Q&A with Vennita Harris
Say hello to Human Resources Manager Vennita Harris! Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Vennita earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Texas Southern University in Houston, before starting her career as employee benefits and payroll specialist at the Supreme Court (wow!). From Dallas to Baltimore, Vennita brings more than 15 years of experience and drive to her new role. Take a moment to learn more about Vennita's passion for the work and her open-door approach to human resources.
What inspired you to work at Health Care for the Homeless?
Six years ago, I started working for a nonprofit called City Square in Dallas. They provide supportive services and care for people experiencing homelessness, from helping them get food or housing to clinical services and job training. Working there definitely changed how I saw things in the community. We didn't treat individuals as part of “the homeless population;” these were our neighbors, and we used that language in our work, much like we do here.
I relocated from Dallas shortly after I got engaged to my fiancé, who is from Baltimore. I began actively searching for organizations that served the homeless populations in this area, and that’s when I discovered Health Care for the Homeless. The whole-person approach to care here felt familiar, and yet I could see the impact was so much greater. We not only reach the chronically homeless, but also those at some stage of transition, who still need support to make that shift into stability a success. Health Care for the Homeless is there every step of the way.
How would you characterize your work for staff who may not understand the role(s) of human resources at the agency?
I like to call human resources “people support,” because that's what we do. Whether someone is connecting with Rachelle, Kaneisha, or myself, we are there for staff from the day they're hired to the day they choose to separate. There are alot of changes that occur during a person's time at the agency—promotions, transfers, loss of family members, birth of children—and no one should have to navigate those moments alone.
We all rely on ADP to manage time cards, PTO and benefits, but what if you're expecting the birth of a child? Can ADP support you in that way? We provide support and clarity to help employees understand the nuances of their employment. If a person is planning to leave the agency and has concerns about their 401K, for example, we make time to help them understand and plan for that next chapter in their lives.
What would you say to staff who don’t feel comfortable reaching out to HR?
I've spent my entire career in HR, and I've never worked in a space where HR is something to fear. When I walk into the building, I make sure I say hi to everyone I see. I try to be in the office as much as I can, getting to know staff and giving them a chance to know me, too. If someone is uncomfortable reaching out to HR, I want to know why so we can address it together. I don't believe there should ever be a barrier that prevents someone from connecting to HR.
What are one or two ways that a racial equity lens influences your approach to the work, and the HR department more broadly?
Being aware of racial equity is definitely key to my work, and it all starts in the hiring process. Discriminatory hiring practices are still very common in the workplace today. For example, someone who is applying from a non-computer facing role may conduct the interview from their cell phone. I want to make sure that applicant isn't being penalized, or perceived to be less professional for taking the interview in a way that works for them.
It’s also important to make space for free expression, and respect the language a person uses to communicate. Someone applying for a frontline staff position may be more candid or colorful in the words they use to describe a situation than someone in senior leadership. But it’s that same candor that helps them build a trusting relationship with clients, by meeting them where are and communicating in a familiar way. That doesn't always require the most polished language, but it shouldn't be taken as a slight on their ability to perform the job.
Can you say a bit more about the department’s ongoing effort to attract or retain staff that more closely reflect the clients we serve?
Introducing the bilingual pay program has been a major step in the right direction. It allows us to recognize staff for reducing that language barrier for clients, and gives their colleagues something they can aspire to if they're interested. There are paid trainings available to staff as part of their professional development, and aquiring those langauge skills is something that stays with you for life.
What brings you joy outside of work?
Before the pandemic I was involved in roller derby and distance running. I've run six or seven marathons, including one here in Baltimore. I am also a big advocate for self care and setting work-life boundaries. It's so important to log off and reset, especially in this work. I make time to work out for at least 30 minutes each morning, and try to find those small moments in the week to prioritize self care. It can be hard to set those barriers, but even making space for a bubble bath is important. That's time saved just for me.
Extend a warm good morning to Vennita when you see her, and be sure to ask about her international collection of pig-themed artwork!