Automakers have long employed attorneys in their legal departments. But at the international companies building cars here now, lawyers are also overseeing the human resources department.
At Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc. in Lafayette, Ind., Thomas Easterday was recently named vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel. The job title doesn't reflect involvement in human resources. But Easterday is responsible for employee training and development, safety and environmental compliance, government relations, and media and communications - in addition to heading up the legal department.
At Nissan's Tennessee plant, at Toyota's Kentucky plant and elsewhere, attorneys occupy similar posts. Easterday says there are good reasons:
Extensive federal and state laws now deal with human resource issues, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements. Someone with legal training must help with compliance, he says.
Human resource issues are often closely tied to government and media relations. Lawyers often know the ropes for working with government regulatory agencies, and even the media, Easterday says.
Managers with legal backgrounds are also involved in human resources at Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. Attorney Gail Neuman is vice president of human resources and general counsel to the company. Greg Kelly, one of her two human resource directors, is also an attorney, with a background in labor law.
Having a lawyer involved in human resource issues isn't necessary, but in today's litigious society, it certainly helps, says Bucky Kahl, a former Smyrna human resources manager who last month took over the human resources job at Nissan's U.S. sales unit in Gardena, Calif.
'I think it adds to the strength of the organization, and gives it dimension that the company wouldn't have otherwise,' Kahl says.
At Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. in Marysville, Ohio, attorneys have held senior management posts, although not specifically managing the human resources department. 'We have a legal department that can and does consult in many operations of the company,' including human resources, says Honda spokesman Roger Lambert.
As it grew during the 1990s, Honda relied on two senior vice presidents, Scott Whitlock and Susan Insley, who were hired out of Honda's Columbus, Ohio, law firm. Both Whitlock and Insley, who since have left Honda for other jobs, performed human resources duties.
In addition, Insley ran Honda's U.S. engine factory and oversaw its expansion. And Whitlock represented Honda in Washington when U.S. lawmakers were fencing with Japanese firms over assorted trade issues.
'Human resources is all about human relations,' Lambert says. 'Whatever knowledge you bring to the job is helpful.'