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HR pro W.O. Jones: good listener — good talker, too

Tupelo — W.O. Jones (that’s officially William Oliver) intended to be an engineer. He even earned an engineering degree from Memphis State University in his hometown. He says he got into human resources by accident when he worked at the Sears Mail Order Distribution Center in Memphis. That was 22 years ago, and he hasn’t looked back.

“I would choose HR again. I’ve really enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s challenging and touches all employees. I don’t do the same thing every day. That’s what I like about it.”

Jones, 58, is senior vice president and director of human resources for BancorpSouth, a network consisting of 270 branches and 4,500 employees in six states. He spent 21 years with Sears in various assignments and was recruited in 1978 by then Bank of Mississippi to head their human resources activities.

Fellow BancorpSouth employee Randy Burchfield says Jones has the right personality for human resources and is a good listener. To which Jones responds, “I’m a good talker, too.”

The personable Jones remembers when human resources was called personnel. Back then, it was more about where employees went to sign up for insurance and payroll and to complain.

“Now it’s more the people side of business, because people are considered more than a raw material,” he says. “Human resources is in most places just down the hall. They’re there when business plans to attract and retain the right people. HR is a business partner.”

Jones feels that HR will become more important as society becomes more technical. “People are more important. We can’t program everything,” he said. “Having well-trained people is important and plants know that.”

In many cases HR acts as a judicial branch in the workplace, trying to make decisions for both sides. “We have to act like Solomon and use sound judgement but there are gray areas,” he said. “We’re a safeguard to make sure employees are treated fairly. If people have problems, we try to change the behavior. That’s an unpleasant part.”

He’s a firm believer in making sure employees are treated in a fair and equitable way so they will treat customers the same way. “If the workforce is not on board with you, you won’t win,” he said. “When there’s a merger in the company, the HR team is on site within a day of the announcement trying to make the new employees feel a part of BancorpSouth.”
Jones has experienced big changes in human resources. Part of that is the specialization of the work. In every facet the work regulations have increased and are very time consuming. “It’s hard to keep up with it, and we continuously go to seminars,” he said. “What was true five years ago may not remain that way.”

He spends a big part of his time dealing with constantly changing regulations and issues that don’t fit into a particular category. Often he must consult with government agencies before action is taken. Keeping that regulatory consistency is one reason BancorpSouth’s HR function is centralized. The department is made up of 11 people with coordinators working in local areas.

“I am concerned that people working in HR get burned out by having to resolve problems and being away from the positive side of it,” he said. “The HR programs in colleges prepare students in theory, but they don’t see how it’s applied. Issues are not just black and white, and nothing can help you know what to do in a gray area except being in it.”

The biggest change he’s witnessed in his HR career is the willingness of employees to change careers many times.

“Twenty-five years ago, people came to work out of school and stayed and got the gold watch,” Jones said. “Now we are more mobile and will look for opportunities. Employees are not as patient, and we must keep them rewarded and challenged because it’s usually the brightest ones who make changes.”

When hiring a HR employee, this professional looks for in-born personality traits such as empathy and caring about others, along with maturity. “If they have that, we can teach them the rules and practices,” he said, “but you can’t teach them to be good listeners. They must also have confidentiality because they will know a lot of private information.”

Jones is pleased to see these college programs and that now professional HR organizations have campus chapters. “HR is considered a career path now and a partner with management. That’s a good change I’ve seen. It helps with issues to be on the front end,” he said.

He sees the HR field as a growing one that will continue as demographics change and the population gets older. “It will be a challenge for all companies to keep qualified workers and that will be more true as we become more service oriented,” he said.

Hiring someone and watching a career grow as the employee moves up the ladder is a rewarding part of working in HR. Jones says he’s been in it long enough to see that happen. The most challenging thing for him is dealing with the small percentage of people who require severe discipline, especially when terminations are involved.

“We have checks and balances to make sure it’s consistent at all 270 branches,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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