When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the once-in-a-century event was new to everyone, laden with fear and economic disruption, with deep uncertainty and no solutions in sight. Kathleen O’Toole, director and senior employment counsel at Roche Molecular Systems, experienced those early days like everyone else. However, she also describes it as a time of collective pride and excitement.
In early May 2020, Roche Molecular Systems received Emergency Use Authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Elecsys Anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody test. It was a first step in unraveling the mysteries around and risks from exposure to the novel virus—and because it was so important, the company had to ramp up its production into tens of millions of units as quickly as possible.
“We had already been hiring at the New Jersey manufacturing facility before this hit,” she recalls. “Because we were the first company to get FDA approval, the need for more people there became even greater. Everyone was pretty happy to be a part of it.”
The company hired hundreds of employees, while much of the world was in shut down. They accomplished this successfully, and while much has changed in the months and years since, O’Toole’s work is just as important today. Why? Because part of her job is to help the company retain as many employees as possible, long after that rapid hiring spree.
The relationship between employment law and employee retention might be fuzzy until you consider what Kathleen O’Toole does. She describes much of her work as partnering with the human resources professionals to develop policies, communications, and management training programs. They help sort through local, state, and national regulations for supervisors who ultimately are on the front line of compliance .
“We take the complexity of the regulatory environment and break it down for those who manage people at the company,” she explains. “The vast majority of people leaders want to do a good job. We give them the training, tools, and confidence to show up and do great things.”
In a tight labor market, particularly for companies that need workers with specific skills, that’s a pretty important place to be. Switzerland-based Roche also is a global company with operational locations in the US. Consequently, O’Toole faces a dizzying array of federal, state, and local employment laws. But she’s not new to this. In a previous job with ManpowerGroup, the international temporary staffing firm operating in all fifty states, navigating employment law in as many jurisdictions was all in a day’s work.
Kathleen O’Toole’s job isn’t just about the letter of the law. Conditions around the lingering pandemic, in the varying phases of community risk, needed a careful, lawyer-approved approach and communication plan. For example, the company has a vaccine mandate that allows for employees to seek religious and medical accommodations.
O’Toole partnered closely with human resources to ensure that the program both achieved the company’s goals and complies with the law. Roche also maintains a masking policy that is triggered when community and site infection rates are elevated. Straddling between the need to protect workers’ health and cultural opposition to vaccine and masking mandates required an important and artful legal-human resources collaboration.
O’Toole proclaims her team is committed to not being “the department of no.” Instead, they are focused on finding workable solutions. “We roll up our sleeves to help human resources and the business recruit and retain employees,” she says.
Drawn to employment law since clerkships in law school, she offers advice to those aspiring to a similar career. “Find what you’re passionate about,” she says. “Put the work in to be a subject matter expert. Be a great listener, learning the business needs, the goals, and desired outcomes. Maybe a strict legal need is at odds with the business, but there are always to be both compliant and meet the business needs.”
Kathleen O’Toole adds, “Don’t be a show-off; you don’t have to be the smarter person in the conversation. As a writer and communicator, brevity is your friend.”
One more nugget of advice: “Have fun. We work too long and hard not to.”