Dr. Hassan Abdulhaqq: A “Strategic” HR Leader for the Nonprofit Sector

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Dr. Hassan Abdulhaqq, DBA, is a veteran of the HR industry with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Abdulhaqq currently serves as the Director of Human Resources at AHRC Nassau and its affiliated companies, including Brookville Center for Children’s Services and Citizens Options Unlimited.

For this network of disability services agencies, Dr. Abdulhaqq leads all aspects of Human Resources, from designing innovative strategies to implementing plans creating powerful outcomes for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and staff.

Dr. Abdulhaqq’s goal is to make AHRC Nassau’s family of organizations the best places to work on Long Island. To do so, he is motivated to drive success throughout his department and inspire members of his team to go above and beyond typical standards and expectations.

Over the years, his definition of success has evolved as he gained experience through various work assignments, interdepartmental project teams, and exchanges with multiple and diverse organizations.

“I derive a great degree of personal and professional satisfaction when something I do, say or plan positively impacts a person’s life, improves a work process, an agency’s operations or the well-being of the community,” says Dr. Abdulhaqq, who also serves as a Professor of Human Resources & Total Rewards at New York University and Columbia University. Sharing actionable insight is important to Dr. Abdulhaqq and he frequently teaches at other institutions of higher learning.

In his career, Dr. Abdulhaqq has directly impacted the employment of hundreds of people who might otherwise be unemployed.  He is a strong believer in the power of training and the need for organizations to adapt to the changing demographics of the workforce while also meeting the growing demand for new talent. Giving people the chance to prove themselves through the acquisition of new skills and abilities is a must for the survival of human services organizations, according to Dr. Abdulhaqq.

Colleagues and those in his circle of support see Dr. Abdulhaqq as a dedicated professional focused on ongoing evolution and growth. This was particularly evident when his oldest son Darius did a school report about him three years ago.

“My son made observations about things I take for granted—the measurable, achievable outcomes I expect of myself and try to share with other goal-getters,” says Dr. Hassan. “Darius wrote so eloquently about how systems and structures at home helped him to remain organized, efficient, and successful as a student. I was amazed and so proud.”

As the oldest of nine siblings, organization and planning have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. For much of his childhood, he and his siblings were homeschooled.  He recalls that he had to find the time to do his own homework as well as help his siblings with theirs. He also had to ensure household chores, family activities, sports and social outings were completed.

“I was always planning, and I was always looking at the next step, and the ‘what-ifs.’ I learned this at an early age,” Dr. Abdulhaqq said. “So, in a word, I have been ‘strategic’ since I was young and steadily that has grown into a word I actively use to describe and inspire myself.”

The Story Behind Joining HR Industry

Dr. Abdulhaqq did not begin his career in the HR industry. His first job was serving as a bank teller. While there, he applied to a management training program. At the time, about 40 to 50 people had applied for the year-and-a-half training program. Dr. Abdulhaqq was among the 10 selected.

During the program, trainees had to go through different departments, such as Marketing, Finance, HR, Accounting, and IT. “We got to work in different departments, and in the end, you could select any of those departments in an entry-level position,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says. He “fell in love” with HR during the training.

Dr. Abdulhaqq started in HR as an entry-level recruiter. He loved the interview process, training, and the employee relations area of Human Resources. So, HR is where he wanted to be and where he could make the most of all the experience, he gained from his training program. Finding jobs for people and helping them realize their potential became a great reward while also loving the work he was doing.

When Dr. Abdulhaqq began his HR career, there were not many African Americans in high-level positions to mentor him. This lack of diversity drove him to complete his doctorate. His dissertation was on the lack of African American males in top-tier jobs.

“My goal was how can we identify, interest, and promote more qualified people of color in those roles,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says. “How can I be of service to others in that way?”

Now, he is proud to mentor the next generation of HR leaders.

Starting in the Not-For-Profit Sector

Dr. Abdulhaqq never thought of working in the not-for-profit field. He began his HR career in the banking industry at the age of 24, with goals, metrics, and bonuses.
“You performed and you were compensated very well,” Dr. Abdulhaqq points out. “So, up until ten years ago, when I started working in the not-for-profit arena, it was a completely different environment.”

He adds that around 70 percent of not-for-profit organizations do not have a proper HR strategy, bonus structure or competitive salary. The absence of performance bonuses, according to him, challenges HR leaders to find different ways to motivate employees. This was the biggest challenge for him when he switched to working in the not-for-profit sector. Dr. Abdulhaqq considers his decision to join a not-for-profit organization a risky career move at the time, but he has no regrets today.

“The challenge one faces when working for-profit is that they are looking to increase profits and reduce expenses. So, they end up seeing a lot of layoffs and restructuring. In banking, that happens a lot,” Dr. Abdulhaqq points out. He was done looking over his shoulder to see if he had to cut more people from his team, restructure, or look at expenses. He began to feel that he was losing his passion for the role and HR. So, he decided to take a look at the not-for-profit sector, which, too, has its share of pros and cons.

“The pros are you get to actually do things and work for a purpose, a sincere purpose that is in the right direction. The con is the lack of competitive compensation,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says.

His Experience Working at AHRC Nassau

“It has been an absolute pleasure working for AHRC Nassau,” Dr. Abdulhaqq points out. It provides him with challenges as well as the opportunity to drive success in a large organization. Currently, AHRC’s family of organizations supports over 3,000 Long Islanders with developmental disabilities and offers a true continuum of services across a person’s lifetime, with 3,000+ full- and part-time staff as well as partners throughout the private and public sector.

AHRC Nassau, a chapter of The Arc New York and The Arc of the United States, is the largest disability services agency on Long Island. AHRC’s network continues to be recognized for excellence by New York State’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and internationally by CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership.

Recently, AHRC Nassau was selected by the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) to participate alongside 16 worthy organizations in the New York State Credentialing Pilot 2022/2023 to strengthen the direct care workforce that provides essential services to people with disabilities, from dispensing medication to personal hygiene. AHRC’s workforce is primarily direct support professionals (DSPs), who may clean, bathe, feed, and otherwise assist people with tasks of daily living that they cannot accomplish for themselves.

Yet, staff working in these core roles are not paid competitive wages because of limited funding at the state and federal levels of government, according to Dr. Abdulhaqq. For the past decade, advocates have sought to raise the rate of pay for DSPs, Dr. Abdulhaqq points out.

In the midst of these challenges, AHRC Nassau is without a doubt an agency of excellence. “That is measured by stability, higher retention rates, and innovative solutions to handle what is happening out there,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says.

Looking ahead, “employer of choice as well as the best agency to work for” is how Dr. Abdulhaqq sums up his future plans for AHRC Nassau.

He is very grateful for the invitations from HR leaders at other nonprofit agencies to share his insight on retention, recruitment and engagement and add value to their organizations and the sector at large.

The Importance of Technology in the Not-For-Profit Space

Technology is increasingly playing a key role in not-for-profit organizations, Dr. Abdulhaqq notes. In the last 5 to 7 years, social media has emerged as a valuable platform to get the message out and attract the attention of the right talent. According to Dr. Abdulhaqq, digital interviews are increasing twofold. Hiring managers who do not have the time or opportunity to do a traditional interview are sending a link containing questions to candidates, who record their answers and send them back to the hiring manager. They can take a look at it anytime and then decide which candidate to hire.

Organizations are also embracing digital tools, enabling them to move away from paperwork and reduce human error. Putting things in the Cloud, for example, helps in retrieval; self-service is another benefit of adopting digital technology, Dr. Abdulhaqq says. Now, as employees can input their information into human resources information systems (HRIS) themselves, there is no need to hire people for data entry.

“Lastly, the technology from the data perspective: it is easily accessible and you can take a look at the number of hires, the geographical location of the hires, and the makeup of the hires, to make some informed decisions based on that data,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says. “Technology has impacted HR in those areas.”

The Changing Landscape of HR

Dr. Abdulhaqq has been teaching HR topics for about 15 years. He points out that the demographics of his learners who are HR focused have changed. They are no longer from one or two different types of cultures or backgrounds. They are coming from different countries to the U.S. to be in HR. The same can be seen in the business world.

There is now a great influx of international talent, Dr. Abdulhaqq says. We see the culture of HR has changed, and different perspectives have been added to the makeup of the organizations. A strong DEI focus is now playing a more prominent role in the industry.

Dr. Abdulhaqq also feels that the mindset has also changed – from using a qualitative approach to a quantitative approach for HR. Data is not only limited to knowing how employees and stakeholders feel, but it is also helping identify burnout, stress, and the effects on the bottom line.

A Regular Day of an HR Director

For Dr. Abdulhaqq, no two days are the same. “I can come in with the thought of creating some engaging training classes and workshops, and then two minutes later, someone knocks on my door with an employee relationship issue,” he says.

He points out that lately there has been an increase in employee relationship issues. So, he has been very involved in mitigating some of the risks by creating additional training programs and communicating clearly to the supervisors and leaders to be more hands-on and adopt a “servant- leadership” approach. “I believe that you can reduce a lot of employee relations issues with strong leadership management and strong training,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says.

And, while dealing with an employee relations issue, he may get a call to take a look at a turnover report and what needs to be done. He may also have to look at the benefits package and what competitors are doing. As employee engagement is important for the agency, there are a lot of focus groups, and Dr. Abdulhaqq is involved in those as well.

Dr. Abdulhaqq tries to come to work early, so he can have the time to focus on multiple tasks. However, there are likely to be additional interruptions. “Every day is different. That is always my expectation,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says.

Achieved What He Dreamed Of

Dr. Abdulhaqq gratefully acknowledges the recognition received from his peers and other HR leaders. Awards and accolades from SHRM and his community as a strong HR community leader confirm that he is continuing to make a meaningful impact in the field. For Dr. Abdulhaqq, the most important recognition he receives is from his co-workers, boards of directors and mentor, AHRC Nassau CEO Stanfort J. Perry.

Dr. Abdulhaqq lives in Brentwood which has the Largest Latin population in all of New York. He has been able to bring some of the strong talents from the community to the organization. As a result, his community recognizes him as someone who has made an impact —and this matters to him deeply.

He also sees the growth of the agency as one of his achievements. “To see the agency, grow from a strong agency to being best in class where other competing agencies are asking me to do presentations and seeking my advice and creativity to help them deal with turnover, retention, and burnout – those are just a few things that I consider accolades and things that I’m most proud of,” adds Dr. Abdulhaqq.

And “yes,” Dr. Abdulhaqq believes that he has achieved what he dreamed of. He, however, does not focus on that. “A person should never be complacent,” he says. So, he only looks back at his successes when he has had a long day full of challenges.

“When I’m getting hit, and hit hard in a lot of different areas, when mentees are not listening or when they are falling back; learners are not really catching on to the subject; some issues that are happening at work; and I am feeling defeated; I take a look back and say, ‘Where was I when I started and where am I today? Where was the organization when I started and where is it today? That is my strength and helps me to hold on to my resolve,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says.

Message to Aspiring Leaders of HR Industry

Dr. Abdulhaqq says that he is passing on the message that was first given to him by David Dinkins, the former Mayor of New York City. He tells aspiring leaders to work on emotional intelligence, self-awareness and make sure to do something that they are passionate about.

“There are many centers of HR, such as total rewards, employee relations, and training. Try to find an area in HR that you are passionate about,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says. He also advises not to quickly jump to conclusions, as there are always different sides to a story. Learn to understand the differences in people, while recognizing how much we can have in common. Acceptance of people not like ourselves is crucial in building a strong base for success.

Communication is another area aspiring leaders need to focus. “You need to listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent of the time,” Dr. Abdulhaqq says.

Dr. Abdulhaqq tells his sons Darius and Markus that taking accountability for their actions is the key to success as future leaders. “Wake up every morning to inspire someone else because being an inspiration for others is really, really important. . . Successful people do that,” he adds.

“Lastly, surround yourself with solution-driven people, and always seek to improve yourself – this is what I tell HR leaders, peers, coworkers, students, employees and my sons. It’s how we help bring out the best in each other and create a better future.”