You know you’ve come to a challenging work environment when, shortly after you arrive, resignations leave you with a skeleton staff of strangers and you have to put yourself on the payroll because no one else knows how.
Just ask Deborah Flores, human resources administrator of the College of Engineering and recipient — quite appropriately — of a 2007 Distinguished Staff Award.
And you also know you’ve done well when, a few years later, people say such things as John Hughes, a human resources specialist in the college, said in his nomination letter for Flores: “Today .. we have remarkably productive meetings, we accomplish amazing feats of administrative wizardry, and we work together as a team. We attribute these dramatic mprovements to Debbie’s influence.”
Such glowing praise is commonplace for this exceptional employee, who came to the UW in 2000 after spending 15 years at Bank of America in the high-octane world of corporate human resources. She’s the go-to person for both personal and personnel matters at the College of Engineering — the one people come to with problems and tough conversations of all kinds.
This is well supported by her nomination letters for the prestigous campuswide award. Eve Riskin, associate dean of academic affairs for the college and director of the ADVANCE program that promotes the work of women in engineering, wrote that Flores works closely, effectively and discreetly with the various chairs in the college on their own personnel challenges.
She added, “One time a chair said to me, ‘I spend many hours in Debbie’s lap.’”
That’s a joke, of course, but it expresses a truth: That Flores is a highly talented and compassionate communicator. Hughes wrote, “She is, without a doubt, THE person in the college for difficult situations. In fact, hers is the first number most people call when a problem arises (even if it has nothing to do with human resources).”
Another nomination letter suggested, “Perhaps a more appropriate title for her would be Senior Administrator Extraordinaire.”
But it’s not just Flores’ long professional human resources experience that makes her excel at her job, it’s also her approach to any interaction with a fellow worker. “You have to be prepared to listen, and also to treat the person with dignity and respect,” she said.
To know Flores is to know that this bears repeating. And Dean Matthew O’Donnell of the College of Engineering and Mani Soma, professor of electrical engineering and associate vice provost for research, do exactly that in a dual nomination letter, saying, “She promotes and protects the dignity of all faculty, staff and students, thereby creating a more positive academic culture for all.”
Nominator Hughes wrote, “Debbie has shown us that dignity means giving employees a voice, making sure all sides are explored, providing a transparent and honest work environment and treating employees with compassion and respect. She unfailingly demonstrates this in her work, and we have benefited tremendously from her example.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Flores avoids the difficult moments that are part of human resources work. She keeps flexibility and creative solutions in mind, but also knows that the college’s work must go on. In dealing with challenging relationships, she said, “I tell them, ‘Realistically, you’re probably not going to change (the other individual). Can you live with the situation and be happy with that?’ If not, we work on other options.”
Flores has helped solve problems by convening cross-college “Project Improvement Teams.” She has helped to defuse instances where workplace violence has been threatened. She has saved her college thousands of dollars by streamlining administrative procedures. Dean O’Donnell wrote, “There is not an area in the College of Engineering Dean’s Office, and in many instances (its) units, that she has not touched.”
And through it all she remains a creative and calming influence in her workplace, always with respect for others at the forefront of her thoughts. “You can’t have an ego in this job, because it’s about helping others.” She added, “You can’t be afraid to be wrong. I’m not perfect — I make mistakes like the next guy. When I do, I apologize and try to move forward.”
She returns the praise of the many who spoke highly of her, saying, “The people in the College of Engineering are very conscientious and hard-working. It’s a high-energy college. We have high-energy deans and we get a lot done.”