Talent Strategy

Deirdre Evens revamped Clean Harbors’ HR function to create a team capable of meeting the current and future needs of the company. A look at her process, step by step

Deirdre Evens , executive vice president of human resources for Clean Harbors

1. Pitch the Process

For many years, Clean Harbors had a tactical HR function. Four executives oversaw different divisions: Deirdre Evens was in charge of compensation and leadership development, someone else focused on training and recruitment, still another headed up payroll and benefits, and the company’s chief counsel worked in HR’s business partner function. Clean Harbors’ CEO recognized the need to overhaul this model in 2011 during the company’s rapid growth, and he planned to hire a new person to spearhead the process. Evens’s first step was to sell the idea of how the reconstruction should develop to her CEO and board. With a background in business rather than human resources, she knew which ideas would appeal to them. She created a two-slide PowerPoint illustrating how the new HR department would function and a list of strategic mandates that her boss could expect from her over the next couple of years. He was excited by her proposal, and she was named to the new position.

2. Get Up To Speed on Trends

Evens considers herself fortunate: when she was named executive vice president of human resources, her CEO sent her to the University of Michigan’s Strategic Human Resources Management program.

The three-week course gave Evens the necessary background and current trends from the world’s leading thought leaders in human resources, information that she didn’t have beforehand, having come from an engineering and business background. She also met chief human resources officers from major companies around the world, and she learned about the challenges companies are facing everywhere.

3. Collect Information From Across the Enterprise

When Evens returned from Michigan, she began a 90-day process of diving into the functions Clean Harbors already had and identifying what needed to change. She met with every person she would oversee across the company in both the United States and Canada. She completed one-on-one interviews to help her understand what worked, what didn’t, and what was needed going forward.

4. Meet with Executive Leaders

Next, Evens met with members of the executive staff and their direct reports. She presented a different set of questions designed to capture their true perceptions of human resources. She knew that without their insight on what had been done in the past, she wouldn’t be able to build what they envisioned for the future.

5. Design a New Operating Model

After sorting through data from weeks of interviews, Evens was able to build a strategic model that allowed her to organize and define the role of human resources in Clean Harbors’ corporate strategy. She presented her findings and ideas about organization and management to the executive team, and they were thrilled. It was exactly what they wanted and exactly what the company needed.

6. Bring the Right Talent On Board

Over the course of the first 12 months, Evens turned over between 60–70 percent of the existing human resources teams. She moved employees and reorganized the department’s structure, and she brought on new talent. She looked for people with functional experience in human resources who also had the skill set to work as partners to the business. A fast-paced work ethic grounded in business know-how was essential to Evens’s new vision for the group.

In December 2013, Clean Harbors acquired a company of 5,000 employees, growing the company’s staff by more than 50 percent. The two companies integrated their HR function, processes, and personnel. Evens took the best from both companies in terms of skill sets, processes, and culture. “We were made better, ultimately, as a result,” she says.

7. Remain Agile as You Move Forward 

Evens isn’t done redefining Clean Harbors’ HR department. She took the company from a function that was severely outdated—it had been using a model that was popular in the 1980s and 1990s—into the 21st century. Now, Clean Harbors needs to continue to grow. 

It is an innovative company, Evens says, that leverages its proprietary systems and technologies to differentiate themselves in the market. She is currently implementing technology that will help the company discern the HR function in two ways: by redefining the progression, advancement, and pay strategy of the hourly workforce; and in the management of the overall employee lifecycle, with initial focus on hiring and onboarding. Starting at the end of 2014, she plans to unveil strategic workforce planning.

“Clean Harbors is a fast-paced, high-growth company in some very competitive markets,” Evens says. “Our mission in HR is to identify, attract, and retain the talent we need to stay ahead of the market and meet our strategic objectives. Our HR function will continue to evolve and grow. It’s part of our culture.”