HR Strategy

Getting frank with Portillo’s HR pro

CPO Jill Waite talks about connecting with employees to drive the business.
article cover

Jill Waite

· 5 min read

Here’s this week’s edition of our Coworking series. Each week, we chat 1:1 with an HR Brew reader. Want to be featured in an upcoming edition? Click here to introduce yourself.

Jill Waite has worked in the restaurant and retail industries her entire career, beginning with a stint at Chuck E. Cheese when she was 16 years old. She also worked in operations and development at companies including Sephora and Circuit City before taking the HR reins at Chicago-based hot dog chain Portillo’s as CPO in 2019. Waite “found [her] heart” in her work with people, recruiting, development, and culture.

As a corporate leader, Waite maintains that execs and leaders must have good relationships with and take cues from those on the front lines of the biz. It’s key when driving good business outcomes.

“I just feel like the answers are with the individuals that are doing the work,” she said.

Waite recalled a pandemic-era decision to send employees from Portillo’s corporate office to restaurants with staffing issues. These employees connected with their work differently after the experience, since they built relationships with restaurant staff and learned about their work.

“It built even more of a mutual respect and understanding for what our restaurants or our plants go through each and every day,” she said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the best change you’ve made at work?

Recognizing the challenges faced by team members in the restaurant industry, we implemented a comprehensive total rewards program that goes well beyond typical benefits. It includes learning, development, and culture components to support our teams. And it includes mental health and well-being programs and other perks that matter to our team members at Portillo’s. Our employee assistance program, for example, offers more than your traditional EAPs—and it’s available for all of our team members and their family. It is an initiative that provides our team members with access to confidential emotional support like counseling services, work and lifestyle support and assistance, legal guidance, and financial planning resources, in a digital way. By prioritizing the mental and overall health of our team members, we aim to create a supportive work environment that fosters personal and professional growth.

What’s the biggest misconception people might have about your job?

One common misconception about HR is that it primarily involves administrative tasks and policy enforcement. That’s why we’re called the people department, not the HR department. We serve and support people. And at Portillo’s, we take a proactive and people-centric approach. Our people team leverages data-driven insights, empathy, and creativity to design and implement initiatives that enhance the team member experience. We strive to create a culture that engages, motivates, and empowers our team members.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

What’s the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is witnessing the growth and development of our team members. When a team member takes on a leadership role or contributes innovative ideas, it fills me with a sense of pride and fulfillment. Seeing our teams thrive both personally and professionally is a great validation of our efforts.

What trend in HR are you most optimistic about? Why?

Digital trends play a crucial role in shaping the employee experience by enhancing communication, collaboration, and productivity. Embracing digital tools allows employees to work remotely, access information easily, and adapt to changing work environments. Leveraging digital trends also fosters innovation, empowers employees to learn skills, and promotes a culture of continuous improvement within organizations. It also allows for the organization to stay competitive and attract top talent in the modern workplace. For Portillo’s, I’m excited to leverage technology to connect with frontline team members. It allows us to break down silos and foster collaboration between corporate and frontline team members, as well as give all team members access to the tools and resources they want and need in a digital space. We recently launched a full-company digital workplace that allows us to share information, ideas, recognition and more directly with all of our teams. This level of engagement is an important way we can promote a culture of inclusivity and teamwork, as well as leverage diverse perspectives and drive innovation across the organization.

What trend in HR are you least optimistic about? Why?

The growing prevalence of employee burnout is a concerning trend. It’s important that all of our team members get the opportunity to unplug and recharge, which is why we launched a time off program for all team members across the organization. As HR professionals, it is crucial that we prioritize initiatives that promote well-being, mental health, and work-life balance to mitigate the risk of burnout and ensure the long-term sustainability of our workforce.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.