Can Corporate Culture Bridge the Talent Gap?

An HR leader explains how companies view the importance of culture in an era with historically low unemployment rates.
Lisa GreenoughJune 1, 2018
Can Corporate Culture Bridge the Talent Gap?

This article is about human resources, but to the extent CFOs care about corporate culture and employees — and they should care about those things very much — I’m hoping it’s of interest to them.

Lisa Greenough

I’ve been in the HR field for three decades. A long time ago, we were called personnel managers. Then we became human resources managers. More recently, many of us were human capital managers.

The latter title was, I think, a well-intentioned attempt to position the function as more strategic, but it never felt right to me. It communicates the importance of people as an asset while simultaneously dehumanizing them.

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That’s why I’m delighted with my current title: Vice President of People and Culture. I first heard of titles like that about five or six years ago when friends in my professional network started migrating into the technology industry.

But new naming conventions are not just the latest tech trend. I think these titles reflect real changes in the way companies think about corporate culture.

The Great Differentiator

Titles like mine are solidifying a shift that’s been happening for a long time. For the last 10 or 15 years, the topic of company culture has been appearing prominently in HR books — how to help people be more engaged, what role engagement plays in productivity, and, especially of interest to finance folks, the ROI on engagement over time.

Well, you have to have a way for engagement to happen, and that is a function of company culture.

During the Great Recession a decade ago, it was a buyer’s market for companies looking for great talent. Now, the unemployment rate in Oregon, where my company is located, is ridiculously low — near 3%, and it’s hovering around 4% nationally.

As competition for talent has heated up, companies are focusing on culture as a differentiator to attract people. Having a VP of People and Culture is a way to announce that difference up front.

While what I do isn’t that different from what I’ve done in previous HR leadership roles, the way I go about it is. Seeing the words “People and Culture” on my nameplate is a daily reminder of what my top priorities are.

It’s a title I’ve had to grow into, and that’s been possible because I’ve had the support of senior management. Our CEO, Karla Friede, conveyed to me coming in that this title reflected what was important to her.

Culture Club

Ours is a high-growth company, and all the policies and procedures aren’t yet in place. Based on my previous training, I probably would have pulled all of that together from some industry-standard templates and said, here’s the policy book; here’s the way we do things.

Instead, I started a communication and culture committee. We call it C3. It’s an employee group focused on creating a good working environment.

It’s not just about employee perks, although we have those. People really want to learn — not just about the company, our industry, and their role, but also about things that are personally interesting to them. We have a calendar built around learning, wellness challenges, and serving our community.

We looked at every policy, discussed our values and the way we wanted to do things, the software we were going to bring in, the kind of events and awards we wanted to have, and how we were going to run the C3 group and communicate what was going on. We’re currently drafting a playbook that pulls all of our culture ideas into one document.

Outside the Comfort Zone 

Working this way has pushed me to get outside of my office and comfort zone. I’m an introvert, but to continually take the pulse of the people and the culture, I’ve gotten to know people in all departments of the company.

The best HR people have always cared about culture, but your title sets the tone for where you can take job and what people expect of you.

VPs of People and Culture still have to get all the transactional work done, but in a way that works best for people. If they have paperwork to do, they have to think about how to make that easy for the employees, not just what’s efficient for HR.

It’s been interesting holding this title, not just because of the effect it’s had on my perception of my role, but also as a mirror of how others see HR.

Most of the time, people introduce me as the VP of People and Culture. But when I sit with a manager in a disciplinary meeting, they always call me the VP of HR. I think it’s because others think it conveys more authority (whether that’s positive or negative is an entirely different topic up), but I think, “Oh, I caught onto that.”

I’m guessing it means the perception of HR has not evolved as quickly as the titles have, but it’s a work in process. I recently got to hire my first employee. In years past, we might have given her the title of HR Manager, because she’ll do all the things you’d normally expect in that role.

Here, her title is Employee Experience Specialist. I think it’s the next logical step in the evolution of HR.

Lisa Greenough is the vice president of people and culture for Nvoicepay. Her more than 25 years of leadership experience has been focused on human resources and management in the hospitality, technolog,y and training industries.

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