BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Denise Cassel has just retired from her position as Los Alamos County Human Resources Director. She joined the County in June 1997 as a staff development coordinator and was responsible for the recruiting process and handling employee issues.
In an interview with the Los Alamos Reporter, Cassel said when she went to school she decided she wanted to into the human resources field.
“Through the years, I received my Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration within Human Resources and then I took a number of courses and became certified in human resources prior to coming to the County because this was my first government job. I had worked in financial services, healthcare and microelectronics so I kind of had a diverse background when I came to the County,” she said.
Vince Yermal was director at that time, Cassel remembers.
“I was one of those ‘trailing spouses’. My husband had come to the fire department,” she said.
Her husband, Los Alamos Fire Department Battalion Chief Justin Cassel, retired in 2017.
Cassel discussed some of the work accomplished during her tenure including the revamping of the recruitment process. The application for employment was updated and all retained records and personnel files have been brought online to meet professional standards. The performance review process has also been revamped, she said, in accordance with the County’s personnel rules which state that work studies and job descriptions have to be revised every four years.
“The County prior to my coming on board really wasn’t complying with that. During my tenure we have been following the guidelines we had set for ourselves,” Cassel said.
Cassel has also been involved in negotiating multiple collective bargaining agreements as well as revising the salary plan and the compensation process. She reminisced about responding to events that were out of HR control.
“I was in Human Resources for example when we were working through the Cerro Grande Fire, the Las Conchas Fire and 9-11. In all those cases, it impacted not just our community but our employees as well. We were all trying to work through and best support our employees as we went through those trying times,” she said. “I was also here when we had been here when we had the presidential visit back in the 1980s and there are things that go with that behind the scenes that people don’t see like extra security and all the different contingencies that come on board during those kinds of events.”
One of the things Cassel is most proud of is that she has been able to support her own team in pursuing additional education and professional certifications by utilizing the County’s tuition assistance program.
“It is a lot of work for them but I was happy to be a part of allowing them to continue to grow,” she said.
Cassel also discussed the County’s succession program for employees. As part of the annual review process, managers sit down with their employees to talk about goal-setting – where they want to go and what they want to do.
“Sometimes it’s in the same area they are working in and sometimes it’s across divisions. As management, we try to help them to get additional training or have opportunities to be involved in different projects so that they can gain experience. Some of those positions people are aspiring to have higher education requirements and we try to encourage our folks to use the tuition assistance program so that they can go get those degrees which are required in the higher level positions on the management team that require bachelor’s degrees and sometimes people have not received that. The tuition assistance program can help them from a financial standpoint,” she said.
Another program the County offers Cassel said is Need to Know Training.
“It provides ‘nuts and bolts’ training for supervisors letting them see all the information they need to know to hit the ground running as a supervisor. It goes over things like our leave policies, timekeeping, records retention and how to prepare a budget. It lets them know who the contacts are if they don’t know who to call,” she said.
Cassel said the program is a prerequisite for Los Alamos County Academy which is a nine-week training for employees that are nominated by their senior management. Department directors teach portions of the LAC Academy which allows employees to engage in discussions with them and learn about the different projects the directors have worked on as well as well as some of the “soft skills” that they would need to go into management, she said. Employees can be nominated by their supervisors.
“We have been blessed in Los Alamos County that we have so many employees that stay all the way through to retirement and as opportunities come open we have had many internals become promoted. We have had times we have gone external because people have not put in for a position but the County is always going to try to find the best fit,” Cassel said.
Looking back on her career she said she has always tried to make sure she was doing the right thing for the right reason for the County.
“I have never tried to cover anything up. My job has been to watch out for the County. I have to follow all the policies and rules just like everyone else,” she said, adding that there have also been times when she has had to look out for employees.
As for her plans during retirement, Cassel said she is looking forward to doing some traveling with her husband when the pandemic restrictions settle down. She and Justin are considering moving to Colorado or Montana at some point so that Justin can continue to hunt.
The Los Alamos Reporter wishes Cassel all the best in her retirement.