and appreciated that.”

Taking advantage

On the flip side, Zainey was “somewhat disheartened by a minority of employees who either were taking advantage of the situation or were complaining about some of the things going on.”

He recalled one conversation with an employee who did not want to accept a company-paid apartment because it was two blocks from a bus stop.  “Too far,” the employee said.

Another in the office of Sam Wilkinson, Texas regional human resources director, screamed, “I can’t believe you are going to tax the $1,000 you gave me.”  (As it turned out, she was misinformed.  The emergency grant was not taxed as income, under an IRS rule dealing with disaster relief.)

“Those kinds of things got to me and were my biggest personal frustration,” Zainey said.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I don’t know how we’d have handled this without … Capital One.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Stretched to the limit

As weeks unfolded, human resources people and others were stretched to implement an unprecedented housing-assistance program for more than 3,000 people.  Besides housing, the bank also provided per-diem expenses.  The way different managers interpreted it created headaches.  “Some were allowing manicures and pedicures, and some were being a little bit tighter.”

Contacting employees was hard.  Capital One stepped in to help with a call center in Richmond, VA, since Hibernia’s Louisiana-based 800 numbers either were down or swamped.

“I don’t know how we’d have handled this without the Capital One call center,” Zainey reflected.  “They need to get kudos.”

Waking up at 2

Nothing involving staff issues was easy.  Recalled Zainey: “I was waking up at 2 or 3 every morning, just getting dressed and going to the office because there was so much going on … Quite frankly for a while I was pulling new policies out of my …  I assumed that if I was administering consistently, we would be okay in the long run.  There were over-riding concerns all the time.

“How am I going to affect people because I am making decisions that we are pushing through without any checking?  We are going to get to the majority of people fine, but my concern was for the people who were not handling it well and what kind of problems we would have to be dealing with.

“It was traumatic, even after we started recovering, if that makes any sense … The complaints started coming in.  Donna (Barry), Jan (Macaluso) and I talked about three or four times a day.  How do you want us to handle this?  How do you want to handle that?  Donna and Jan were the stars of those times for me.”

Be consistent

Zainey’s concern to be consistent with the new relief policies, even though implemented on the run, was important.  Every program can unintentionally provoke some questionable behavior.

“It was frustrating,” he recalled, having to focus energy on a few people taking advantage of the assistance and losing sight of “the mass majority who were just appreciating what we were doing.”

Meanwhile, he was trying to bring his HR group together in Lake Charles, but the only apartments they could find “were just horrible, and I had to call everybody to tell them not to come.”  It was just as well, because the following weekend, hurricane Rita slammed the area.

Over time, Zainey – who sat on five different management conference calls each day – could hear signs of improvement.  “Progressively, people began repeating things other than new things occurring.  People were understanding better what other people did, and everybody worked as hard as the other and brought camaraderie to the group.  It was an exciting time because I saw the progress…”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Felt like I was on an island by myself.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Rita almost routine

“When Rita came in, it almost became routine.  All we did was add Lake Charles and Beaumont to our programs.  We were acting now out of experience … I was not surprised by new things, but the juggling of things now became a problem … two or three people wanted different information at different times … I found it to be head-butting … I felt that I had five or six different bosses…

“The first seven weeks were the worst I had ever had personally and professionally.  I felt like I was out on an island by myself and being looked at by 3,000 people, and I was delivering the best I could but never thought I was doing enough.  Lisa (his wife) worried about me physically at the time, mentally and physically.  It was really tough.

“As we started to turn the corner, and the bank was being recognized for what it did, I was asked to do media interviews.  From objective sources dealing with different companies, we were getting accolades for such few people leaving us … We stood up for our employees.  Our employees were coming back to us …

“I was hearing (other companies lost) numbers like 30-40%.  (Hibernia) lost less than 4%; about 135 people … It showed we did a decent job.”

Refocus on merger

As things normalized, Zainey turned again to integration with Capital One.  Human Resources policies and programs are some of the most difficult to synchronize in mergers.  In addition, post-hurricane issues continued.  “Housing continues to be the issue.”  Zainey got extensions to the housing assistance, which was needed into the second quarter of 2006.

Back in New Orleans, his group set up temporarily in a vacant medical building in the Elmwood area of Metairie.  His employees worked at long folding tables or squeezed into small offices.  They were hampered by not having easy access to records still sitting in their badly damaged building on Baronne Street.

Interestingly, Zainey thought his people – a cohesive group before the disasters – worked even better together when they were thrown into the common-area workspace.  “My staff got better because they sit side-by-side and see each other working.”

Not all of his employees shared that feeling.  “One of the hardest recovery (issues) has been the conditions we are working in right now out at Elmwood,” thought payroll manager Soniat.  “It was similar to Shreveport.  The first couple of weeks (we were back in New Orleans), we were so happy to be back together – and because we are such a close-knit group we felt good because we got our friends back – but it was a very stressful situation work-wise.”

Their personal lives were still upside-down.  Some were living in hotels.  Some still had families scattered around the U.S., “but the one thing keeping them healthy and happy is Hibernia,” Zainey said.

Huge demand for employees

An interesting development in Hibernia’s vacancy levels occurred after the storms.  In the first few months of 2006, the level of jobs that were being recruited shot up to around 1,000 from pre-storm levels around 200.  Trying to fill so many positions – some created by the storm, some from accelerated Texas expansion – became daunting for a Recruiting area that had itself been affected by the storm.  Eventually, outside recruiters were engaged to help.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Every one … is going to be let go, yet they have produced.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sensitive issue

Amid the turmoil, Zainey had a sensitive issue.  Many in his group were scheduled to leave on varying timetables following the Nov. 16, 2005, merger with Capital One.  They all had been told of their fate, since the merger originally was for Sept. 1.  “Every one of those people is going to be let go, yet they have produced,” he said.

Soniat concurred: “To top it all off, all of these folks … were ones we had already told would not have a job at end of the year.  That blows me away.

“There were payrolls rendered from Shreveport where Juanette and Lonnie were (at work) until 8 p.m., and are still putting in those kind of hours (in April, 2006), even though they were to be terminated.

“We are up to over 7,000 employees on the payroll, and we have had no addition to staff to handle that.”

Hindsight is 20-20

Looking over all of the HR obstacles, Zainey said, “What I am not proud of is that I was not prepared; none of us were.”

Then, in the next breath: “Could we have been better prepared?  I don’t know, but I think we should have been.  We had no policies, no procedures in place (ahead of time) for any of this (employee assistance).  Thankfully, we did the right things on the run, which is probably our talent … but we could have been better prepared as an organization, and, individually, I should have been better prepared.”

What was hardest for him?  “Feeling isolated from family and staff … that led to lack of sleep.  I never felt like I was in control and never caught up.  I never felt like anything got completed, but I think just that feeling of isolation was tough.”

Payroll

DAVE SONIAT: Cuts up with child in recovery command center / Photo: Yvette Soniat

DAVE SONIAT: Cuts up with child in recovery command center / Photo: Yvette Soniat

Yvette Soniat was a died-in-the-wool Hibernian with 16 years at the bank.  She first worked in the administrative services department and in 1996 followed her boss, Zainey, over to human resources.  It was a logical move.  Before Hibernia, she worked for the Orleans Parish School Board for 15 years in a variety of HR jobs.  Eight years ago, she married Dave Soniat, head of network facilities, making them one of a small but significant number of married couples who worked at the bank.[2]

When Katrina hit, she was in charge of two functions – payroll and a human resources information system (HRIS) called Lawson.  She reported to Christine Ingles, head of the benefits and payroll department.

Because her function was considered mission-critical, Soniat had planned to shift it to Shreveport.  She may have been better prepared than most, because a few years earlier she had won approval for a complete back-up HRIS server in the disaster recovery site, and her department religiously updated it every night “365 days a year.”

A smart move

Shrewdly, she sought and got approval to run the August month-end payroll a few days early.  Her people completed it Friday, Aug. 26, and distributed the funds – more than $12 million – to employee accounts Saturday, Aug. 27.  She guessed the paycheck might be needed a few days later.  It was a smart move.

Soniat actually went alone to her office that Saturday morning to “run” the payroll and print checks needed for “manual pay” to about 200 employees.  It would prove a problem to deliver these after the Post Office was disabled.

At this point, Yvette and Dave planned to stay together in their Metairie home or the Hibernia Center.  “In the past, there had never been a problem.  We were among the first to get back to work and help bring everything up.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘A savior’

YVETTE SONIAT: One-person HR department / Photo: Russ Hoadley

YVETTE SONIAT: One-person HR department / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Yvette Soniat, 48, was payroll manager for eight years, a role she assumed about the same time she married the company’s network facilities manager, Dave.  The couple has three grown sons between them, aged 30, 26 and 25.

She and Dave evacuated to Shreveport, where they both worked on disaster recovery until mid-October, when she returned to their Metairie home.

Yvette’s position was eliminated when payroll transitioned to Capital One June 30, 2006.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Time to go

They began to have misgivings Saturday night while out with friends, who “were very upset at dinner,” Yvette recalled.  Early the next morning, the friends called:  “Please, Mr. Dave, you have to leave because it is going to be bad,” they appealed.

Then Yvette got a call from Zainey, which clinched it.  He told her even Greg Stelly, the disaster recovery team coordinator, who always stayed behind, had decided to head out.  The Soniats made hurried preparations, covered things inside their home with garbage bags, and picked up a few items – her parent’s wedding picture, her mother’s Bible, the CPU from her husband’s PC and their treasured LSU season football tickets.  They collected Dave’s mother, left about 11 a.m., and headed for El Dorado, AR, where the Dave’s son and family had just moved.  The Soniats arrived about 9:30 that night, exhausted.

Lodging had not been a consideration in Soniat’s payroll recovery plan because she already had the month-end pay done, and the next cycle would not start for another week.  “Surely, we would be back in New Orleans before then,” she thought.

Their son’s family had just moved into a new home that did not have hookups yet for TV, telephone or internet.  The Soniats were thirsting for news.  In the morning, they went with their son to his oil company office, and “the folks there were unbelievably wonderful.  They set up a telephone in a conference room … put the TV on for us to start watching the news.  We just said we were from New Orleans, and they were giving us big hugs.”

The couple learned that a hotel room had been found in Shreveport, so they “told the kids goodbye and headed over,” arriving about noon Monday.  “At that point, it was ‘Hey, New Orleans missed the big one.  We got lucky’.  There is some wind damage, but New Orleans is going to be okay.”

Payroll glitch

Yvette was feeling pretty good until someone at the command center told her Ron Samford, chief administrative officer, was trying to reach her.  “He wants you on the phone right now.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Bittersweet birthday

Tuesday, Aug. 30, was Yvette Soniat’s 48th birthday.  “The HR folks in Shreveport, who were just wonderful people, bought me a cake.  It was such an emotional time, because the Loan Processing folks were starting to arrive, and you’d see faces of people coming, constantly arriving throughout the day, and you went ‘Hey, how are you?’ and there were hugs and tears, and I think the thing that blew me away was that these people were so committed.“My husband and I went to dinner that night … to some little Italian place right down the street, because we were working until at least 7 p.m. every night.  It was pretty grueling.  The entire day, the phone rang.

“We sat down, and by this time we knew our city was flooded.  We had no clue about our house.  We sat there at dinner and said, ‘What’s going to happen?  What’s the future going to be?’”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do’.”Samford told Soniat he had learned that some of the payroll – perhaps as much as a third – had not hit employee accounts when it was done Saturday night.  He said, “I don’t care what you have to do, but get the rest credited tonight.”

“I got some calls into the Fidelity group because they were the ones I needed to talk with.  That’s when I found out they were still (in New Orleans).”

They already knew about the problem and were working on it.  “As I understood it, they used an older version of the program, and any account number that was more than 10 digits long got chopped off.”  Those accounts did not post correctly.

“They assured me that they had it fixed and that the rest would be credited that night.”

Un-mailable payroll checks

However, Soniat still was carrying more than 150 paper checks for employees.  They needed to be folded, stuffed in envelopes and mailed.  “So, I sat my mother-in-law and husband down in a conference room with staplers and got them to seal the checks.”

JANET FOWLER: An HR 'Florence Nightingale' / Photo: Hibernia Corporate Communications

JANET FOWLER: An HR ‘Florence Nightingale’
/ Photo: Hibernia Corporate Communications

Later, Janet Fowler, Shreveport’s HR manager (a Florence Nightingale to the displaced staff), took the envelopes to Hibernia’s mailroom.  However, that was not the end of the problem.

“I had no idea what happened to those checks, but weeks later we were still dealing with problems.”  Eventually she learned they sat in the mailroom, likely because no one knew what to do with them.  Most had New Orleans addresses and the Post Office in the disaster city was out of commission.  Besides, recipients were scattered, many with no temporary addresses.  Moreover, the mailroom did not know whom to tell, since Soniat and others were all at new numbers.  The internal phone directory was useless.

As unpaid employees began to call, Soniat worked out a creative solution with Donna Exnicios, head of Branch Operations.  The employees were instructed to find any open Hibernia branch, where they would be paid directly after Soniat verified the correct amount.  If the employee was not in one of Hibernia’s markets, Soniat instructed them to open an account at any nearby bank and she wire-transferred their pay.

One-person HR department

Soniat settled in quickly at the Command center.  She had a small advantage over others – her husband, in charge of equipment setups — got her a workstation and phone pretty quickly.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tracking down her mother

When Yvette Soniat  left New Orleans, she was pretty sure her 82-year-old invalid mother had been evacuated by the Destrehan nursing home where she was a client to a similar facility in Baton Rouge.  But “during those first couple of weeks (in Shreveport), I was having trouble getting through to the nursing home.”When she eventually tracked down where her mother was, a Baton Rouge friend went to visit her and told Yvette that she was all right.  “She was so sweet to go check.  That was so comforting to know that somebody had actually seen her and that she was in a bed and okay.”

As it turned out, her mother was moved again.  Soniat’s friend “followed her and checked on her (again) for me.”  After three weeks, her mother was brought back to Destrehan, where Yvette was able to visit.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Sometimes I felt like I was out there on my own, and sometimes Mike would say, ‘Well I just need you.  You just gotta do this.  You just gotta do it’.”  The satisfying part was that “… I did do it.  I was proud of myself.  I was very proud that I was able to play a key role.”

“We were allocated one room but were able to take two.  We had three people in each working on tables.  We got telephone numbers established … and my number, which was set up first, went out as the general HR number.  So anything that had to do with HR came to me.  I got calls about paychecks.  I got calls about Mary Sue who was out on leave and needed to know how to go to a doctor.  I got calls about 401(k) plans.  I got calls from people who were supposed to get some emergency relief and didn’t.  I got calls about trying to get prescriptions filled.  It was absolutely anything.”

She was able to handle most of the questions, because she’d had a varied background in HR and overall knowledge of benefits.  Zainey called her a one-person HR department.  “They were coming to her with any and all questions, and she and I would make decisions … She would be my MVP,” he said.

“We were able to regroup HR and provide an HR service within a day of the storm.  We did not miss a beat …”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘Husband brigade’

Yvette and Dave Soniat discussed issues each night.  She told him about Jackie Bruce’s husband, Kenneth, who had been a waiter in New Orleans, but was idle in Shreveport.  They  knew of other similar trailing spouses who had no work.One of the men came and asked, “What can I do to help?”  Dave needed extra hands to set up equipment – hundreds of workstations.  Working with Lynn Callery, an HR recruiter, he hired five or six of the husbands as temps.  They assembled desks, strung cable, set up computers.  Some of them “learned a skill they probably had no background in,” Yvette said, “and as men, they felt useful.  They were getting paid, actually bringing in some money to their families.”

The “husband brigade,” as it was dubbed, continued for about six weeks, until the employees began returning to New Orleans.  “It was one of the best things we could have done,” Yvette thought.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another, Jackie Bruce, had evacuated to Birmingham with her daughter, but her husband stayed behind.  “She called me several times, just hysterical, because she didn’t know if he was dead or alive.  That was hard to deal with – not knowing and not knowing how I could help.  I felt so helpless.”By Labor Day, Soniat had heard from two of her people – Juanette Scott and Lonnie Harmon – who had evacuated to Dallas.  They came to Shreveport the next day.

About a week later, Bruce learned her husband had been rescued from a second-floor window in their home, went to the Superdome and was put on a plane to San Antonio.  “He could have been in Egypt; it was just a world away.”  Eventually, Bruce found a flight for her husband to Birmingham.  Again, at Soniat’s urging, the family drove to Shreveport.  Bruce was a data entry person, important to getting the next payroll out.

By now, the payroll manager realized she would have to figure out how to process the mid-September and maybe even the month-end payrolls from her makeshift operation.  She needed all the help she could get.

Soniat recalled other HR workers who made their way to Shreveport from different places.

GINA BARTON: Human resources information guru 'just took over' / Photo: Unknown

GINA BARTON: Human resources information guru ‘just took over’ / Photo: Unknown

The next day, “She just took over — obtaining PCs and getting data reports from the HR system.”  Soniat said abashedly that Barton was “my savior as far as work goes, and I was probably her rock emotionally.”  Barton’s sister was in Tennessee, her mother in Houston, her father stuck at East Jefferson Memorial Hospital with his wife, a nurse.  She had no word on her house in old Jefferson.Gina Barton, her top Lawson analyst and report writer, called Tuesday after the storm from Jackson, MS.  “I can be there by this evening,” Barton said.

Another, Patrece Poche, an employee benefits person, “showed up probably the second week.  I asked, ‘Patrice, can you work for me?’  She said, ‘I will do whatever you want me to do’.  We got her a hotel room, (and) she became our mailroom person.  Mail from around the company that would normally go to New Orleans HR was rerouted to Shreveport.

“We started establishing some employee relations folks in Lafayette, some in Houston.  We had benefits down in Baton Rouge.  All the mail would come in to Patrice, and she would divvy it up and get it back to the right places.  She served a very incredible role.”

The $1,000 headache

Soon after settling into Shreveport, Soniat had a new task – the $1,000 relief assistance the company decided to pay to employees from the disaster-impact areas.  An early, and woefully short, estimate of the number affected was about 500.  As it turned out, the total was about 3,000.

“That became an absolute monster, and I will never forgive Mike Zainey for it, nor will Janet Fowler,” she said with a wry smile.

“Mike came to me and asked, ‘how are you going to handle this on the payroll side?’ ”

Normally, when Soniat wanted to put money into an employee’s account, she wrote two transaction tickets, similar to those used in the banking offices:  “We debit the general ledger and credit the (checking account), and it gets processed through the Proof department.”

“I thought, ‘Okay, no big deal.  Janet will give me a handful of (requests) every day, and we’ll hand-write the tickets.  We did that for two days.  By the third day, I said, ‘We are automating this puppy’.”

It was a huge benefit to have other groups sandwiched together at the command center, even if it meant they worked in tight quarters.  “Groups were thrown together that did not know each other before.  Rebecca Chauvin, who is an ACH person in Darrell Dragon’s area, was right down the hall.  I saw the little sign on the door that said ACH, and I went over and had a little conversation with Rebecca. ‘If I have a list of accounts and I give you the general ledger account to debit, can I give you a (spreadsheet) file every day of these credits we want to make to employee accounts?’ ”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Finding out about their home

Around Sept. 1, the Dave and Yvette Soniat got a sobering tip about their home in Metairie, when Gina Barton, Yvette’s righthand person, said she had seen their neighborhood on the internet.  There was a submerged car, so the house likely was also under water.  “Dave and I had said, a foot we can deal with.  We can rebuild, no problem.  Two feet, you pretty much also convince yourself that you could deal with.

“Then, my son called us about midday and said, ‘I am in the house’.  We were, like, ‘how bad is it?’  He said, ‘it is perfectly fine’.”  They had wind damage to a fence and trees and a little water in Dave’s office, which was lower than the rest of the house.  “We were unbelievably blessed.”

“I just remember breaking down and crying , and walking through the halls, and there were people working everywhere.  They would say, ‘you got word?  You’re okay?’ And it didn’t matter if those people knew they were in Chalmette and everything they had was gone.  They were so happy when they heard good news.  You felt bad, but it’s almost like everybody needed to have something to go on.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This streamlined things and it gave Soniat an effective way to audit for possible double payments.  A few of these had occurred in the first day or so as requests came to Fowler from Capital One’s disaster call center in Virginia.  If employees did not get their funds quickly, they would call again, and sometimes a second order would come through.  “We had at least 30 overpaid, but we got it all back,” Soniat said.“Sure,” she said.

Overwhelming volume

The volume of requests seemed overwhelming for a time.  “Janet was getting about 100 a day, 300 one day.”  Both Callery, the recruiter, and Poche, the benefits person, helped Fowler.

Very soon after the first hurricane, Soniat went into the personnel system and, using the zip codes identified by FEMA as official disaster areas, applied a code to every employee who lived there.  She did the same for Rita a few weeks later.  This simple but essential information made possible the identification of employees eligible for the emergency funds.

“We had some situations where maybe the person lived in LaPlace, let’s say, or even further out, but they commuted to New Orleans, so their job was affected.”  Others had two addresses, but their residence was in a disaster zip code.

“We had a handful of those, and when we did a little research and I got reasonably comfortable, then we made sure we marked those records as well.”

Time goes by

As days turned into weeks, the emotion and adrenalin of the first week or so dimmed.  At first, “you were pumped to get through the day … it was just emotion.”

KEPT WORKING: Even though HR department would 'disappear' after merger / Photo: Yvette Soniat

KEPT WORKING: Even though HR department would ‘disappear’ after merger / Photo: Yvette Soniat

“Then … you realized you would be there for weeks … and you were starting to see anger among the troops.  I walked down the hall, and a manager pulled me aside and said, ‘What can we do about this?  I’ve got employees wanting to kill each other.’ ” Not only were they working in the most “incredible, awful situation” with one PC lined up next to another with only a chair, “no work space, no privacy, but you also have your entire gut sitting out because your life has been ripped upside down,” Soniat said.

They also began to hear from employees elsewhere who were not affected by the storms.  “Don’t use the hurricane as an excuse,” they said.  Some employees did not understand that, okay, the hurricane is over, but things are not normal for us.”

Soniat and Fowler arranged for Employee Assistance Plan counselors to come in, and Zainey got similar help in other places.

RARE BREAK: HR staff Lynn Callery, Juanette Scott, Yvette Soniat have dinner out / Photo: Unknown

RARE BREAK: HR staff Lynn Callery, Juanette Scott, Yvette Soniat have dinner out / Photo: Unknown

Mid-September pay

Balancing those tense times were a few bright spots.  “Some of the warmest feelings were when the HR folks went out to dinner, and we just shared a glass of wine and a nice meal, and just relished the fact that we were so fortunate to be together and to work for (this) company.  It was pretty cool to feel that, and being an emotional person, I really felt it.”

When the mid-month pay came around, Soniat and Zainey were concerned that something would go wrong, but “We ran the payroll and produced a pay that was as flawless as any that we do.  It was almost eerie.”

RELAXED: Lonnie Harmon, Jeff Howell, Gina Barton / Photo: Unknown

RELAXED: Lonnie Harmon, Jeff Howell, Gina Barton / Photo: Unknown

Month-end headache

The next payroll – at the end of September — was trickier.  Some employees’ pay was mainly commissions and sales incentives calculated each month-end.  But, what if they hadn’t been able to sell anything?  Soniat worked with sales managers and used a 12-month average to pay the telebankers until they could get back to selling.

Pay cut-off

Oct. 1 was also when the company cut off emergency pay to employees who had not tried to return to work.  When they did not get paid, some called angrily to payroll.  Soniat told them to talk to their managers about returning.

From storm to merger

As 2006 unfolded, storm issues began to recede for payroll, only to be replaced by merger ones.  Payroll was to transition to Capital One with the final run on June 30, 2006.  Besides technical issues, which were many, there was the task of helping Soniat’s people find new jobs.  There are “…so many people affected by this, and maybe life as we know it, we will never know it again.  That is very sad,” Soniat said.  (Eventually, some were placed in other positions and in other cities.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘Bernie closet’ 

LYNN CALLERY: Helped clothe employees

LYNN CALLERY: Helped clothe employees

Shreveport employees donated a roomful of clothing, toys and other items for evacuees, most of whom had left with only a few days’ clothes.

The donations were organized by Janet Fowler, Shreveport’s HR manager.  Lynn Callery, an HR evacuee from New Orleans, volunteered to run the “Bernie Closet,” as it was called (named after Hibernia’s mascot).  A senior recruiter, Callery jumped in as donations arrived. 

She organized items so employees could find items that would fit them and their families.  She also pitched in to make payroll phone calls, and she helped set up the “Husband Brigade,” described elsewhere.

THE 'BERNIE CLOSET': Photos: Yvette Soniat

THE ‘BERNIE CLOSET’: Photos: Yvette Soniat

“It was wonderful to see the support they gave each other; also, the donations.  Shreveport people were fabulous,”  said Loan services manager Sally Brink. 

“It kept pouring in, and our folks were able to get clothes and things they needed for themselves and their families, and toys for their kids … They lost everything.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, how did the HR department continue to function as well as it did?  “I just believe that it is something Mike Zainey built.  He built incredible respect and dedication.  I believe that, because all these folks had no other reason to be that dedicated.  It is amazing,” Soniat concluded.How did they do it?

Then, this afterthought from Zainey’s MVP:  “I personally wish I could have been stronger every minute of every day, but it wasn’t possible …”

[1] Human Resources was one of the departments that reported to me as Chief Public Affairs Officer.

[2] Hibernia did not make a special point to track the information, but it had a number of family employees because of a nepotism policy which required only that they not work together or under one another’s supervision.  Management had a firm conviction that its related employees were often among the most effective and loyal.

2 thoughts on “21. Super-human resources

  1. My Name is Dianne Lindsey I started with Hibernia Bank in 1981 separated 2016 I received a appreciation commitment honoring 1000 points to redeem my award for a gift of choice. Its telling me when lodging in I need EID number that I do remember . I have try calling different numbers for assistance and no one seems to know To whom I should talk to . I just need to know how to redeem points. Please send me a number of a person that can assist me with this. I appreciate your assistance and want to also thank Hibernia for the great service and experience they have given me. My phone number is 210-365-3549 my e- mail dlindsey1505@yahoo.com
    Thank you
    Dianne Pichon Lindsey

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