Cirque du Soleil’s Balancing Act

By Cindy Waxer

Jan. 5, 2005

For the past year, Cirque du Soleil’s employees have been feverishly preparing for the February debut of Ka, the latest resident show in Las Vegas, as well as the launch of Cirque 2005, a new touring spectacle scheduled to begin in Montreal in late April.

    Juggling two major openings is just one of the feats the Montreal troupe’s human resources team performs on a daily basis, far from the applause the performers hear. The global human resources group is scattered across offices in Montreal, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, Netherlands, and oversees 3,000 employees who represent 40 nationalities and 25 languages.

    Of those employees, more than 700 are the shows’ artists, impassioned performers who might not literally live for today but don’t spend a lot of time planning for their post-Cirque future. Cirque’s human resources team also is still dealing with the residual effects of an HIV discrimination lawsuit filed in April 2004.

    Cirque du Soleil has grown dramatically since its founding in 1984. Then, it was nothing more than a gaggle of fire-breathing, stilt-walking street-theater performers. Today, it’s a $500 million entertainment empire with nine different tours and five resident shows.

    Cirque believes its unique approach to managing a worldwide workforce that runs the gamut from acrobats to administrative staff suits its business approach. “Guy Laliberte (Cirque du Soleil’s founder) says that we reinvented the circus,” says Suzanne Gagnon, vice president of human resources. “But sometimes you have to reinvent HR.”

    Fueling this transformation is the decentralization of Cirque’s human resources team. In the past, the company’s Montreal headquarters oversaw the recruitment and management of employees in all three locations. While Montreal remains Cirque’s human resources hub, the Amsterdam office now includes five professionals whose job it is to support the European tours. And an eight-person team in Las Vegas works with nearly 1,000 employees based there. A full-time human resources professional accompanies each of Cirque’s touring shows to help with such issues as insurance coverage, immigration and work/life balance.

Bridging cultures
    Improved access to talent was only part of the motivation for granting Las Vegas its own human resources office. Gagnon says the primary purpose was to build an all-American team with an in-depth knowledge of U.S. labor laws. As Cirque’s U.S. numbers multiplied, the company realized it couldn’t depend on its Montreal office to understand the complexities of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s rules, or the peculiar cultural sensitivities of an American work environment.

    For example, Gagnon points out that while kissing good friends and co-workers on both cheeks is de rigueur along the cobblestone streets of Montreal, such behavior could be considered a form of sexual harassment in the United States. And then there are the semi-nude photos of Cirque performers that currently hang on the walls of the company’s Montreal headquarters. In deference to America’s stringent laws on pornography, sexual harassment and obscenity, Gagnon says those photos would never see the light of day in Las Vegas.

    “Although Las Vegas is called Sin City, what is considered by American citizens to be offensive or harassment has a very different definition than in some other countries,” she says.

    Despite this decentralized approach to workforce management, Cirque has taken steps to ensure that the company functions as a unified whole, bonded by a common set of workforce principles and practices. Montreal headquarters calls all the shots when it comes to drafting policies, processing insurance claims and handling immigration issues.

    It’s a difficult endeavor given that many of Cirque’s employees spend a good portion of the year hopping from foreign country to foreign country.

    In the absence of any company policy, Cirque’s touring show employees would be covered by the laws of whatever country they happen to be working in at the time, Gagnon says. For example, a pregnant employee touring in China would only be eligible for China’s own maternity leave and benefits.

    Because factors ranging from maternity leave to health benefits can differ dramatically from country to country, Cirque opted to level the playing field.

    Gagnon says that “if the application of regulations doesn’t seem sufficient to us, then we establish a minimum standard.” Using this as a starting point, further adjustments can be made based on how long an employee has been working in a particular country and their cultural expectations of a health care program.

    Cirque also has unified its recruitment processes. For years, Gagnon says that filling a position meant having to sift through “beautiful piles” of the nearly 50,000 résumés received annually. Frustrated with the volume, the company turned to staffing management provider Taleo for help. Deployed in early 2004, Taleo’s Web-based tool allows candidates to apply for positions online.

    In turn, Cirque can manage the recruitment process electronically, from first contact to final hire. And because Taleo provides a single online source of talent, the staff based in Las Vegas can read through résumés submitted by applicants based in Montreal and Europe, thereby broadening the pool of candidates.

Because our artists are so passionate and so intense, you have to work things a little differently. You can’t just hope to put together a traditional career planning program and have them go with the flow.

When spotlight fades
    Setting policies and sorting résumés is only half the battle for Cirque. Managing adults who have made a career out of running away with the circus comes with its own set of challenges. There is currently no sign of the artists vs. management skirmishes that plagued Cirque in the late ’80s. Instead, Cirque deals with contortionists and trapeze artists who refuse to accept that one day they’ll have to bow out of the spotlight.

    Crossroads, a career transition program launched in 2003, helps employees plan for their post-performing years. The program assists artists in identifying alternate career avenues by using Cirque’s own expertise in the backstage aspects of the entertainment business. For example, if an artist is considering a career in stage management, the transition team will arrange an in-person consultation between the artist and one of the company’s stage management employees. This employee will then offer feedback and guidance on what steps the artist needs to take in order to qualify for a position.

    Cirque is also well-versed in what courses or training artists need if they decide to explore careers as fitness coaches, naturopaths or makeup art-ists. And the company is in the process of videotaping veteran artists as they share their thoughts on what career moves have or have not proved successful over the years.

    “Because our artists are so passionate and so intense, you have to work things a little differently,” Gagnon says. “You can’t just hope to put together a traditional career planning program and have them go with the flow.”

    Not all departures from Cirque have occurred as smoothly as the company’s human resources team would like. In April, Cirque paid a record $600,000 to end an HIV discrimination complaint filed by Matthew Cusick, a performer who was fired last year because he has HIV. The settlement not only marked the maximum allowed for a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, but mandated that the circus provide anti-discrimination training to all of its employees and that its records remain open to the EEOC for two years.

    But what began as an incident that could have permanently tarnished Cirque’s reputation as an all-inclusive, gay-friendly organization has since evolved into a unique set of HR policies and practices. “The case called (Cirque’s gay-friendly image) into question for a lot of folks, and justifiably so,” says Hayley Gorenberg, Cusick’s attorney and deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, a gay and lesbian civil rights organization. But, she adds, Cirque has “showed a certain willingness on their part to be fully engaged in making the changes that they need to make.”

    Prior to the settlement, Cirque worked with the EEOC’s San Francisco branch to revise its nondiscrimination policy. And the company hired Dr. Rejean Thomas, an expert on HIV and blood pathologies, to travel to the circus’ sites worldwide to give cast, crew and management two-hour courses about the nature of HIV and other blood diseases, such as hepatitis C.

    In addition, Cirque’s human resources team participated in full-day training sessions during which legal experts educated them on the most recent discrimination laws and what obligations employers face under these regulations.

    Looking back on the unfortunate incident, Gagnon says: “It’s too bad that it did happen, but I think we have better management practices today.”

    By taking swift action, Cirque has managed to walk away from the incident with its reputation-and workforce-intact, says Ernest Albrecht, author of The New Circus, which examines the state of the modern American circus. “The artists understand that this was just an isolated incident and that this is not an ongoing way of dealing with (HIV-infected performers) by management.”

    Despite its efforts to improve how it manages its specialized workforce, Cirque has a host of live-entertainment rivals competing for the same talent and audience dollars.

    “Ten years ago, Cirque du Soleil was the only game in town,” says Dan J. Martin, director of the Master of Entertainment Industry Management degree program at Carnegie Mellon University. “Now, there are all kinds of variations on French-sounding names that build off the (same model).”

    In response, Cirque’s Montreal-based team of talent scouts has broadened its scope. Some recently visited South Africa to investigate talent there, and Cirque continues to court Olympic athletes who wish to parlay their gold medals into Cirque’s glittering productions.

    Cirque’s global human resources team is happy to leave the headhunting to the scouts. As curtain time draws near for the company’s latest endeavors-Ka and its 2005 touring show-the team is busy with the job of running a troupe unlike any other.

Workforce Management, January 2005, p. 52-53Subscribe Now!

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