It's a Jungle Out There: Special HR Considerations for Zoos

July 19, 2016

It\'s a Jungle Out There: Special HR Considerations for Zoos

Of the over 180 million people who visit this country’s zoos annually, how many of them think about the number of people it takes to run one?

HR managers of zoos face some of the same challenges that any other mid-sized or larger company does, albeit with the built-in perk of being surrounded by cute, fuzzy animals all the time. But, of course, baby cheetahs in your workplace won’t solve every human resources issue.

Running HR at a zoo is incredibly complex because of how many different roles the zoo plays in its community. It’s all at once a public service, scientific research center, and seasonal attraction. That means managing the human resources needs of everyone from the zoological professionals on the staff to the ticket booth cashiers who only work a few months of the summer.

Running a zoo’s HR department means staying on top of a wild employment world. Here are some of Paycor’s tips for surviving.

Automate whenever possible

As a non-profit, zoos have to keep their administrative staff lean. For a zoo’s HR department to function efficiently with fewer resources, they cannot be stuck manually updating employees’ addresses, vacation or sick time, or eligibility for perks and benefits.

With so many different classifications of employees, the basic functions of HR for zoos are more complicated. Automation is crucial for personnel, compensation, and benefits management—having to manually enter changes or correct inaccurate information costs HR and the zoo time and money it cannot afford to waste.

Having a robust HR management system in place is a good first step. It really helps to have your HR, payroll, and time all in one platform. This gives you a single interface from which you can update information, gather data, and glean insights into trends across your staff.

Prioritize your staffing strategy

Zoos have a lot of pressure on them to bring in enough visitors (and, thus, money) during their peak months of operation. That pressure extends to HR, which has the task of trying to efficiently and adequately staff the park—a task made more stressful by factors out of their control like weather, the economy, and seasonal employees’ availability.

Staffing planning shouldn’t just cover the year ahead, it should also contain a roadmap of expectations for the future. Create a strategy for staffing and performance with these goals in mind:

  • Preparing and training staff based on their responsibilities
  • Measuring employee performance across all classifications—what determines achieving performance perks and advancement?
  • Creating clear goals and incentives for performance for all employees and making sure they all understand them
  • Using data to forecast attendance and, thus, staffing needs in all areas of the park
  • Using employee and managerial feedback to identify needs previously overlooked
  • Identifying opportunities to make more revenue in other departments, like event hosting or catering
  • Weighing departments based on recurring needs in order to efficiently allocate HR’s resources
  • Setting principles to guide the zoo’s growth in the future, tailored to each department.

Part of strategy is tracking its success. Create benchmarks with department heads and relevant members of the board to measure how well your strategy is working and when to adjust it.

Consider the needs of each type of employee

The diverse array of employees makes hiring and retention at zoos more intricate than it is for other organizations. On one hand, you have animal-care professionals and zoological researchers that tend to stay for long periods of time. On the other hand, you have seasonal and support staff such as janitors, catering staff, and guides that tend to come and go rather than stay for the long haul.

It’s easy to see how difficult succession planning can be with the difference in responsibilities and qualifications needed between your high-level and entry-level positions. Plans need to be individualized for your specialized departments and those in operational roles.

For animal care and research staff, working with universities and other zoological organizations to create effective training programs is one key component. The zoo also works as a knowledge center of its own, akin to higher education institutions. Internal training should champion that and be used to attract outside talent for the more specialized positions and those in administration and park management.

Emphasizing cross-training for those employees in day-to-day operations is also important. It helps to groom internal candidates for succession while also making the diverse experience of working at a zoo a factor in hiring and retention.

Add succession planning to the strategy mentioned above and use these questions to define it:

  • What is the time frame for advancement in each department?
  • How do you identify internal candidates to be groomed for succession in each and how do you go about retaining them for future advancement?
  • What are the values and endeavors your zoo has adopted which can attract top-tier talent from the outside?

Managing HR at a zoo is challenging but ultimately rewarding for the happiness you can provide visitors, employees, and the animals themselves.

Want to learn more about how HR automation can put more time back in your day? Let an HR expert from Paycor guide you in the right direction.


Sources: Forbes The Future of Work podcast (Ep. 47); Animal Care and Management at the National Zoo: Final Report; SHRM; Australian Institute of Business

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