Summer Olympics An HR Disaster

By Staff Report

Feb. 1, 1997

The trembling hands of boxer Mohammed Ali as he lit the torch. The wavering smile of gymnast Kerri Strug when her painful vault ensured a team gold medal. Terrorism in the Olympic park. Heroism nearly everywhere else. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were a mosaic of emotions—joy, anguish, fear, pride.

Yet we also heard a lot about late buses, misdirected athletes and overheated fans. And heard very little about what the average athlete—not the Janet Evanses, Carl Lewises or Jackie Joyner-Kerseys—were going to do after the Olympics. Workforce (formerly Personnel Journal), which covered the HR for the Olympics pre-Games, takes a look at the situation post-Games.

Olympic firefighting reaches its peak.
Ask Doris Isaacs-Stallworth of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), and she’ll tell you the Olympics handling was “outstanding.” Isaacs-Stallworth, managing director of administration, HR, says the 4,000 ACOG employees did everything in their power to make the Games run like clockwork, and in general succeeded. For instance, beginning in July, the ACOG management team met every single day to sweat over a new to-do list. Each day throughout the Games, the CEO would start the meeting with “hot items,” things that needed immediate attention. Then each of the division representatives would add his or her issues. People would offer help or suggestions. This constant communication ensured a tightly knit management team that would remain cohesive throughout the Olympics. “In our daily meetings I was so impressed with the management team because if there was an issue, say with transportation, people from finance or communications would pitch in to find the right solution and make it happen,” says Isaacs-Stallworth.

With the Games under way, Isaacs-Stallworth shifted into peak firefighting mode. “My main job was to be right here at headquarters making sure people were in place and everything was going smoothly,” she says. The mishaps she encountered included anything from hot meals not being delivered on time to somebody parking a car in the wrong place to five volunteers gone AWOL. HR dealt with it all—everyone on the HR team worked a minimum of 12 hours a day in round-the-clock shifts, so there was always someone at headquarters. If an athlete in the Olympic village needed an HR service at 3 a.m., an HR person was there to provide it.

Meanwhile, the folks over at Atlanta-based Randstad Staffing Services were also in high gear-make that very high gear, since Randstad was responsible for 20,000 workers who served as ticket takers, bus drivers, booth staffers and other lower-level jobs. Similar to the ACOG, every morning the group, led by Debra Drew, vice president and director of Olympic programs, would start with an operations meeting of the “cluster managers,” people in charge of one or two venues, to decide what needed to be addressed.

A communications “central” was staffed 24 hours a day to identify any trends, problems and needs. These were only the big issues, however. Says Drew, “The [venue project managers] were empowered to do what they needed to do. But we were all wired with every communication device known to modern man. So if they weren’t sure of a decision, they had immediate access to someone who could get them through it. For the most part though, whatever someone had to do, they had to do.”

The staff works through media attacks, low morale—and a bombing.
Despite these efforts by the HR staffs, during the Olympics it seemed you couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about some Games glitch. Disoriented drivers caused athletes to be late for events. Excessive crowds were misdirected into the wrong venues. Folks fainted in the wilting heat.

Was this unbiased media reporting? The 1996 Olympics featured more than 15,000 athletes and team officials, 2.5 million spectators, 20,000-plus workers and another 75,000 volunteers. It was the biggest peacetime event in history. And all we hear is harping about the occasional fumbles? It hardly seems fair.

Still, the ubiquitous transportation foul-ups did happen. But the accuracy of the reporting varied depending on whom you talked to. Isaacs-Stallworth blames the skewed perception of reporters. In most of the previous Olympics, media were all housed together in a village environment. Due to Atlanta’s makeup, media professionals covering this Olympics were scattered throughout the city. “The buses had to swing by and get them where they were going. Sometimes there’d be traffic jams, and they wouldn’t get there on time. [These were] normal things that happen, but the reporters weren’t used to it and it upset them,” she says.

Drew—whose company was in charge of hiring the bus drivers—has a different viewpoint. She blames the ACOG for poor planning and handling of the bus drivers. “[The] ACOG did a very bad job in anticipating the number of drivers it was going to need and when the [drivers] would start. Even up until the last minute, [ACOG staff] couldn’t be specific enough with us,” she says. Drew says because of the poor planning, Randstad had to go out around the country to recruit the needed bus drivers.

The fact that Randstad had to recruit drivers from as far away as California became a crisis when, according to Drew, the mayor of Atlanta began changing the bus drivers’ routes on a daily basis. Finally, about a week into the Games, a top Olympics person drew the line. “He said, ‘You’re single-handedly ruining the Games, here buddy,'” says Drew. “No [drivers] started the Games not knowing their routes. But you can’t go changing people’s routes and not give them alternative directions when they’re [not from Atlanta]. That was 90 percent of it.” Once the routes stopped switching, and the ACOG assigned people to ride with the drivers to assist with routing if directions were changed, the situation calmed down.

As for the excessive negative media coverage, Drew also has a theory on that. “The very worst terminal manager that the ACOG had was the one who handled all the media. He didn’t know what he was doing.” It was a very frustrating situation for Drew, since it was her recruits being attacked, yet Randstad had limited control over the drivers’ on-the-job management.

The first week of the Games, morale, understandably, was low among both the Randstad and ACOG staffs. Ironically, both groups say it was the bombing in the park that put everything into perspective. The ACOG immediately whipped into action, creating a team of security, medical, HR and community relations professionals to handle the aftermath of the bombing, and to assist the injured and the family of the slain woman however possible. The finance people worked with the state and city to handle donations also. (The security guard who was under FBI suspicion was not hired by the ACOG; he was hired from a security firm along with other such personnel by one of the Olympic sponsors.) “Everybody just kind of stopped and took inventory on what we were doing. We said, ‘We’re not going to let this hurt us, we’re going to get through this, and these are still going to be the best games ever.’ And they were,” says Issacs-Stallworth.

Drew agrees that employees really rallied. The day after the bombing, every single staffer showed up for work despite the shock. When Drew’s staff turned on the news later, she saw one of her own employees being interviewed. The reporter asked her why she was there; wasn’t she scared? She replied that she wanted to be there because she knew people might need her. “It was really an astounding experience from a personnel [stand]point,” says Drew. “They went so beyond the call of duty.”

The Olympic staffing experience was a good one in general, Drew says. Randstad anticipated a 30 percent staff no-show—people just deciding to quit or not show up. Less than 4 percent did so. “The opportunity to work at the Games just changed peoples’ lives,” she says. “In the end it wasn’t just about giving people a job, it was giving them an experience of a lifetime.”

Outplacement for those who worked the Games.
So what happens when that experience of a lifetime, which you’ve quit a high-level job to do, ends? What do you do when the arena shuts down? If you’re an ACOG employee, you avail yourself of outplacement services through consulting firm Drake Beam Morin Inc. (DBM). Starting in June, DBM opened a career center right in ACOG headquarters, staffed with six counselors who worked with more than 1,000 ACOG employees on resumes, interviewing skills and job-search techniques. The jewel of the career center was the DBM job-lead database, which contained more than 30,000 job leads at any given time. ACOG staffers needed only pull up a chair and input the parameters of their search: the vocational area, desired region and salary level. The database shot out matching job descriptions.

Countries from around the world listed openings in the database, with 100 percent response from all of the Olympics’ sponsoring companies. Many employers called up to say they’d just like to hire someone who had been associated with the Games.

In August, after the Olympics wound down, DBM sponsored a job fair at the ACOG welcome center at the Atlanta airport—the same center used to greet all the dignitaries to the Games. More than 1,000 candidates attended, visiting any of the 175 booths of interested employers, where they could be interviewed on the spot.

Of the 4,034 employees eligible to receive DBM services, 1,964 people used the career center, which closed down at the end of October. The services needed varied widely—from simple access to the database to complete overhaul of resumes for employees who’d left 20-year jobs to work the Games. Carole Seffrin, manager of the career center, was amazed at the sheer range of professionals who walked through her doors. “I worked with a guy one morning; he looked like an ordinary guy. Turns out he not only has an MBA, but a Ph.D., and he’s fluent in English, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Hungarian. The thing is, that [wasn’t] uncommon here.”

All in all, the outplacement was an easy and gratifying experience for the DBM professionals. “The Games have become so prestigious, and these people distinguished themselves in such a way that companies really wanted to hire them,” says Seffrin. “It was electrifying working with these people. It was contagious.”

Outplacement for those who were the Games.
And what about the athletes who were now retiring from Olympic competition? Those whose grins wouldn’t be seen hawking Wheaties or their own lines of sportswear? They had to find jobs. Luckily, DBM also handled athlete outplacement. From mid-August to December, DBM offices hosted one-day Winning Ways workshops in 16 locations nationwide.

Limited to 30 people, the workshops “focused on the athletes’ experiences, characteristics and skills as they moved from the world of sport to the world of work,” explains Barbara Carlson, managing director of the DBM Denver office, with primary responsibilities for the athlete outplacement. Basically, it was about transferring their characteristics as athletes—dedication, commitment, perseverance and focus—into a successful corporate life.

Athletes all the way back to the 1976 Games attended the workshop, which featured several components. Participants received resume assistance and one-on-one counseling, as well as pencil-and-paper assessments to decide how to make the move into the mainstream work world. DBM also invited corporate guests and clients to drop by to help the athletes jump-start their career networking.

Perhaps the most popular attractions were the Olympic presenters, former athletes who volunteered their day, offering testimonials on how they made successful transitions from sports to careers. “They talked about coming ‘off the wall’ and the sense of depression about not having their daily routines of going to the gym or the pool or the track, and [not knowing] where to go next,” says Mary Klever, program consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s athlete support department. “They went through a transition. I don’t want to associate it with death, but they went through a similar new focus and direction. They talked about the steps that needed to be taken next.”

Carlson says these athletes have a lot going for them despite the fact that they may be competing for jobs with candidates who have more years of actual work experience under their belts. DBM encouraged every athlete—most of whom have college degrees—to mention their Olympian experience somewhere on their resumes. The very word Olympian brings to mind positive characteristics.

Still, it’s never an easy day for these athletes. “[They] weren’t going to get the huge contracts representing a product I’m sure many of them dreamed about. In this one day, it’s real hard for anyone to come out and know exactly what he or she is going to do, but I think they got a much stronger sense of [what direction] they can go with the experience they’ve had,” says Carlson.

About 100 athletes attended the seminars, and Klever keeps her fingers crossed for them. “Their lives outside of sport, for many of them, have been nonexistent. Some have only had the opportunity to wait tables or work temp jobs, in which there’s not a lot of [opportunity] to build a career. They have given a tremendous sacrifice for their country to compete at an Olympic level. If they get a chance to just get in the door, I think most CEOs would be very impressed with the caliber of the individual, the quality, commitment and enthusiasm.”

Workforce, February 1997, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 25-31.

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