We join the conversation with Steve talking to Chad and Cheese about the reasons why he got into HR in the first place.
Listen above or read an excerpt of the transcript beneath, which has been edited for clarity.
Chad Sowash: You’ve got a great story, right? So, why get into HR?
Steve Pemberton: Because that’s what HR is about. It’s about people’s stories. I’ve always been fascinated by systems and people. And in part because both systems and people failed me. So how do systems and people that drive them, how do those two worlds intersect? And HR is probably the single best place to do that. Because every day you wake up trying to figure out whether you’re dealing with payroll, or they’re dealing with advancing people, you’re always wrestling with how systems enable people and all those people enable systems.
CS: So how hard is it to actually get the systems to work? I mean, we’re talking about one company right now, right? How hard is it to get it just within your own organization, to get those to run right? We’re talking about equity, talking about transparency, we’re talking about systems that have been broken forever. Now we’ve got technology that should make this easier, but for some reason, for decades, it has not happened. So for you, a leader, for just one company, we won’t talk about clients or anything, how do you how do you harness this? How do you actually fix this?
SP: Well, change has been going on since the beginning of time, right? If it hadn’t, you know, we’d be running around with with a club chasing dinosaurs. Change has always happened.
CS: That’s what Joel does on the weekends, by the way.
SP: I’m gonna leave that alone [laughs]. But what’s different for us is the pace of change, which is why I think it’s so hard. Because the minute that you think you have that system teed up, then there could be a new federal regulation that comes down, right, something could happen on pay equity. And so now you got to revamp your systems all over again…we have a tendency to think that I’ve done that and I can move on, and then something else emerges. Now you’ve got to go back and it really frustrates people.
And we’re gonna have to accept the fact that change is happening so quickly. It’s just going to be a norm and you’re going to have to be constantly and relentlessly updating. And I think the other, which is the subject of the panel, is how are those same systems enabling the softer – or these perceptively softer- things like culture, like skills? And I think technology might be our last best shot, because as human beings, we keep getting this wrong. I mean, look at the broader society, right. Look, look at what’s happened in the last 48 hours. Last two weeks. Where do you turn? Where are the places you turn? And what are the tools you turn to to try and find some semblance of humanity?
CS: Yeah. Yeah.
JC: Want to touch on your employer, Workhuman. And your background, you’ve worked in a lot of big organizations..Walgreens, some others. So what was it about Workhuman, an HR company that appealed to you? And that seems like an interesting dynamic to be an HR head in an HR related company. Talk about that.
SP: That to me is the cool part. Because one, the threshold is higher. When you run HR for a company that sells into HR, you’d better be damn good. Because you have to have the credibility to walk in to any prospect or any customer and say, so here’s how I leveraged in our case, here’s how I leverage our recognition platform. I tell my team all the time, we have to be what we sell. And there’s no greater credibility you have than to say, here’s how we’re leveraging and utilizing it.
I also think in my own career path, I was part of an organization and Walgreens had 90% brand recognition, 250,000 people when it became kind of a big deal. But that was one of the problems – it was just too damn big. And you’re dealing with the very complex industry that’s healthcare. So I wanted to do something that was faster moving, and that was advancing a broader societal mission. I’d argue that healthcare is doing that too, because without health, everything else is just a conversation.
But to know you wake up every day, seeing how a recognition moment changes somebody’s life, really spoke to me at a point in my career where I could kind of look around the landscape and say, I’m gonna be fine, I have a job, but what do I want to do? And to choose a company that was rapidly rising; I needed to feel alive again.
CS: Do you feel since you’re working for a tech company that you can actually scale what your belief is, what you know to do through that organization?
SP: Well, in my world, you had better because if not, especially because of the pandemic, people are gonna walk out on you. I mean, I think that’s a dynamic that’s changed. It’s not about work/life anymore. It’s about life, at work. Because, you know, we’re sitting on screens, and you know, you’ve got babies on laps and cats walking across the desk. I mean, you saw windows, quite literally windows, into people’s lives. And if you’re not using technology to scale those human interactions, then those people are gonna say, hey, I like Joel, Joel’s a great dude, and I like the company. But I want to go someplace where I’m awoken again, and I’m doing something to broaden the world. That can’t happen if you’re just having these kinds of one-off conversations, which are nice, and they’re cool, but you want to know that you’re scaling that.
And the last thing I’d say, is certainly just during the pandemic, I mean, people are hurting. You see what happened in Buffalo, what happened in Uvalde. Our employees aren’t walking into Workhuman, and they’re turning that off, they’re not turning it off. They want a place to talk about it, even if they don’t know what to say. So we have a ‘Parents at Workhuman’ Slack channel. And that just lit up yesterday. People didn’t know where to go, they know who to talk about. They were using this technology platform, just to have a conversation, because we’re a company made up predominantly of people who are parents of young children. So they’re dropping their child off at the bus, and and holding on to their hand longer. My VP of HR said, dropped my daughter off at school. Police presence there. Police presence wasn’t there yesterday. How are you having those conversations?
JC: So we talk every week about the remote work question. Yeah. And some companies are, ‘get your ass back to the office’. Some say never come back. Again. Others are our hybrid. What was the internal discussion like at work human in regards to what you’re going to do after the pandemic?
SP: I mean, generally speaking Joel, nobody knows. I mean, they can say they know, the reality is that you don’t know until you put it into practice. That’s the reality of where you are. And so I see all that, the influencers and talking head say do X, Y, or Z. You don’t know. So for us, here’s what we did. We went through the cycles, which I think every company is doing. And you’re reading articles and, and you know, what we did that really changed the dynamic, we went to our people. And we said, oh, rather than us throwing policies and practices down around, remote working, tell me what it is you’re looking for.
And here’s what came back to us. We’re looking for fun. We’re looking for fitness, we’re looking for food. And we’re looking for some sense of family. That’s what we’re looking for. And then the other I think is, it’s a critical factor is how people are being productive and efficient in their way. And by function. So you’re in sales, I’m in marketing, you’re in IT, our industries are working very differently. Good luck going to your CIO, your CTO and saying, your people have to be in the office five days a week, she’s gonna say, well, I’m going to lose 25-30% of my workforce if you force that. On the other hand marketing, you might say, I’ve got to have them in at least two to three days. Somebody else in fulfillment might say, well, I can’t fulfill things if they’re not physically in the space.
I think that’s the shift that has to happen. So start looking at this one by asking your people what they’re looking for, and then put a functional lens over. And lastly, you have to drive a message. Not everybody’s going to be working exactly the same way. And you’re going to have to accept that.
CS: Well, we never have. I mean, seriously, we really never have. We’re now starting to see how much different we all are. The question is, and we’ve heard some companies and some vendors talking about being able to provide amazing amounts of flexibility to their workers. So from the standpoint of…if I can work from home five days a week, I’ll give up X, Y, or Z; a little bit of pay, a little bit of this a little bit of that, some time off whatever it is, right. Do you think that that is something that a company can actually manage? And then if they can, how do you take a look at the equity conversation there? Because the individual, the employee is picking this right,? It’s a much harder to take a look at what equity actually means.
SP: Yeah. And how do you not wind up with two different kinds of companies as a result? I think the fulcrum is really…the people leaders in that company specifically, they’re the ones who are going to have to develop new management muscle to deal with those changing realities. Otherwise, if you could have silos, and legal wants to run it one way, and finance wants to run into another. And that’s how you wind up with these inequities. And I, so I think training people, leaders, when I get on bi weekly calls with people, leaders, it’s like every other week, every Wednesday morning, I’m on with them. And we’re walking through all these things. Why? Because it’s still unfolding, we’re still processing, we’re still communicating. But I’m really clear in telling them, you are going to have to manage your workforce differently than you have in the past. And we’ll bring outside agencies, we’ll step through training, whatever is required.
But for me, in our executive team has this expectation, you’re just gonna get it without that. I think you wind up with disparate processes. And that’s where the inequities come from. And so people just start exiting on you.
JC: So speaking of inequity, I don’t know if you saw our keynote with the commissioner of the EEOC yesterday, we talked extensively about AI and hiring and how there are biased decisions being made through AI. Curious – are you sort of a sounding board for the products being made at Workhuman, and what kind of traps do you see companies falling into with leaning on AI and the trap doors to look for when bias does come into play?
SP: So because you still have no matter what you do, you’re gonna have human beings who are behind the AI in some way, shape or form determining algorithms, right. Architecting, language, training data, all of that, right. I think focusing on technology to preempt bias specifically, is where I think the next evolution should go. Because right now, all of the tools that chief diversity officers have CHROs have…guys, the damage has already been done. It’s already been done. If you’re doing an adverse impact analysis, for example, after you’ve had a reduction in workforce, or you’re dealing with a class action lawsuit from the EEOC, damage has already been done. You already have a reputation out there.
So I think leveraging AI specifically as you’re going through performance reviews, as you’re in our world, a recognition moment. Hey, Joel, did you really mean to use this language and recognizing a woman for performance? You may not even be aware of it. My wife often reminds me I’m not the feminist I think I am. But if that mirror gets held up to me, while it’s happening, not after the fact not after she’s already left, after she’s already been offended. I think you can create a very different kind of language. Now the challenge, I think, is shifting a lot of the D,E&I practitioners shifting their mindset. We’re not dealing in broader society, you’re not dealing with unconscious bias.
This is not a matter of, you don’t know better than the #metoo movement, you know exactly what the hell you were doing. So you’re getting enabled, no matter what AI is built, you’re still going to need people to make moral ethical decisions. When those behaviors emerge, on the hiring front. I do think those were you seen advancements specifically, so that you’re dealing with issues of names and how names are used in the search process? Are we being equitable, and fair? And do we have corrective practices – coming from a former chief diversity officer.
CS: So let’s talk about chief diversity officers; so many are out there and they’re put on an island. They don’t have funding. They don’t have staff. They don’t have any means of actually making real impact. Really, they’re just a figurehead that’s there. And we’ve seen that for years. Have you seen changes? And if you have, where did those changes start? Did they start in the C suite, did it start grassroots? Or do you think it just hasn’t changed?
SP: I don’t think you’ve seen the seismic change that’s required to reflect the times – I’ll answer it that way. Remember, the origins of the role of the CDO came from the early to mid 90s When companies found themselves in courtrooms getting sued for millions and millions of dollars. And so you know, those boards went back and they said, Well, we got to stay out of courtroom, we got to stay out of the news. So we’re gonna hire somebody. And that person’s sole job and responsibility is to make sure we don’t wind up in a courtroom again. So think what that anchor is. This is how you wind up with a single individual, no budget, and a lot of external facing optics kind of kind of things, right? Well, when was the last time in any part of any organization that you said anything was of significance and value but put one person on it with no budget?
Nowhere. So you’re sending a message already about his value and importance. Now, what’s changed though, is demography. And that’s always the disconnect for me. So how knowing that your customer bases are changing, who you’re serving is changing, like how can you continue to go down this path of the CDO in a role all by themselves, kind of like an ice cream cone with no ice cream in it, basically. So for a lot of companies, though, especially George Floyd, which is where I think you saw this real paradigm shift. Yes. So since May of 2020, which is when George Floyd was murdered, companies, dedicated $66 billion to eliminating disparities in transportation and housing. So that was a real paradigm shift. The Business Roundtable made up of 181 CEOs said, you know, we have a broader societal responsibility, because prior to that, they came from that Milton Friedman school of thought, which was, and we don’t have any responsibility other than generating a profit. Yeah. Drucker comes along a little bit later and says, No, you have a broader responsibility here.
So when the Business Roundtable says, Actually, you’re right, it’s why you see Apple investing in homelessness, it’s why when we were at work, human in Atlanta last year, we had our recognition moments, and all the recognitions and moments that came through went to three charities in the Atlanta area. In other words, we’re saying, as businesses, we’re not going to leave this huge government because by and large, our politics are not in a place where they seemingly can solve the challenges of our time. So we have this quiet covenant. I think that’s happening amongst businesses saying, We’ll take it on, we’re gonna get together because we have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and to society. We have performance metrics, we have urgency, because we are held to the public markets. And you’re gonna see more and more companies who are going to form partnerships, like a Bank of America does with Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta, HBCU, saying, We’re going to start centers for entrepreneurship, we’re going to focus on women in STEM disciplines. So that’s why I have hope. Despite the fact I think some things have not changed.
JC: It’s looking more and more like we’re headed into a recession. And in typical recessions, the rule book kind of gets thrown out, we batten down the hatches, and we survive the storm. What’s your take on these D,E&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) issues in regards to the economy in a downturn? What happens when that happens? And then when we come out of it? What’s your view on what D,E&I looks like? Is it stronger after the storm? Or do we go back to more status quo?
SP: Well, typically, the recession around those manners is always meant to retraction. You know, when you perceive D,E&I as a nice thing to do, in cost cutting times it’s the first thing to go because it’s an optic in some cases, candidly, or a kind of a nice to have. But again, who’s your customer base? Who are you serving? Who’s your employee base? I’m sure it’s happened to both of you as well. I can’t tell you the number of times, probably most recently, a couple weeks ago, I’m from New England, I live in Chicago, big Dunkin Donuts. That’s my deal. I go to Dunkin Donuts, like five o’clock to grab a cup of coffee…sign: ‘We don’t have staff here’. No staff. So this idea somehow that we can just kind of get through a recession and then we’ll be able to…we had better plan for it accordingly. I will say, though, that the pandemic would have led you to believe that too, right? Because, okay, we’re all in this first six weeks, are we going to be around, are we going to be relevant. We’re going to imagine that the hotel industry airlines industry, we know what they went through.
I do think it requires from the early onset, you can see a point, you can see the tide starting to go out vis a vis a recession. So you have to make a beeline literally to your employee population, to your customer base. And you have to have a very active plan. I’m not referring to corporate social responsibility. I mean what’s your retention plan? Who’s going to be staffing? Any parts of your organization is going to require that new that new leadership muscle…it’s just not true about managing people through a pandemic, it’s also managing through recession? And it just seems like every damn week, man, is just something else coming.
The other thing I would point out, is that the pandemic really magnified this for HR. You know, it’s always a battle to prove your relevance, to have a seat at the table. Like, why are you relevant? And I would say, [after] the pandemic, I kind of walk around with my chest puffed up around Workhuman. You know why? We don’t have anything to prove anymore. Because the responsibility for getting an organization through the pandemic fell on HR. Just like the last recession, that was the test of the CFO.
We were the ones who had to get people home if they were at a conference and you got a shelter in place order. We were the ones who said, let’s get you the equipment so you can keep doing your job. We were the ones who created programming when mental health began to raise his head. We were the ones designing vaccine and safety protocols. We were the ones designing hybrid ways of work.
CS: Essential workers that are out there, man, and they were finally titled ‘essential workers’ and those people lifted up their chest and came out, because they knew that nothing happened without them.
SP: Absolutely. Absolutely. We’ve got to have a little bit more swag in HR, to be honest.
CS: We do. Okay, so last question, Steve. We’re back. We’re live. We’re here. How does it How does it feel man?
SP: Great. I mean, I love technology. I am a first adopter in just about damn near anything. And the three of us could be on the screen. But you know, we can have a conversation since we’re all bearded here. You know, I mean, just stuff that we can talk about laugh about, connect, even though we’re just meeting for the first time. Technology can’t replace that. So that feels great. And I also think the pandemic robbed us of community. It really did. I mean, it just isolated us, you’re alone. And it’s just something about laughing, smiling, having a drink, catching up with your colleagues.
JC: We need that. But I’ll let you out on this. You’re obviously a thoughtful guy. What’s on your reading list this summer? What’s filling your brain?
SP: So I’m going to answer that probably differently. So I am a voracious, relentless reader. I am an author. I am actually writing my next book. So my time is usually spent reading and writing my next one. Trying to find the time to do that get in the headspace to do it. I love the written word. This one has always been a bit of a project. You know, one of those wishlist things that I’ve just said, you know, I’m gonna really sit down and do this this time.
CS: Get a cabin in the woods and knock it out.
SP: Absolutely, but you got to be in a space to write. You know, you got to be in a space, I think, to read as well and absorb. The last one I read was The Song of Achilles; it’s a great book [that] revisits the story of Achilles, but in a very, very different way, which I’d recommend everybody take a gander at. It’s basically imagining Achilles still being the hero that he was, but understanding his journey, in a very, very different way. And there’s a real powerful narrative in there about D,E&I.
CS: That’s amazing. Steve Pemberton, everybody, Steve, thank you so much for taking time man. If people want to connect with you or find out more about what you’re doing, where would you actually send them?
SP: Yeah, go to Workhuman.com You can find me on LinkedIn. I like catching up with folks and hearing what they’re up to. You learn a lot from engaging and interacting with people hear what’s on their on their minds too. So easy to find on any of the social media platforms. Good hanging out with you guys too, man.
JC: Absolutely. This is great. Chad, another one is in the can.
Both: WE OUT.
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