Inside County Government

New Mecklenburg County HR head aims to quash stereotype

Joel Riddle
Joel Riddle

Don’t call Joel Riddle the Grim Reaper (the one who clutches pink slips instead of a scythe).

Yes, he heads Mecklenburg County’s human resources department and yes, pink slips are occasionally involved. But when you sit down with Riddle – selected as the county’s new HR director last month – you’re left with the impression that the last thing he wants is to gleefully sport a black hood while issuing termination letters and reprimands.

Riddle’s department philosophy: Attract, retain, develop and motivate employees.

Instead, you’ll learn he’s a family man who grew up on a dairy farm in Statesville; a father of a 3-year-old son; a 5K runner; and a diehard fan of “all things UNC Charlotte.”

But perhaps highest on his list of professional achievements is helping increase the number of charities county employees support from two to 90 in 2010. His next goal: Bolster the HR department’s efforts at finding quality talent here at home. He replaces Chris Peek, now deputy county manager.

“I’m constantly thinking about: How do we engage the community?” Riddle said.

Riddle leads a department of more than 40 employees who oversee human resources for more than 5,000.

After graduating from UNC Charlotte, Riddle worked as an assistant manager at Walmart. He later returned to school and earned a master’s in public administration in 2003. A year later, he landed a job as assistant to the Mecklenburg County manager.

Back then, the assistants reported to general managers (now called assistant managers). Riddle’s boss was Janice Allen Jackson, who oversaw the county’s health and human services sector, which includes the Department of Social Services, mental health and the medical examiner’s office.

Under her direction, he got a bird’s-eye view of what it takes to run a county department: “There are a lot of factors that go into someone doing the job well and the decisions they have to make. It can be a very challenging job, sometimes.”

I’ve always...been very conscious of what we spend. These are taxpayer resources.

Joel Riddle, Mecklenburg County HR director

In 2007, he was hired as the business manager for human resources. His experience at Walmart came in handy.

“They’re all in business to make money and they have to be very cognizant of the dollars they spend and what they spend it on,” he said. “I’ve always... been very conscious of what we spend. These are taxpayer resources.”

Keeping those resources in mind, Riddle recently asked county officials to rescind benefits for the unmarried partners of gay employees in light of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage. Doing so would save the county about $32,000 if those employees remained unmarried, he said Tuesday during a board of county commissioners meeting.

Commissioners agreed and changed the benefits policy, which now treats gay employees the same as their heterosexual peers: If they want benefits for their partners, they’ll have to marry. It was the first time Riddle made a request to the full board.

We have 5,000 employees and every once in a while there’s going to be somebody who doesn’t play by the rules...and we have to deal with that.

Riddle

Now that he’s survived the experience, he aims to change perceptions that HR is the enemy.

“The ‘Grim Reaper’ stuff comes from the people you will inevitably have in an organization of our size,” he said. “We have 5,000 employees and every once in a while there’s going to be somebody who doesn’t play by the rules...and we have to deal with that.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, jmcfadden@charlotteobserver.com, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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