The Sydney Challenge – hiring and training 50,000 employees for Olympics

The Sydney Challenge – hiring and training 50,000 employees for Olympics

Brenda Paik Sunoo

How do you hire 52,400 people for an event that will be watched by the world? How do you transfer knowledge in a way that’s never been done before? No worries, say the HR folks at the Sydney Olympic organizing committee.

SYDNEY–When this city won the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games in 1993, the Aussies went wild. Sure, the 1956 Olympic Games were held in Melbourne. But hosting the first Olympiad of the new millennium is a shinier gold-medal assignment. And although Australians are famous for their “no worries” demeanor, running the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) has turned out to be an HR competitive sport in its own right. Managing 2,400 employees and more than 50,000 volunteers for the Games (Sept. 15-Oct. 1) and the Sydney Paralympics (Oct. 18-29) requires muscular adherence to Olympian values, says Catriona Byrne, HR manager of workforce communication and employee relations for the organizing committee.

And while most HR pros will never have to hire 50,000 volunteers, they may well have to maximize staff development, encourage cultural diversity or handle the transfer of complex skills and knowledge to the next generation of managers or employees. This is where they can learn valuable lessons from the mega-experience of the Sydney committee.

Promoting “dream currency” as a retention tool

Hiring and retaining a mass crew of employees and volunteers isn’t easy. Individuals know they’re being hired for a temporary period, the longest being six years (from shortly after the bid was awarded). Unable to offer job security HR had to spotlight other perks. “To say, ‘I was there!’ [is a big incentive]. And in a budget-strapped organization, dream currency is a major retention tool,” says Byrne.

HR needed full-time individuals with skills in communication, decision-making, and project management. But in order to lure them to SOCOG, HR had to sell the “dream” aspects of joining the team. Many of the paid staff, she says, left other jobs in order to participate in something “iconic.” By participating in an event with high visibility and intensity, Byrne believes that SOCOG employees will be able to dazzle future employers with their resilience and unique global-event experience.

To recruit the full-time staff required, SOCOG partnered with Adecco Group Company, a global staffing firm. The committee needed personnel for the standard corporate departments: finances, legal, marketing, human resources, procurements, logistics, accommodations, accreditation, risk management, and communications. Some employees applied via Adecco’s Web site (, which invited its visitors to “Work the Dream.” Most of the staff are Australian hires, but non-citizens and permanent residents were encouraged to apply, if they showed proof of working visas and permanent residence. “We’ve hired the full gamut of a company,” says Byrne, who applied for her position after spotting a newspaper advertisement. “I wanted to be part of something with a real identity.”

Another non-monetary perk was working within the global dream team. To foster a team culture, Byrne provided a weekly newsletter and models of management behaviors. HR ran a workforce opinion survey over two years to foster 360-degree feedback for managers. Also, monthly staff meetings established employee links to Olympic committee CEO Sandy Hollway and to the current status of SOCOG’s overall progress.

And after the Olympics? By partnering with Lee Hecht Harrison, a global outplacement and career services firm that is also a division of Adecco, SOCOG helps its staff parlay their experiences into future jobs.

Volunteers posed an even bigger challenge. One lesson was to recruit in stages. The first drive began in November 1997. Of the 50,000 volunteers, approximately 25,000 were needed as specialists in areas such as sport, language, medical, press, and technical. SOCOG approached specialist organizations and sports governing bodies for the first round. In October 1998, the second stage took place with the call for Australians from the community at large. This roundup was for the general volunteer positions. Registration laid down the following conditions: potential volunteers must be prepared to work for a minimum of 10 days and for up to eight hours per shift; make their own way to Sydney; find their own accommodations; and also make themselves available for training, for both the venue and for specific job duties.

Even without salary or benefits, SOCOG acquired its cadre. In just over two weeks that fall, 41,000 Aussies registered their interest as volunteers. SOCOG and the Sydney Paralympics Organizing Committee have since matched individuals with the right mix of skills and interests to the right jobs. They achieve team-building through orientation about the ideals of the Olympic movement and SOCOG’s goals, venue training on customer-service, and nitty-gritty training for specific jobs, such as ushering, driving a tram, ticketing, and providing first aid.

Cultural diversity means inclusion–and reconciliation

One of the reasons Australia won the Olympic bid was its unique cultural attributes–particularly, its 2 million-person Aboriginal population. If there’s any Olympian that best represents the nation’s hope, it’s Cathy Freeman. An Aboriginal person and champion of the 400-meter race, Freeman, 27, recently was quoted in Sydney’s Sun-Herald: “The older I get, the more I realize I’m in a unique position where people do listen.” Freeman, in recent months, has stated that after her athletic career, she plans to become a vocal advocate for Aboriginals–2 percent of Australia’s total population of 20 million.

SOCOG has been extremely conscious of public concern regarding Aboriginal people. In May, approximately 400,000 Australians participated in a “People’s Walk for Reconciliation.” Joined by Aboriginal elders and youth, the citizens wanted to counter the government’s historic neglect of these people, a nation’s dying cultural treasure. Less than half of Aboriginal men, for example, will live to age 50, according to James Brierley, administration manager of Sydney-based World Vision’s Indigenous Programs. SOCOG has addressed the Games’ cultural diversity efforts in several ways: programmatic inclusion, respect of Aboriginal traditions and a specific employment/volunteer outreach.

In keeping with bid commitments, SOCOG established an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Relations program within its staffing structure. It was established to encourage indigenous peoples’ involvement with the preparation and staging of the Games. In 1997, the program was expanded to include a program manager, Gary Ella, to better ensure the liaison between SOCOG and the communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement already has impacted the various ceremonies associated with the 2000 Olympic Games: opening, closing and welcoming ceremonies, medal presentations, and cultural events. The torch relay route has been planned with the commitment to take the Olympic flame to sites significant to the indigenous peoples. For example, the Sydney 2000 Olympic torch relay began its journey at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a place of immense historical significance to the Aboriginal people. The Australian government has underwritten the cost of the torch relay through Oceania.

In terms of employment, SOCOG hired Aboriginals, or those with experience working with indigenous groups, in positions such as festival director, coordinators, administrative assistants, researchers, and information officers. “We didn’t have a quota, but it makes absolute sense to recruit indigenous people,” says Byrne. “[Once identified], we hired on the merit of their skills and the experience required for the job.”

Institutionalizing the transfer of knowledge

Whether you’re planning an event or running a Fortune 500 company, HR executives increasingly are concerned with knowledge management. One of SOCOG’s most cost-saving legacies will be to transfer its accumulated knowledge to other event sponsors. In 1996, 70 Sydney staff flew to Atlanta as observers. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s staff passed down the knowledge only anecdotally. Although the International Olympic Committee stipulates certain requirements (hosting the Olympic Youth Camp and the Olympic Arts Festival, and hiring both a CEO and president for the organizing committee), there’s never been a documented management plan for organizing committees to follow SOCOG’s transfer-of-knowledge program is setting the world record.

Byrne says that every division and functional area of SOCOG has been asked to complete an extensive template of how they set up their operations and to give recommendations for “next time.” There are 90 manuals that cover every facet of organizing an event of this scale. Topics include mission and objectives, key risks, key stakeholders, key interactions, operations plans, budget, organizational charts, staffing (four years out, three years out, two years out, and so on), key considerations, and key lessons and recommendations.

Among Byrne’s HR recommendations:

* Establish your definition of staff very early on. Otherwise, those hired as contractors may expect the same employee benefits, such as career transition services. Recognition programs, such as commemorative pins and special perks, however, should be budgeted for the entire workforce, not just employees.

* Take advantage of being a “start-up” company to develop a particular working environment. Promote a learning environment by providing management-development courses to improve the staff’s leadership skills beyond the event.

* Create a credible and up-to-date communications program for your staff. Rumors and misinformation in the media can be minimized if you broadcast news internally first.

* Avoid HR duplication in recruitment, training, and recognition by not separating the functions according to “paid, volunteer, or contractor” categories.

The manuals, which will be sold as a corporate product, were assembled electronically on a Lotus Notes database. Purchasing these manuals, says Byrne, can save hours of duplicated labor and millions of dollars for future Olympic organizing committees and other planners.

Tom Altobelli, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, recommends another way to save millions of dollars. Organizing committees, also need to establish formal alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms. “Olympic Games present the opportunity for a high quantity of disputes,” says Altobelli, who researched the lawsuits filed during and after the Los Angeles and Atlanta Games. “The potential cost of disputes must be a contingency contained within the budget of any city staging an Olympic Games.” His advice, however, applies to any major event undertaking.

Organizing committees should expect disputes to arise within the organization, and between the organization and its vendors, staff, and the public. In the past, lawsuits have been filed for vending licenses that were incorrect, personal injuries suffered by a sport fan, or copyright infringements regarding Olympic logos.

But lawsuits are certainly not uppermost in the minds of Sydneysiders like Catriona Byrne. At the opening ceremonies on September 15, she’s scheduled to be a volunteer, just like one of the thousands of people she’s hired. Byrne will be an audience leader at Homebush Bay, the centerpiece of Sydney Olympic Park. At the right moment, she’ll prompt her section to flip its flash cards before the eyes of an anticipated global audience of 2 billion. “We want to show Australia to the world,” Byrne says. “That’s a big, big thing.”

Brenda Paik Sunoo is a WORKFORCE contributing writer.

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