This week I attended the California HR Conference in Long Beach. This was a chance for me to reflect on how much the profession has changed since I started in HR back in 2003. Of course, we are still talking about compliance issues like meal breaks and exempt classification, but the conversation is shifting more to the topic of workplace culture. So many of the sessions and speakers at this year’s conference addressed this topic and explored what we can do to create work environments where employees can thrive.
What is Workplace Culture?
Workplace culture is such a broad term that gets thrown around in the HR world quite a bit. As several speakers pointed out, workplace culture is really the way we think about the kind of environment we want to create for our employees.
At the Tuesday mega-session, Garry O. Ridge, President and CEO of WD-40, spoke about the type of culture he and his team have created at their company. He started out by saying, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” If a company sets out to cultivate a tribal culture where people feel that they belong and have a purpose, success with whatever the company’s product or service is will follow.
Tuesday also included TED-style talks from several CHROs: Paul Wolfe from Indeed, Laurie Shakur from Nielsen Portfolio Division and Mindi Cox from O.C. Tanner. All three echoed a lot of what Ridge covered in his talk. Wolfe reminded the audience that engaged employees are more committed to company success. At his company, the best ideas win rather than there being a hierarchy that ideas must travel up before being adopted. One way the company conveys this in their offices is that everyone at Indeed has the same set-up, and there are no private offices. Shakur talked about putting the human back in human resources and called for HR professionals to take the time to evaluate what is working and what is not working and also listening to what employees have to say about their experience at work.
Speakers also embraced technology when talking about workplace culture. Juliette Meunier and Scott Thorenson did a session on “Total Rewards for the New Digital Economy.” What employees want from their employers has changed, and companies can leverage data analytics to better understand the needs of a changing workforce. They pointed out the many options beyond traditional insurance and time off offerings and said analyzing employee needs could uncover possible benefits like student debt repayment.
Harassment in the Era of #MeToo
We cannot talk about workplace culture without discussing how harassment (and #MeToo) has affected the work experience for so many people. Several sessions addressed this topic. Those of us in HR must play a big role in changing the culture so that employees do not need to come to work with a fear that they will face harassment.
Helene Wasserman shared ways employers can keep harassment from toppling their organizations. The key is upper management that models good behavior and embraces a culture where people feel safe coming forward when they witness or experience harassment.
She also explained that harassment prevention training should include information on bystander intervention so that employees know how to respond when they see harassment. Employees need to know that if they see something, they should say something.
Wasserman believes it is becoming much easier for HR departments to talk to upper management about this because the consequences of not dealing with harassment are becoming big news.
Overall, Wasserman encouraged employers to emphasize civility in the workplace and to foster a respectful workplace. Not only do these things contribute to a harassment-free workplace, but they also are a part of building a workplace culture like those mentioned by the other speakers.
Lessons from an Astronaut
The conference closed with a keynote by Scott Kelly, an astronaut known for spending a year in space. Kelly’s talk, “The Sky is not the Limit: Lessons from a Year in Space,” spoke to how we can conquer the impossible. He told his own story of a childhood where he was not a good student and spent more time staring out the window than paying attention in class. But reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe after finding it in a college bookstore changed the way Kelly thought about his future. It ended up setting him on the path to becoming an astronaut.
Kelly described the eight-and-a-half minute ride into space. He said, “It feels like the hand of God is lifting you off that launchpad and throwing you into space.” Kelly said he was so busy with making sure he completed the required tasks that he did not pay attention to the view outside the shuttle’s windows. He said he was looking inside at the things he could control and ignoring everything else. This is a good life lesson, especially when we are deep in the HR trenches, trying to figure out how to fix an ailing culture. Start with the things you can control and work out from there.
“The best part of coming back from space was realizing I’d done the hardest thing in my life, and I could come back and share that with the public,” Kelly said.
Again, there is a lesson here for those of us in HR. Kelly is a fine example of embracing what is hard. There was a huge risk in what he did, and there is a risk for us in HR every day, even if it is not on par with spending a year in space. But we need to take those risks in order to drive forward the change that needs to happen to create the workplaces where employees want to be.
Getting a bunch of HR people together in one place always leads to a fun exchange of ideas. So often in HR we get siloed in our own companies. Talking to others in our profession is a good way to open our minds to other ways of doing HR. We have to be prepared for the way in which work is changing and really work to make environments that are not only compliant but are also a place that people enjoy showing up to each day. The California HR Conference continues to be at the forefront of making those kinds of conversations happen. Visit the conference website for details on next year’s conference.