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HR is Not Just a Back-Office Function

Barry Melnkovic became Amtrak's first-ever chief human capital officer in 2016. His challenge was to energize and reshape an HR function that was broken. Human resources at Amtrak was primarily transactional, was reactive rather than proactive, lacked incentives to attract top talent, and had very costly employee benefits. Multiple audits had found major deficiencies in HR structure, programs, and processes.

Melnkovic didn't just come up with his own solutions and try to implement them. He spent hours and days traveling on trains discussing with employees and customers their experiences with Amtrak, asking for ideas about how Amtrak could improve, and familiarizing himself with the numerous jobs necessary for trains to run on time and safely (by doing some of them himself). His vision was to implement a Human Capital Strategic Plan. To do so he traveled to host meetings with Amtrak board members, managers, and employees to describe and educate others about his plan and get their input. His ideas included making sure human resources was involved in strategy development and execution, creating a more results-driven culture, and redoing Amtrak's rewards structure.

Many observers were skeptical that Melnkovic could bring about much-needed changes. Within the HR function, he made the tough decision to replace HR team members with others who were more "bottom-line focused" and were motivated to make a difference. He created a new role to focus specifically on human capital issues such as performance management and succession planning. He created a team—including himself, the CEO, and leaders from operations, information technology, marketing, and sales—to apply lean and Six Sigma techniques to spark continuous improvement in the company. This resulted in reducing the time to fill vacant positions and speeding up processes through which employees file for family and medical leave. Also, the HR function became the only department at Amtrak to receive ISO certification. Melnkovic also created a learning council with company leaders that helped design a customer experience training program designed to improve Amtrak's customers' experience. Finally, he worked with his HR team to change compensation and benefits. He introduced incentives for nonunion employees based on their performance as well as yearly awards to recognize individual and team achievements. Previously, company and individual performance were not considered in annual wage increases. He changed pension and retiree health plans that will save Amtrak more than $1.4 billion over 20 years. These changes were not popular with employees, but to help alleviate concerns, Melnkovic visited numerous Amtrak locations to explain the changes, listen to employees, and answer questions. He followed up his visits with webinars, notes to employees, and other corporate communications.


1.   What competencies and behaviors shown in Figure 1.3 were most important for Melnkovic's success in rebuilding human resources and providing value to Amtrak's business?

2.   How did he build credibility and demonstrate integrity? Explain your answer.

SOURCE: Based on M. McGraw, "Back on Track," Human Resource Executive, October 2016, 14-16,, accessed March 1, 2017.


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Example behaviors: Remains current on relevant laws, legal rulings, and regulations: develops and Example behaviors: utilizes best practices Example behaviors: Demonstrates a capacity for Provides customer service to understanding the business operations organizational stakeholders, and functions within the organization, Human Resource Insures alignment within HR understands organizational metrics Technical Expertise when delivering services and and their relationship to business and Practice Information to the organization success Apply the principles of human resource management to Relationship contribute to the Management Business Acumen success of the Manage Interactions with Understand business business and between others functions and metrics within with the specific goal of the organization and Industry providing service and organizational success Example behaviors: Critical Evaluation Serves as a workforce Example behaviors: Gathers critical Information. Interpret Information to determine Consultation and people management Provide guidance to stakeholders expert. develops makes sound decisions return on Investment and organizational Impact in making such as employees and leaders consultative and based on evaluation of recommendations and business decisions Competencies seeking expert advice on a coaching skills available Information for HR variety of circumstances and Professionals situations Ethical Practice Organizational Leadership and Navigation Integrate core values, Integrity, and accountability Direct Initiatives and throughout all organizational processes within the and business practices organization and gain buy-In from stakeholders Example behaviors: Example behaviors: Maintains confidentiality. Global and Cultural Communications Fosters collaboration, acts with personal, Effectiveness Effectively exchange exhibits behaviors consistent professional, and Manage human and create a free flow with and conforming to the behavioral Integrity resources both within of information with and organization culture and across boundaries among various stakeholders at all levels of the organization to produce meaningful outcomes Example behaviors: Embraces Inclusion. Example behaviors: works effectively with Provides constructive feedback diverse cultures and effectively. helps managers populations communicate not just on HR Issues

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