Growing up on the island of Jamaica, Denise Townsend always went along when her mother volunteered in the community. Those early outings taught Townsend the power of giving back to others, a lesson that she has carried with her throughout her life. Much like her mother, who serves as president of the local Kiwanis club in her retirement, Townsend volunteers on a regular basis as an adult, at venues such as her own church and the community food pantry.
“It isn’t any secret that volunteering is good for the soul,” Townsend says. “It gives me a sense of purpose, making a difference in someone’s life.”
Considering her appreciation for interacting with and helping out those around her, it’s little surprise that Townsend ended up pursuing a career in HR. “I have an innate ability to listen and to get people to confide in me,” she explains. “In a way, HR chose me before I realized that I had chosen HR.”
Townsend, now chief human resources officer at water engineering firm Hazen and Sawyer, came to the United States in 1989 to study business administration and accounting at New York Institute of Technology. After completing a master’s degree in HR management and labor relations at the same institution, she worked for three years as an HR associate at antenna manufacturer Dorne & Margolin before joining Philips Electronics North America as an HR generalist.
“I had to learn quickly how to be sensitive to and aware of employees’ needs and desires while maintaining an impartial stance, especially when communicating or explaining the rationale behind our organizational policies,” says Townsend of her role at Philips. By the end of her seven years at the company, she had not only honed her HR skills, but also developed a talent for multitasking and balancing a varied workload.
In between her Philips position and her current one at Hazen, Townsend held two consecutive roles in the legal industry, first at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy and then at Kelley Drye & Warren. Her expertise saw her promoted at each firm, to HR manager and director of HR, respectively.
Townsend still views her jump to Hazen in 2019 as a leap of faith, even now that she’s settled into her role as chief human resources officer. Hazen employs upward of one thousand people nationwide, many of whom are numbers-driven engineers. Although Townsend has increased her use of hard data as a result, her overarching strategies remain founded on her decades of HR experience, through which she understands better than most the crucialness of adaptability. “No two days in HR are alike,” she admits. “But I have always loved the variety and the challenges that come with the job.”
To tackle those challenges, Townsend strives to lead by example. She applies a hands-on approach to problem-solving, inspiring employees to assist her in addressing issues by showing them her own commitment to doing so.
The effectiveness of Townsend’s approach, which also features an open-door policy and emphasizes accessibility and transparency, is evident from her implementation of multiple company-wide initiatives during her time thus far at Hazen. Among her accomplishments, she put into place an interim review of new hires at the conclusion of their first ninety days at the firm as well as an across-the-board respectful workplace training program. Both initiatives facilitate employees’ successful integration into the company while ensuring a cohesive onboarding process at every office.
“Passion is the one emotion that I always come back to when I think about HR. I’m truly passionate about the work that I do.”
In addition, as chair of the Recruitment & Retention Committee, Townsend spearheaded Hazen’s response to the calls for greater diversity and inclusion that sounded across the United States in 2020. Townsend, along with other committee members, developed and presented to the board a proposal of steps that the firm could take to meet those calls. The first step was to engage an outside consulting firm to identify areas needing improvement and to make recommendations to Hazen based on an in-depth assessment. The board approved this assessment along with several of other ideas, including creating a part-time D&I coordinator position and adjusting recruitment practices to expand opportunities for people of color.
Townsend further redefined her priorities for 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of continuing to focus on optimizing Hazen’s management training program and HR system as planned, she decided to concentrate above all else on keeping the firm’s employees safe and healthy, a shift in thinking that led to the approval of an employee assistance program launching December 1, 2020. “If we can provide a program to help alleviate employees’ anxiety and stress levels, that’s much more important than achieving our original goals,” she says.
Her attitude toward Hazen’s employees reflects the compassion that she exercises in all areas of her life. But, in her eyes, compassion cannot be complete without passion. “Passion is the one emotion that I always come back to when I think about HR,” she says. “I’m truly passionate about the work that I do.”