Life's a Balancing Act for Cirque Du Soleil's Human Resources Troupe

Article excerpt

The entertainment giant's rapid growth, far-flung presence and crush of aspiring performers raise unique challenges

FOR THE PAST YEAR, Cirque du Soleil's employees have been feverishly preparing for the February debut of Ka, the latest resident show in Las Vegas, as well as the launch of Cirque 2005, a new touring spectacle scheduled to begin in Montreal in late April.

Juggling two major openings is just one of the feats the Montreal troupe's human resources team performs on a daily basis, far from the applause the performers hear. The global human resources group is scattered across offices in Montreal, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, Netherlands, and oversees 3,000 employees who represent 40 nationalities and 25 languages.

Of those employees, more than 700 are the shows' artists, impassioned performers who might not literally live for today but don't spend a lot of time planning for their post-Cirque future. Cirque's human resources team also is still dealing with the residual effects of an HIV discrimination lawsuit filed in April 2004.

The troupe has grown dramatically since its founding in 1984. Then, it was nothing more than a gaggle of fire-breathing, stilt-walking street-theater performers. Today, it's a $500 million entertainment empire with nine different tours and five resident shows.

Cirque believes its unique approach to managing a worldwide workforce that runs the gamut from acrobats to administrative staff suits its business approach. "Guy Laliberté (Cirque du Soleil's founder) says that we reinvented the circus," says Suzanne Gagnon, vice president of human resources. "But sometimes you have to reinvent HR."

Fueling this transformation is the decentralization of Cirque's human resources team. In the past, the company's Montreal headquarters oversaw the recruitment and management of employees in all three locations. While Montreal remains Cirque's human resources hub, the Amsterdam office now includes five professionals whose job it is to support the European tours. And an eight-person team in Las Vegas works with nearly 1,000 employees based there. A full-time human resources professional accompanies each of Cirque's touring shows to help with such issues as insurance coverage, immigration and work/life balance.

BRIDGING CULTURES

Improved access to talent was only part of the motivation for granting Las Vegas its own human resources office. Gagnon says the primary purpose was to build an all-American team with an in-depth knowledge of U.S. labor laws. As Cirque's U.S. numbers multiplied, the company realized it couldn't depend on its Montreal office to understand the complexities of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's rules, or the peculiar cultural sensitivities of an American work environment.

For example, Gagnon points out that while kissing good friends and co-workers on both cheeks is de rigueur along the cobblestone streets of Montreal, such behavior could be considered a form of sexual harassment in the United States. And then there are the seminude photos of Cirque performers that currently hang on the walls of the company's Montreal headquarters. In deference to America's stringent laws on pornography, sexual harassment and obscenity, Gagnon says those photos would never see the light of day in Las Vegas.

"Although Las Vegas is called Sin City, what is considered by American citizens to be offensive or harassment has a very different definition than in some other countries," she says.

Despite decentralizing some functions, Cirque has taken steps to ensure that the company functions as a unified whole, bonded by a common set of workforce principles and practices. Montreal headquarters calls all the shots when it comes to drafting policies, processing insurance claims and handling immigration issues.

It's a difficult endeavor given that many of Cirque's employees spend a good portion of the year hopping from foreign country to foreign country. …