Faculty Spotlight: Globetrotting Exec Marcelline Babicz on How to Speak the Language of Business in HR

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Marcelline Babicz

Photo: Marcelline Babicz

Marcelline Babicz has traveled the globe, working with businesses and government organizations to introduce organizational changes that reach across the barrier of cultural differences.

She was working on organization development as head of the human resources department of a Tennessee consumer goods plant when she was recruited by an oil and gas joint venture in Siberia. Intrigued and excited, she packed her bags and headed to Russia.

It would be the first of several international posts, as word spread in the international business community about her expertise and skill in multicultural organization change. She would later spend time working in the United Kingdom and Malaysia, and she spent years living and working in Qatar.

Babicz also caught the eye of the U.S. government. Her clients include the Federal Aviation Administration, various U.S. embassies and the U.S. Department of State.

She is now back on U.S. soil and is a PhD candidate in International Relations. Professor Babicz is excited to join the USC Bovard College faculty as an adjunct professor in the MSHRM program.

Read on to learn more about Babicz and how her international travels have influenced her career.

How did you get started in HR?

I consider myself an accidental HR person. I actually went into organization development. I had soon after college started working for the Chicago Tribune as a strikebreaking typesetter after all of their unions went on strike. They quickly promoted me to be quality manager and create a quality program for the newspaper.

I realized there was more to it than just measuring the paper. It was everything that OD was about. The OD consultant said, “You’re talking about OD,” and I said, “What’s OD?” I realized that fit my worldview, so I went and got my Master’s in OD.

To me, what that means is overall effectiveness of the organization. That means looking at all the parts: the people, the processes, the socio-technical systems and determining how to make everything work better.

My particular area is international and multicultural organizations. For me, that adds an additional layer to OD. Cultural differences can be ethnic, they can be gendered, they can be one’s field. Have you tried to get an engineer, a finance person and an HR person to talk together? To me, that is all part of culture.

I left the Tribune to go get my master’s in organization development. After that, I was recruited to do OD work for a company called James River, which started as a paper company, but was really a consumer products company. I spent about six years there.

They promoted me to be HR/OD manager at a plant in Tennessee and that’s how I ended up doing HR.

How does your specialty — international organization development — play a role in the current climate?

There is very little that is purely domestic anymore. Maybe you work in a local city hall. The business of a city hall is the business of the city. Well you probably have people from outside the U.S. working there.

At minimum, an awareness and understanding of cultural differences and how to deal with them is going to face most people in the workplace today, regardless of what kind of work and where you are.

In the bigger picture, everything is getting more global. No matter how some people say we have to stop globalization, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

What that means is we’re going to be faced with dealing with other cultures in the workplace whether we are overseas, or whether we’re working in what seems to be a very local organization in the U.S.

And so I think one of the things I try to do with my students, is I always try to get them [to understand] the implications for the organization as a whole… to try and make sure that they step back and get a helicopter view of whatever situation they are dealing with. To make sure they are not down in the trenches thinking about writing a policy without taking into consideration the bigger picture.

What did you learn about business from living overseas?

It took my 5 years of living in the Middle East to realize that while I could explain and even predict behaviors, it was more of an intellectual exercise than a gut-level exercise. Because I would never truly see the world the way all these other people that were different than me saw the world. That was actually hard to accept. Because, I thought, I understand culture, I understand people, I understand what makes them tick. But it created a barrier between me and people in a different culture that I thought wasn’t there, but I think just by our nature as human beings, will always be there.

I think the more we learn and understand and try to reach across the barrier we’ll be very successful and happy and be able to deal with people. But the barrier… is always going to be there because we are so different in many ways, depending on the cultures you come from.

Trying to break down the barrier or not acknowledging the barrier limits you. Reaching through it, reaching across it and understanding those differences is what makes it possible to successfully work together.

What are some of the biggest challenges to corporations and organizations, HR wise?

One of the biggest challenges is still the perception both within the field and outside of the field that HR is transactional. Programs like the MSHRM at Bovard and other programs that are trying to promote developing strategic HR professionals, are helping.

But I think there are so many people who have been in organizations for years and years — and either HR professionals themselves or people who have to deal with HR — they see HR as a barrier, as a “Department of No,” the department of rigid policies, as opposed to strategic partners in the business, in the organization.

How can the HR managers of the future change that perception?

Learn to speak the language of management, not just the language of HR. The language of management includes the language of numbers, understanding the impact of everything that HR does in relation to the business as a whole.

I have many students now who write papers on how important diversity and inclusion is, and organizations really should be doing more about diversity and inclusion. And I say “How much is it going to cost?” And the first response quite often is “Well, whatever, they need to do it.”

And I’ll say, well the people who are responsible for the money side of the organization it aren’t going to say, “Just because it feels good, okay let’s do it.” Learn how to speak the language of, “Okay if we do this, here are the potential benefits to the organization in a tangible as well as an intangible way.”

What are you going to be teaching at Bovard and why are you excited about it?

I’m teaching Organization Design. I’m excited about it because typically you see it more in an OD program than an HR program. OD is my conceptual home, so I’m going to enjoy talking about it and getting people to look at different ways of looking at an organization and how to make them better — coming back to my roots, in a way.

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