Without trust you have nothing, says Virgin Mobile's Michelle Ribeiro

Michelle tried some interesting tactics to win the trust of employees. 

“I’m in the business of people, and I fundamentally believe that without an engaged and satisfied workforce, the company itself will never reach its maximum potential. That is why I worked so hard in the beginning to win people over. I needed to build trust with them so that they knew I’d be their champion. In the same breath, I also had to play hard ball at times and be the middleman between the company and its people,” says Virgin Mobile People Director Michelle Ribeiro, who feels that establishing a sense of trust between employees and management has been one of her greatest achievements at the company. 

When she joined Virgin Mobile as a senior HR business partner in 2014, it was a tense working environment, as there had not been a fully-fledged HR function within the company for some time.

"The management did tell me to expect a little bit of pushback from the employees," says Michelle, adding that the first thing she did after joining the company was get to know every individual. In a business with over 200 people, it was no easy task. She got started by introducing 'muffin mornings' whereby, every single morning, she met with a mixed group of people from different levels and departments, and had coffee with muffins. However, after a month, she quickly realised it was going to take a lot more than muffins to get the staff to warm up to her. 

"I wanted to tell them a bit about me and also get to know them. I was expecting a positive response and for people to feel like I cared about them. But that’s not what happened. They didn't warm up to me at all. I got a sense that they felt I was trying to pull a fast one over them."  

Michelle says employees were very mistrusting of HR to begin with and thought that if they told her something in confidence that she would escalate the matter and get other managers involved, or that there would be consequences.

"I think some employees tested me to see what would happen with the information they gave me. But, in HR, you have to consider whether a particular situation warrants an escalation or if you can deal with it on your own, particularly when someone confides in you," she says.  

The sweet jar

After the failed muffin exercise, she tried a different tactic: sweets. She put a big sweet jar on her table that was close to the ever-open door of her office. And when people walked by, they would ask if they could have one. This was how she would invite them in to grab a treat and also have a quick chat about how they were doing, how they were feeling about the organisation and how their lives were going in general. As time went on, it eventually got to a point where people would come in without being invited or coaxed by treats.

"It was something that was so simple but it was so effective that, eventually, I had to speak to finance about giving me a sweets budget because it had become too costly.”

She also started participating in company events and divisional initiatives. The call centre, for example, had its own independent recognition programme and she would attend the awards ceremonies and cheer for the winners even though the events were not organised by her team.

To this day, she sometimes takes her laptop and goes to sit at another part of the business so that she can interact with the employees. It used to make them nervous, but she would always reassure them that she was just there for a change of scenery.

Says Michelle: "After more or less eight months, people eventually did warm up to me and I eventually got to a point where I didn't only know people's names and how they were doing, I also knew where they lived, was familiar with their family lives and what their hopes and dreams were. Having that kind of insight into the lives of your people is invaluable. It makes it so much easier to find out when things aren't going well and nip the bud of a problem that arises before it starts to have a serious adverse effect on a person's performance."

Ultimately, Michelle says the muffin mornings and the sweets were a vehicle to the start of a very long, and to what she considers to now be a very fruitful, relationship with her people.

The stick versus the carrot 

Over the years, Michelle has single-handedly managed retrenchment processes for various companies. Such processes have many risks for an organisation and can lead to litigation cases for unfair dismissals and such things. However, none of the many retrenchment cases she handled, which involved anything from 1 to 20 employees at a time, were ever escalated any further.

And that’s a testament to the level of care she shows in each of those dealings and unwavering willingness to people through a difficult and unfortunate circumstance.

But disciplining employees is not something that came to her naturally. Michelle began her HR career at Aegis, a company that provides outsourcing of call centre and customer services operations globally, where the HR function had two HR divisions: Engagement, which dealt with recognition programmes, staff events and wellness; and Industrial Relations (IR), which dealt with disciplinary matters. 

The engagement side fulfilled her need to see people smile and be happy at work, in her early days. But, she would later move to the IR side so that she could learn more about what HR was all about, in reality. 

"My first disciplinary hearing was so tough for me that when I walked out at the end, I went to the bathroom to have a bit of a cry. It was worlds apart from what I had become accustomed to in the engagement side because I had to go from using the carrot to getting the best out of employees to using the stick instead."

Disciplining people was difficult for her. But, with 15 to 20 disciplinary cases on average per month, she quickly grew a thick skin. It was a time that she grew the most because it taught her that she has to be able to separate who she is in a cordial working environment from the no-nonsense professional she has to be when problems arise that have to be dealt with. 

"Everybody has had that experience where there are certain aspects of their job that they don't particularly enjoy or are at odds with their personality. That experience really forced me to be more aware of my weaknesses and to work on them." 

“I have so much to learn and have yet to reach my full potential. I will continue to grow and diversify in other areas of HR, such as Training and Development, Reporting, and so much more. Being in HR fulfils me and I wouldn’t have chosen any other career, as much as it chose me initially.”