Joseph Fournier Knows What’s at the Heart of HR

Joseph Fournier is on a mission to make the University of Michigan Health System’s HR department service-oriented, streamlined, and responsive.

The first thing Joseph Fournier noticed when he arrived in Ann Arbor was the tremendous aura of pride for the University of Michigan shared among the city’s residents. “My wife and I were sitting in a restaurant, and almost everyone there had the block M somewhere on their body. It was either a tattoo on their ankle or on their jacket, hat, or backpack. It was amazing,” Fournier recalls. Today, as the University of Michigan Health System’s chief human resources officer, he finds himself cultivating that immense sense of togetherness at a unique organization, which functions as both a healthcare business and an academic institution.

As a healthcare organization, Fournier says the University of Michigan Health System is essentially a service organization focused around people. “Our mission is very special. In other industries, you might make cars or manufacture products. Here, we treat people who are sick and don’t want to be in the hospital, and we provide care to our community,” he explains. “We also educate the caregivers of tomorrow and do a lot of research to discover cures for disease, as well as treatments for people who are ill. That adds another layer of complexity to what we do. It’s a different sort of business model; we’re in a people business.”

Fournier channels this person-centric perspective into his philosophy as head of human resources and, along with the executive leadership and his team, has helped implement a comprehensive HR transformation at the 200-year-old institution.

“Our overarching strategy is fairly simple. It’s something you may hear from a lot of HR people, but I think the way we do it here in the context of academic healthcare is very important. We want to attract, inspire, and develop really outstanding people in medicine, science, and healthcare so that we can be one of the best in the world,” Fournier says.

In order to accomplish this, Fournier and his team focus on streamlining and building a culture of personal engagement in the workplace. He places emphasis on creating an inclusive and safe environment for employees so that they can experience engagement, wellness, and intellectual freedom through a shared vision. “I think that when people work together, we come to the best solutions,” he says. “When you give people the chance to put their talent out there, they do remarkable and amazing things. We just have to give them the opportunity and harness that.”

After graduating from high school, Fournier became the first person in his family to attend college. Initially earning a degree in finance, he decided law was a better fit and went on to earn his JD. But he had always harbored aspirations of joining the military, so he found a way to do both by becoming a member of the US Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he served for more than seven years. While there, Fournier worked on developing his service-oriented approach to leadership. “In the military, it was about watching others further the best interests of our nation and the world, and that was very humbling to me,” he says. “Seeing that taught me to value humility and the needs of others over myself. To me, being a leader is instilling that value in my organization.”

While many employees may associate HR at large institutions with inefficient and inconvenient paperwork or prescriptive behavioral policies, Fournier sees the department as poised to advocate for the needs of his team and solicit input to make the workplace a sought-after destination for employees. He regularly makes rounds through all units of the company to talk to people in their different roles. “When we’re making decisions in the conference room, sometimes it’s really easy to look at data and to assume that our people will go along with a business decision. For me, I feel that I’m there in my role to really represent the interests of our people by asking how those decisions will impact our employees,” Fournier says. “We’re not here to tell people how it’s going to be, although we need to be excellent in the traditional transactional work that HR always does. We’re really here to shepherd the work around people and partnership with our employees and our leaders at all levels within the organization.”

For Fournier, human resources is a venue that enables the University of Michigan Health System to challenge itself and maintain its position on the cutting edge of healthcare by attracting and developing the best talent. The overarching reason for this is to promote beneficial medical research and discoveries that can affect patients’ lives, and possibly the world as a whole.

This initiative becomes particularly important as the healthcare industry is changing, according to Fournier. “If you’re going to be the leader and the best at something, it means that you can’t be complacent and you have to transform as the world around you does,” he says. “Our industry is moving from a model where you treat people when they come to the hospital and are sick to keeping our communities and our population healthy so that they don’t have to come to the hospital. And that’s really transformational for both the healthcare industry and for us.”

That transformation has shown through national recognition. In 2015, the University of Michigan Health System was named number one in the State of Michigan and number eleven in the country on the U.S. News & World Report list of “Best Hospitals.” In 2014, 493 UMHS doctors were named best in their fields by Best Doctors, Inc.’s list of “Best Doctors in America.”

Fournier is proud of those distinctions, but he explains that it’s important to keep a mind-set of continuous advancement and to move at the same speed at which the industry moves. “It would be easy for me to say, ‘We’re the best at HR,’ but I think the goal for us is really to be the best at getting better. That means that we’re always trying to get better and we’re always making improvements.”