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The inaugural HRMAC Heart Award, awarded by the HRMAC Membership Committee, recognizes an individual who, through their actions, has demonstrated a strong belief in and commitment to the mission and vision of HRMAC. This individual is a champion of human resources and may be a volunteer, board member or any supportive member. HRMAC is thrilled to bestow this honor to our first winner, RoundTable Healthcare Partners Senior Vice President of Human Resources Steven Merkin. He has made a huge impact on the HRMAC community, which is why HR Leader had to pick his brain about exactly what makes his HR heart tick.

HR Leader: Share how your passion for human resources began.

Steven Merkin (SM): Early on, I knew that I wanted to be in business, but wasn’t sure what part would be best for me. Through several experiences while in college, including serving as a pledge trainer at Evans Scholars and serving as a tennis instructor, then taking my first class in organization behavior, it seemed that “personnel” would be my best fit.

I’ve never looked back from there, getting my Master of Arts, Labor and Industrial Relations, then beginning my career. I continue to believe that we have the opportunity to impact the business in a positive way through our roles, and enjoy the interactions with business leaders and employees.

HR Leader: What have been some of your favorite parts of your job?

SM: Going back a bit in time, I always loved working in manufacturing plants, where I have a big soft spot in my heart for employees on the floor. I’ve been fortunate to have lived in Michigan, Texas, California (twice) and, of course, in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve also been able to travel to and work with businesses in Europe, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Canada, providing me an opportunity to gain a broader perspective and appreciation for people around the world. I’ve met countless wonderful people, business colleagues and friends.

HR Leader: What have been some challenges you’ve faced or overcome?

SM: Working in businesses that have had difficult economics always creates challenges, such as when budgets are cut, positions are eliminated or in situations when strategy changes, resulting in closed plants or sold businesses. During those times, it’s important to stay focused on listening to business leaders and employees, being patient, staying the course and maintaining a level of positivity.

Oftentimes, especially when HR has credibility, we’re looked at as a barometer to see how the company is doing, and if we’re doing OK, then others will also feel OK. It’s important to have an outlet, though, and I’ve found great value and comfort in having people on the outside to talk to – to maintain a balanced perspective. In addition, during those tough times, staying focused on treating employees with dignity and respect can’t be lost.

HR Leader: What is the best career advice you have ever received?

SM: Fortunately, the best advice I received early on was to learn the business and be business-oriented. Later, I was given feedback to not take every issue on, or to only take on one or two issues per year. This was important so people would know how deeply and passionately I felt about those couple of issues.

HR Leader: What is the best advice you’ve never received?

SM: I was never told that I had to punch my ticket in the various disciplines of HR, such as total rewards, staffing, OD/training, generalist, etc. I’ve largely always been a generalist/business partner with one role as director, compensation, benefits and systems.

HR Leader: What prompted you to become a HRMAC member?

SM: I need to call out Donna de St. Aubin, who encouraged me, in 2008, to join her as co-chair of the North/Northwest Interest Group after listening to me “complain” that I was being too internally focused at Cardinal Health.

HR Leader: Provide 1-2 examples of your favorite aspects of being a HRMAC member. Any particular projects you’ve taken on and/or helped flourish?

SM: I love HRMAC – the purpose, the values, the mission. Being part of developing the initial concept of the Emerging Leaders program, and then participating as an instructor each time it’s been offered, has been rewarding, given my passion for development. It’s encouraging to see how HRMAC has evolved rapidly in recent years, consistent with the times.

HR Leader: Describe how you support the HRMAC mission and how others can get involved.

SM: I’ve participated in the Leadership Forum and Emerging Leaders, supporting those key programs recently after stepping off of the Board of Directors in 2018. Others can get involved by being engaged in Interest Groups, regionally and functionally, attending programs of interest, and offering opinions and support as HRMAC continues its evolution.

HR Leader: What does winning the HRMAC Heart Award mean to you?

SM: Winning the HRMAC Heart Award means the world to me. First, I’m both humbled and honored. When I got the call, I didn’t have much to say other than those two words, which is largely how I still feel. I’m passionate about HR, HRMAC and our profession.

For those who know me well, hopefully you’re smiling. What was so interesting the day I got the call was that it wasn’t a great morning at work. The call reminded me how hard our jobs can be. Sometimes, I think I take that for granted. My passion is borne from an inner desire to make things better, for the business, the employees and beyond. So, in the end, it’s been nice to realize that it’s all been worthwhile.

HR Leader: As a professor at the University of Illinois, how would you describe the future HR leaders?

SM: I’m extremely optimistic. Our students are bright, engaging and, with our urging, business-oriented. They don’t see traditional barriers getting in the way of success, and seek creative alternatives to challenges and issues.

HR Leader: Where do you see HR going in the next five to 10 years?

SM: We need to continue to ensure that we understand emerging businesses and society trends so we can help our leaders peer around the corner. How will organizations fare as large numbers of employees retire? How will AI affect business and the employer-employee relationship? How important will brick and mortar office locations be, when so much work can be done remotely and employees can connect face-to-face on their devices? Finally, we need to always make sure that we don’t create separate HR agendas: our agenda’s need to support the business’s agenda.

HR Leader: What are your top three principles when tackling an HR problem or just executing your day-to-day duties?


  1. Intently listen to ensure I understand the issue
  2. Think about a solution that creates value
  3. And, balance being a business partner and employee advocate

HR Leader: What is your favorite place to visit in Chicago?

SM: Wrigley Field.