Hattiesburg — Debbie Thompson was on a mission.
Within 24 hours, she needed to pick up fresh rolls from Wal-Mart, baked beans, stuffed potato salad from Rose’s Bar, B-Q, barbecue brisket, fresh banana pudding and tea from Movie Star restaurant, homemade ranch and bleu cheese dressing from Dan’s Diner and a chafing dish from Taylor Rental for the company’s summer anniversary luncheon.
As she glides down the hall of Dickten Masch Plastics Manufacturers in Hattiesburg, with her to-do list in hand, an employee stops her with a question about dental insurance. A few steps later, another employee asks her about a name change. Before the day ends, Thompson will also have to tend to safety, workers’ compensation and employee change status issues. If things get too hectic, she’ll simply pluck her “balancing bird” from her desk and perch it on her shoulder.
When folks see her walk into the hall with its expansive wings dwarfing her slim shoulder, they know it’s time to slow down.
“We have to do something to keep things light around here sometimes,” said Thompson, with a laugh.
Thompson heads the human resources department for one of Hattiesburg’s mid-size manufacturers. With 140 employees, the plastics-making plant isn’t quite large enough for a full administrative staff, so Thompson does a little bit of everything to maintain employees for the four 12-hour shifts.
On Wednesdays, it’s not uncommon for her to leave at 5:15 p.m. to join her weekly tennis drill clinic, grab a bite of dinner and then return to the plant several hours later to meet with nighttime shift leaders. “I need to work with them when it’s convenient for them, not for me,” emphasized Thompson.
Thompson’s morning usually begins around 5:30 a.m. with a quick shower, followed by devotional time while sipping a cup of coffee programmed to make the night before. After dressing, she grabs a lunch packed the night before and prepares for the half-hour commute to arrive at the plant by 7:30 a.m., when the nighttime shift is leaving and the day shift arrives. She scans the day’s priority list while employees float in and out of her office.
On the agenda: completing several reports for the company’s corporate office in Wisconsin and for key people in the local plant; recruiting and interviewing and orienting new hires; assessing applications and résumés; working with key staff to develop job descriptions and requisitions; handling benefits and salary administration, workers’ compensation and risk management issues; sharing safety training responsibilities with the manufacturing engineer; managing the plant’s corporate wellness program; managing the plant’s human resources and administration budget; and “coaching, counseling and sometimes cheerleading,” said Thompson.
“In HR, there are no typical days,” she noted. “I usually plan my day the evening before I leave the plant, based on what’s first on my list and go from there, but that changes.”
As Thompson was detailing this information, a worker stepped into her office needing first aid. He had cut his thumb on the plant floor and, even though it wasn’t severe enough to go to an emergency room, it needed tending. A few minutes later, a Spanish-speaking employee dropped by to ask a personnel question.
After taking an early lunch break, she heads back inside to prepare for a busy afternoon. “If we’re hiring, I’ll schedule a few interviews in the afternoon, and orientation usually takes a couple of hours,” she explained.
A quick glance around her small office reveals why folks, from entry-level workers to executives, enjoy working with Thompson, a five-year breast cancer survivor. On her desk: page-worn copies of “God’s Message” and “God’s Promises;” a bowl of employees’ favorite candy; a Good Hands award from her former employer, Allstate; a gold-and-black Southern Miss replica of “a true Southern belle,” a magnet depicting “101 Ways to Praise an Employee” and a rainbow-colored Slinky toy.
“I’ve had that Slinky for 15 years,” said Thompson. “Everybody picks it up and plays with it. Whatever issue you’re dealing with seems less problematic when you have a Slinky in your hand.”
This mid-July week is particularly challenging. Twice a year, the plant hosts anniversary luncheons celebrating employees with five, 10 and 15 years of service. Thompson is having the daytime luncheon partially catered-she’s making a huge, fresh garden salad herself — but she’s the caterer for the nighttime event, which will be held close to midnight.
That day, she’ll log close to 18 hours.
“They work so hard for us, it’s worth it to take a few extra steps,” said Thompson.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.