It is no exaggeration to say, “True religion is iconic. Marketing strategist and cultural commentator Karen Civil has previously called True Religion “one of the original streetwear brands.” Minimalist t-shirts featuring Buddha and ripped jeans, with a rock’n’roll spirit I do not know what, are instantly recognizable by 2000s style geeks.
Despite the co-signing of Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and others, True Religion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017. At the time, the brand’s decline was attributed to the boom in online shopping. Then True Religion has filed for a second Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2020, amid the rent woes of the pandemic era and department store closures.
Theresa Watts took up her role as Vice President of Human Resources for True Religion in June 2020, following two bankruptcies, the global persistence of a deadly virus and a modern day civil rights movement. The brand’s recruiting team warned her, Watts told HR Dive, but she accepted it without hesitation.
“‘They said,’ Theresa, are you sure? You want to do this? And I said, ‘I can do it. I can put on my steel-toed boots. I can go in and kick some butt with everyone, ‘”she said. Below is a conversation with Watts about her enthusiasm as an HR professional and how it has served her in reconciling abandoned employees and True Religion leaders.
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR Dive: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that everyone feels like family when they work for the company. I started covering HR during the pandemic and something that I really saw a lot is that people are really saving space for their coworkers as human beings – not just coworkers. How can HR professionals ensure that their employees feel seen and that a space is reserved for them as human beings?
THÉRÈSE WATTS: It’s including them in decisions – being completely honest and transparent. Often, decisions are made behind closed doors and in private conference calls. And if you really are my friend, if you really are my family, if you really are important in building this business, then I care about your opinion. And I want you to know why decisions are made.
Growing up, my mother said: ‘Therese, listen: this is the money we have. And so, you can either get new shoes or we can get food. You can go to the movies with your friends or we can eat. And that’s why I made this decision.
We also do this at True. Like in ‘Listen, guys. Yes, we have successfully emerged from bankruptcy. That’s not to say that we don’t need to be careful just yet – that we need to watch over you and watch over the business, to make sure we don’t get into another. For example, last year the decision was, “We can either have this great holiday show or we can have bonuses for the employees.” So of course they chose employee bonuses. Including them in this decision-making process made people feel whole.
It makes sense – just make sure everyone feels their voice is heard and represented. You mentioned the bankruptcy aspect. I know you joined in June 2020. What was the vibe and climate like at True Religion? What kinds of issues are you helping people with, especially because I imagine there are people who have worked at True Religion throughout the bankruptcy process?
It’s about rebuilding trust, because that’s what we’ve lost. Employees no longer have confidence that they will have a job tomorrow, that we are not going to go bankrupt again.
Once you lose it, it’s really hard to get it back. But you know, there are employees who have been with us for about 13 years. So he uses them and says to them, “Why did you stay? Why are you still here? ‘ It’s learning from their experiences and sharing them with the employees, who may not have been there for 13 years, who are nervous.
It is about discussing with the senior management team how to speak with their direct reports, how [the direct reports] fit in and how their contributions help us be better. And also, just saying, “Look, we’re not perfect. organizations are run by humans. You know, so we make mistakes. If we weren’t human and hadn’t made mistakes, we wouldn’t have gone bankrupt. It’s just a fact.
Tell employees, “This is what we are doing now. These are the mistakes we made. This is how we move away from mistakes. Being a little humble helps build trust. And this is something that we have completely lost. I think we are getting it back – I think we are.
I think we are, just seeing the excitement in the office. People call me straight on my cell phone, saying they appreciate some of the big gains we’ve made, or some of the great things we’re doing. Or people stop me in the hallway and say, “You know, thank you” or “I can’t believe we did this!” ”
It’s that sort of thing. You are comfortable coming to see me and any member of the management team to express your feelings.
On that positive note, can you talk about what made you excited about True Religion and some of the comments you received about it?
For the first time in the history of True Religion, we celebrated June 17th. In fact, we’ve made it a corporate party this year and ongoing. But we were nervous. We entered a space with fear, as we had never celebrated this before. It has never been a high priority before.
Would the employees be receptive? Would employees think, “Oh, they’re just doing this to save face, because of everything that’s going on” or, “Yeah, we’ve had that day off, but what does that mean for? the rest of the year ? “
I first spoke to SLT speaking to the organization about what Juneteenth means – not just the historical perspective, but also what it means today amid the societal upheavals we face. It was teaching the SLT to speak without fear of what it meant.
You must be able to say that Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of black slavery. This is important today because our Blacks and Browns in society are treated savagely and horribly in the public eye. We wanted our employees to know that we are seeing it.
We didn’t just give them time off. [Up until Juneteenth,] we educated them on the history and how failure to recognize the injuries blacks and brunettes regularly face impacts our employees and customers. We made a statement [to both].
I am almost moved, as two employees entered the office with tears in their eyes. They were so excited. – Theresa, you sent us out on June 15th. No, you know, Michael Buckley, our CEO was receptive to it. It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been receptive to it. And that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t spent some time on our SLT call talking about the importance of Juneteenth, so that we could communicate it to the whole organization.
And it just takes one person to be excited and go and spread it. I asked these two employees to come out and talk about it on the floor. So everyone was excited about it. Black, Hispanic, Asian, it didn’t matter. They were delighted that we were doing this.
The next time another segment of our employee population is affected by something going on in the world, they know we’re going to stand up for them. They know we’re going to challenge him and they know we’re going to be their champions.
It’s really poignant, especially since, even culturally speaking, true religion means a lot to the black community. And it should be noted that you are able to take a stand in an authentic way, and even that extends beyond black employees.
Because you started in June 2020, I’m sure it was a tumultuous time with a lot of transitions and conversations at the same time. Can you tell us about your first month at True Religion?
Oh, it was a cinch. It was a piece of cake.
No just kidding.
“‘They said,’ Theresa, are you sure? You want to do this? And I said, ‘I can do it. I can put on my steel-toed boots. I can go in and kick some butt with everyone, ‘”
I was just talking to Michael Buckley about the type of people we hire. We need tough, rambling people who want to come and fight. When you interview people, that’s what you tell them. “Listen guys, we’re a rambling organization. We are essentially a startup and we are fighting for our position in the industry.
So that was it. He would take people by the chin, look them in the face and say, “I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry that you are no longer working with someone you consider to be your best friend at work because they did not come back after the leave. I’m sorry you stayed home all these months worried, not knowing what was going on.
“And I’m so sorry we’re back now, a smaller organization. We no longer have the resources we had before. We’ve moved to a smaller building, and pretty much everything is different. I’m sorry for this, but we are in pain. We are hurting with you. How do we come together as an organization, as a family? ‘
There was no time for pretense. I had to be me from the Southside of Chicago and say, ‘Look, come in, this is the right thing to do. I am a fighter. Are you a fighter? OK, join my team. ‘ ‘Are you a fighter? OK, join my team. ‘ “You are not a fighter? OK, let’s endure because we want you, we want what you have. We want your skills and we are not going to lose you. ‘”