Lara Barley is Director of Human Resources at Family Service of Greater Vancouver, a non-profit organization that provides diverse services in the social services sector in the Greater Vancouver Area. She brings 18 years of Human Resource experience working in the health sector supporting diverse portfolio areas including acute care, mental health, and geriatric care. In her former role with Provincial Health Services Authority, she was responsible for the strategic planning, management and delivery of human resource services for the organization. Lara holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Bachelor of Laws degree , both from the University of Manitoba.
How did you get into your career in HR?
I had a roundabout route into HR. When I got my BA in psychology, I was left wondering what my career path should look like. I didn’t like doing research so I couldn’t see myself doing grad school and becoming an academic. Law seemed like a good fit because growing up in my family we were all big debaters. So I went to law school and then started worked for a law firm. A couple of years into that job, I did a road trip to Vancouver and happened by chance to meet my now-husband there. I made the decision to move from Manitoba and remain in BC. With little money after paying my first month’s rent, I was anxious to find a new job and fast. Luckily, I got hired on as a consultant for Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) to help them with a labour arbitration that was going on at that time between with the BC Nurses’ Union. After that case was underway, I was offered a role with the HR team at VGH, first in Work Design and then in a Labour Relations capacity. I’ve been working in HR since then for the last 20 years.
How have your law and psychology degrees helped you in your career in HR?
My degrees opened doors. My law degree especially gave me a big advantage in the beginning of my career. I was able to seize the opportunity at VGH because I had previous legal experience working on labour relations cases. Most people in HR don’t have a background in law, but it’s useful for certain aspects of HR work like employment contracts, labour relations, and general legal issues. That’s why larger professional associations love to hire “baby lawyers” [i.e., newly licensed lawyers with 0-3 years of experience]. Having said that, a law degree isn’t necessary for a successful career in HR. There are many other areas like recruitment and training & development that don’t require any experience in law. Even in areas like labour relations, HR professionals who specialize in their work will grow a strong level of subject matter expertise.
My psychology degree, though not as directly relevant to my job as my law degree, has been useful to me as well. I like working with people, thinking about the way people think, and dealing with complex people problems like generating creative solutions and resolving conflicts. Psychology lends itself well to that kind of work because it trains you to think with nuance. People tend to think that HR and legal work is black-and-white, but that’s rarely the case. Legal cases are decided by the system of common law and legal precedent, and a lot of that involves interpreting and debating how those laws and precedents apply to the current case. You need to be good at looking into cases and building an argument for why your interpretation of the law is correct. When you look at labour relations, decisions and agreements with other parties aren’t simply made one way or the other. There’s lots of back-and-forth negotiations and compromise. All of that requires having a deep understanding of people and issues.
You’ve spent a lot of time doing HR in the healthcare and social services industries. How does being an HR professional in those fields compare to being an HR professional in industries that people more typically associate with HR, like retail and finance?
I’ve never done HR in the retail or finance sectors so I can’t say how doing HR there compares to doing HR in health and social services, but what I can say is that I have loved working in the public sector. I have loved the diversity of the workforce and the complexity of the HR practice. I have been very lucky to support extremely dedicated and hardworking professionals including doctors, nurses, social workers and other skilled workers and administrators running 24/7 operations where people’s lives are at stake. Add in the technicians, cleaners, and other support staff; that’s a lot of employees that you’re responsible for as an HR professional.
So knowing how to stay cool when the going gets tough definitely helps. That holds true as much for the healthcare sector as it does for the social services sector, which is where I am now with Family Service of Greater Vancouver. There are actually a lot of parallels between the two sectors. In healthcare, I was working directly with doctors and nurses who treated vulnerable and at-risk patients. Now in social services, I’m working with counsellors and youth workers who help troubled youths and victims of violence. And what attracted me to work in both sectors is that at the end of the day, staff are so committed, hard working and engaged in the work they do. You can’t put a dollar value on that.
What’s been the most memorable moment in your career so far?
One experience that stands out in my memory was the closing of Riverview Hospital. The BC Government decided to close the hospital and transfer the patients to other health facilities in order to provide psychiatric care closer to patients within their communities. Closing Riverview Hospital was a thoughtful long transition that occurred over many years. The whole process was planned out well in advance. On the staffing side, a lot of change management went in to supporting staff to transition to other health care facilities in the sector. We also did a big education piece around retirement planning and had strategies to support staff who wanted to retire. Others who wanted to continue working were relocated to other facilities, and some were retrained for new jobs when there were no available openings for their positions. Closing the hospital was an understandably emotional event for many of the staff. There were actually entire generations of family members that had worked together there; shutting down the hospital represented a big shift for some of the staff.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to get into HR?
Education is essential. I generally see two types of people ; one type is those who got into their HR jobs without the schooling. They start in to the HR field more by chance and can do more routine HR work, but if they want to move up to a more advanced role like advisor or specialist, generally they need more education. The other type is people who already have a degree in HR but decide they want to take specialized training or practicum courses for their jobs. The HR courses at some of the local colleges like BCIT are generally really good, even for those who already have some experience or education. You should also join your regional and national HR professional associations, and read HR journals and magazines if you want to stay up-to-date with the latest HR practices and trends.
I also encourage people to try all types of HR work to broaden their knowledge and experience of the field. Smaller firms have their HR staff focus almost exclusively on recruitment, onboarding, and maybe payroll, so you’ll need to find work in a larger organization if you want to move around to different areas of HR or specialize in a particular role. I hear a lot of people say they hate working in HR after being in a generalist role for a year or two. My take would be they don’t perhaps hate HR. They may not prefer recruiting, or whatever has been taking up the majority of their time – if that is the case then they should try something else in the HR world. They might discover they actually love doing labour relations or compensation.
Being curious is a very important part of a good HR practitioner — I encourage people who work on my team to challenge the status quo in HR. Constantly ask the question: “Why are we doing this?” Questions can go a long way to shake up and improve a work environment that is stale or even stagnant.
HR aside, one thing I wish we could do as a society is to have someone take high school students aside for an hour to ask them some basic questions about what kind of work they want to do. Do they want to be out in the field or be sitting in an office? Would they prefer having a steady 9-5 schedule, working part-time gigs, or freelancing? Do they like working with people or do they prefer working alone, or with technology? I believe if you figure out what fundamental aspects of work life are important to you for your long-term happiness and pursue a career that fills those needs, that’s more or equally important to finding the job or the right sector — especially for the youth that are coming up behind us.
Want to learn more about Lara? Check her out on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/larabarley/