As both general counsel and human resources director at Precision Resource Inc., Joe Tristine recognizes that he has an unusual role.
“I get a lot of upturned heads and furrowed eyebrows,” he says, laughing. “The idea was to have somebody with a legal background be involved at an early stage in any employment or HR-related issues that might percolate into larger legal issues. The president at the time thought I had the personality, demeanor, and interpersonal skills to handle both sides.”
Prior to arriving at Precision Resource more than seventeen years ago, Tristine earned his JD at the UCLA School of Law, then returned to his hometown of Shelton, Connecticut—where Precision’s corporate office is located—to clock in six years at Wiggin and Dana LLP. His work at the law firm tended to focus on mergers and acquisitions, commercial issues, and corporate governance, all of which would come into play at Precision Resource.
It was the HR half of his job where Tristine needed a bit of an education.
“Performance management, employee engagement, compensation, and benefits are all straight-up HR responsibilities that I had no experience with before coming to Precision Resource,” Tristine explains. “Those were all areas of the job that I had to learn.”
“You cannot combine both of these roles without having a high degree of versatility and a willingness to learn new things.”
While there are occasional areas where HR and legal do overlap—namely compliance matters such as data privacy, HIPAA, and OSHA—the GC explains that his role really is two jobs in one, meaning that his day-to-day involves a lot of compartmentalizing and flexibility.
“You cannot combine both of these roles without having a high degree of versatility and a willingness to learn new things,” he says. This adaptability is even more critical given the work that Precision does to provide component solutions for manufacturers across the globe, in a variety of industries. On the legal end, Tristine’s day may involve negotiating customer contracts, maintaining corporate governance for more than twenty member companies, leading an M&A or financing transaction, or developing a compliance manual that adheres to International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
For HR, that same day might involve handling a delicate employee issue, drafting a new policy, or updating the company’s pay grade systems. In both areas, he gets involved in technology, having worked to expand the company’s HR and benefits information systems and implementing a document management system for contracts.
The convergence of Tristine’s skills was put to the ultimate test in March 2020 when, like the rest of the world, Precision Resource suddenly found itself having to conduct business during the onset of COVID-19. He had the ill fortune of being at Disney World with his family at the time.
“The headlines were getting worse and worse every day,” Tristine remembers. “I was on the phone constantly during that vacation trying to keep track of everything. By the time I got back, it was an ominous day, Friday the 13. I was on the phone with the corporate directors all the way back from the airport and just jumped right into it. That weekend, I did the research and prepared employee communications so we could establish initial protocols. At that point, it was just ‘Don’t travel. Don’t enter the workplace if you’re sick or have symptoms. All company travel is canceled.’”
“Back in July, one of our employees in Canada said, ‘Other than my home, this is where I feel the safest.’”
The following two months saw twelve- to sixteen-hour workdays where Tristine executed a flurry of tasks to ensure that Precision Resource could stay safe, open, and operational. He expanded those initial safety protocols into a comprehensive Pandemic Safety Playbook, which complied with public health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and included temperature checks, daily deep cleaning, and strict mask and social distancing policies.
Tristine researched and interpreted the nonstop avalanche of new executive orders and relief packages coming from the various governments in all the states and countries where Precision does business, including closure orders, unemployment laws, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and anything else that might apply to the company. He also had to stay abreast of additional legal regulations related to furloughs and layoffs, issues of force majeure in regard to supply disruptions—the list goes on.
Production shut down at all Precision Resource global locations for two weeks in April (longer for the company’s facilities in Canada and Mexico) before reopening with a skeleton crew to keep manufacturing moving forward. By July 1, the entire company was able to come back after an audit to ensure that the safety protocols in Tristine’s playbook—not to mention laws and CDC guidelines—were being followed. The legal and HR teams also implemented a contact tracing system that could track any potential outbreaks of the disease without breaching any employee confidentiality obligations.
While Precision has seen a handful of COVID cases here and there, none occurred within the workplace and all were caught before any kind of spread, and the company has stayed fully operational. Automotive sales have also rebounded sharply since spring 2020, meaning that the company will still have a profitable year in 2021. While going to work may not look exactly the same as it did pre-COVID, Tristine is happy and grateful that there’s a workplace to come to at all.
“Back in July, one of our employees in Canada said, ‘Other than my home, this is where I feel the safest,’” he says. “That was great to hear, because that was the goal. We didn’t rest until we were confident that we could keep our people safe.”