Steve Pemberton is Best Selling Author, Philanthropist, Acclaimed Speaker, and Senior Level Executive. He wasn't given a chance in the world; he proved them wrong. Steve's chance is now focused on change. In this interview we talk about the pace of change, the fluidity of change, scaling belief and purpose, the end state of remote work, the future of equity, who was responsible for getting companies through the pandemic, and more.
Steve was not given a chance in the world and now he's changing it. Enjoy!
TRANSCRIPTION SPONSORED BY: Disability Solutions partners with our clients to build best-in-class inclusion programs and reach qualified, talented individuals with disabilities of every skill, education, and experience level.
Hide your kids! Lock the doors! You're listening to HR’s most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheeseman are here to punch the recruiting industry, right where it hurts! Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark, buckle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.
Hey it's Chad. Whenever you have a chance to interview someone whose life has been turned into a movie, well, you make time for that interview. And we did with Steve Pemberton, currently CHRO at WorkHuman straight from Unleash America's expo floor we got Steve on the mic and to be truthful, most people have to get comfortable on the mic. Not Steve. He's funny, smart, genuine and one of the best interviews we have recorded to date. Now, we originally recorded this interview exclusively for the Unleashed Cast podcast, but it was too damn good not to share here.
Chad (1m 10s):
You can find more great interviews from the floor of Unleash America over at Unleashed Cast podcast. Let's join the conversation in progress.
Steve (1m 21s):
So 30 seconds or less, I walk across my college graduation stage. Nobody's there?
Chad (1m 28s):
Steve (1m 29s):
No family, nobody. I'm like, why the hell is this? Where's my mother, father? I go looking for them. When I find them, find siblings find this case file that's almost 300 pages long and in that case file was a prediction from a social worker who said that I was not going to have a chance in the world. So I titled that the book that I wrote for my children, that book became a bestseller, became a movie, became a curriculum that's taught in American schools. None of that I was trying to do.
Joel (2m 1s):
Yeah. And what's the movie called again for
Steve (2m 2s):
A Chance in the World.
Chad (2m 5s):
A Chance in the World. So you've got a great story, right? Why get into HR?
Steve (2m 12s):
Because that's what HR is about.
Chad (2m 14s):
Yeah, tell me about that.
Steve (2m 15s):
It's about people's stories.
Chad (2m 16s):
Steve (2m 16s):
I mean, I've always been fascinated. Well, because of my own journey, like I've always been fascinated by systems and people and in part, because both systems and people failed me.
Chad (2m 28s):
Steve (2m 29s):
So how do systems and people that drive them? How do those two worlds intersect? And HR's probably the single best place to do that cuz every day you wake up trying to figure out where they're dealing with payroll or they're dealing with advancing people. You you're always wrestling with how systems enable people and how those people enable systems.
Chad (2m 45s):
So how hard is it to actually get the systems to work? Right? I mean, we're talking about one company right now, right?
Steve (2m 52s):
Chad (2m 53s):
How hard is it to get it just within your own organization?
Steve (2m 56s):
Chad (2m 56s):
To get those to run, right. We're talking about equity, talking about transparency. We're talking about systems that have been broken forever.
Steve (3m 4s):
Chad (3m 4s):
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 and we won't talk about clients or anything, just how do you harness this? How do you actually fix this?
Steve (3m 20s):
Well, change has been going on since the beginning of time. Right? If it hadn't, you know, we'd be running around with clubs chasing dinosaurs. Change has always happened.
Chad (3m 28s):
That's what Joel does on the weekends, by the way.
Steve (3m 31s):
Yeah. I'm gonna leave that alone. Leave Joel alone. But what's different for us to pace a change. Which is why I think it's so hard, cuz the minute that you think you have that system teed up, then there's could be a new federal regulation that comes down.
Chad (3m 45s):
Steve (3m 46s):
Something could happen around pay equity and so now you gotta 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 gotta go back and it really frustrates people.
Chad (3m 58s):
Steve (3m 58s):
And we're gonna have to accept the fact that change is happening so quickly. It's just gonna be a norm and you're gonna have to be constantly and relentlessly updating. And then I think the other, which is the subject of the panel, is how are those same systems enabling these softer or these perceptively softer things? Like culture.
Chad (4m 19s):
Steve (4m 19s):
Chad (4m 20s):
Steve (4m 20s):
And I think technology is, might be our last best shot because as human beings, we keep getting this wrong. I mean, look at the broader society. Right? Look at what's happened.
Chad (4m 30s):
Steve (4m 31s):
Last 48 hours. Last two weeks.
Chad (4m 31s):
Steve (4m 32s):
Where do you turn? Where are the places you turn and what are the tools you turn to try and find some semblance of humanity.
Chad (4m 40s):
Joel (4m 42s):
I wanna touch on your employer. WorkHuman.
Steve (4m 44s):
Joel (4m 44s):
And your background, you've worked in a lot of big organizations. I heard Walgreens and some other, 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.
Steve (5m 0s):
Joel (5m 1s):
Talk about that.
Steve (5m 1s):
That Joel, 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 into any prospect or any customer and say, so here is how I leverage in our case. Here's how I leverage our recognition platform. And I like that. I like the challenge of it was 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 my own career path, I was part of an organization in Walgreens, like 90% brand recognition, 250,000 people and it became,
Joel (5m 40s):
Yeah's kind of a big deal, big deal, Walgreens.
Steve (5m 42s):
But that was one of the problems. Is just too damn big.
Joel (5m 45s):
Steve (5m 46s):
And you're dealing with a very complex industry. That's healthcare.
Chad (5m 49s):
Steve (5m 50s):
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. Cuz without health, everything else, just a conversation.
Joel (5m 60s):
Steve (6m 1s):
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 kinda look around a landscape and say, all right, I'm gonna be fine. I have a job. Like what do I want do?
Joel (6m 15s):
Steve (6m 17s):
And to choose a company that was rapidly rising was, I needed to feel alive again. It felt like that. Like you need to be like alive again.
Chad (6m 24s):
Now 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?
Steve (6m 36s):
Well, in my world you had better because if not, especially because of the pandemic, people gonna walk out on you. I think I think that's a dynamic that's changed. It's not about work life anymore. It's about life at work.
Chad (6m 47s):
Steve (6m 47s):
Because you know, we're sitting on screens and you know, you've got babies on laps and cats walking across the desk.
Chad (6m 54s):
Steve (6m 54s):
I mean, you, you saw windows, literally windows into people's lives. Yeah. And if you're not using technology to scale those human interactions, then those people are gonna say, Hey, you know, 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 are just having these kind of one off conversations, which are nice and they're cool. But you wanna know that you are scaling that. And the last thing I'd say, and certainly this is true in the pandemic. I mean, people are hurting. I mean, you, you see this, what happened in Buffalo? What happened in Uvalde?
Chad (7m 35s):
Steve (7m 35s):
You know, our employees, aren't walking into WorkHuman and they're turning that off. They're not turning that off. They want a place to talk about it.
Chad (7m 41s):
Steve (7m 41s):
Even if they don't know what to say. So we have a parents that 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 cuz 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 holding onto their hand longer. My VP of HR said, dropped my daughter off of school, police presence there. Police presence wasn't there yesterday.
Chad (8m 12s):
Steve (8m 12s):
How are you having those conversations?
Chad (8m 13s):
Steve (8m 13s):
What are you talking about?
Chad (8m 14s):
Active shooter drills are happening and your kids are talking about it coming home. Yeah.
Steve (8m 21s):
Yeah. Yeah. Very different. Very different.
Joel (8m 25s):
We talk every week about the remote work question.
Steve (8m 27s):
Joel (8m 28s):
And some companies are, get your ass back to the office. Some are never come back again. Others are are hybrid. What was the internal discussion like at WorkHuman in regards to what you were gonna do after the pandemic?
Steve (8m 41s):
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, you know, the influences and talking heads say do X, Y or Z. I'm like, yeah. Okay. That's bovine skitology, you know what that is?
Joel (8m 58s):
Steve (8m 58s):
That's right. You don't know. You don't know.
Joel (8m 60s):
Steve (8m 60s):
So for us, here's what we did, we went through these cycles. I think every company's doing and you're reading articles and you know what we did that really changed the dynamic. We went to our people and we said, 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 are looking for fun. We're looking for fitness, we're looking for food and we're looking for some sense of family. So that's how I talk about it internally for us. But that's us. Right? That's what we are 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.
Steve (9m 42s):
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.
Joel (9m 57s):
Steve (9m 57s):
She's gonna say, well, I'm gonna lose 25, 30% of my workforce if you force that, on the other hand marketing, you might say, I've gotta have 'em 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.
Joel (10m 11s):
Steve (10m 12s):
And 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 gonna be working exactly the same way and you're gonna have to accept that.
Joel (10m 28s):
Chad (10m 29s):
Well we never have, I mean, seriously, we really never have.
Steve (10m 32s):
Chad (10m 33s):
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.
Steve (10m 53s):
Chad (10m 53s):
So a little bit of pay, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Some time off, whatever it is.
Steve (10m 60s):
Chad (11m 0s):
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?
Steve (11m 14s):
Chad (11m 14s):
And it's a much harder to take a look at what equity actually means.
Steve (11m 18s):
Yeah. And how do you not wind up with two different kinds of companies as a result?
Chad (11m 24s):
Steve (11m 25s):
One that's remote and one that's. Well, I think the fulcrum is really the people leaders in that company specifically, they're the ones who are gonna have to develop new management muscle to deal with those changing realities. Otherwise, if you, you could have silos and legal wants to run it one way and finance wants to run it another and that's how you wind up with these inequities. So I think training people, leaders, and I get on biweekly calls without people leaders. It's like every other week, every Wednesday morning, I'm on with them.
Chad (11m 60s):
Steve (12m 0s):
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 will step through training, whatever's 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.
Joel (12m 29s):
So speaking of inequities, I don't know if you saw our keynote with the commissioner of the EEOC yesterday, but we talked extensively about AI and hiring and how there are bias 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 sort of leaning on AI and, and sort of the trap doors to look for when bias does come into play, whether it's intentional or not?
Chad (13m 3s):
That's a good one.
Steve (13m 4s):
Yeah. So, because you still have no matter what you do, you're still gonna have human beings who are behind the AI in some way, shape or form determining algorithms. Right? Architecting, language.
Chad (13m 15s):
Steve (13m 17s):
All of that.
Chad (13m 19s):
Oh yeah. Yeah.
Steve (13m 21s):
I think focusing on technology to preempt bias specifically is where I think the next evolution should go. Cuz right now all of the tools, that like 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 EEOC.
Chad (13m 46s):
Steve (13m 47s):
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 in recognizing a woman for performance? You may not even be aware of it. My wife and daughter often remind me, I'm not the feminist I think I am.
Chad (14m 9s):
Steve (14m 10s):
Right? I didn't know. But if it gets, if that mirror gets held up to me while it's happening, not after the fact, not after she's already left, not after she's already been offended. I think you can create a very different kind of language. What. Now the challenge I think, is shifting a lot of the DE&I practitioners shifting their mindset. They're not dealing in broader society today, they're not dealing with unconscious bias. A lot of the shit I see has conscious bias.
Chad (14m 39s):
Yeah. We're beyond unconscious.
Steve (14m 40s):
Yeah. This is not a matter of, you don't know better. #MeToo movement.
Chad (14m 43s):
Steve (14m 43s):
You know exactly what the hell you were doing.
Joel (14m 46s):
Steve (14m 46s):
So you're getting enabled. You still are, 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 though, is where you've seen advancements specifically, so that you 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 until I feel.
Chad (15m 15s):
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.
Steve (15m 32s):
Chad (15m 32s):
And we've seen that for years. Have you seen changes and where are, if we, 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?
Steve (15m 45s):
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 nineties when companies found themselves in courtrooms getting sold for millions and millions of dollars. And so, you know what those boards went back and they said, well, we gotta stay outta courtroom. We gotta stay outta the news. So we're gonna hire somebody.
Chad (16m 10s):
Steve (16m 11s):
And that person's sole job and responsibilities to make sure we don't wind up in the courtroom again. So think what that anchor is. That anchor more
Chad (16m 18s):
Steve (16m 18s):
Yeah, exactly what it was.
Chad (16m 19s):
Steve (16m 20s):
In quasi PR, which is how you wind up with a single individual, no budget and a lot of external facing optics kind of things.
Chad (16m 28s):
Steve (16m 28s):
Well, when was the last time in any part of any organization that you said anything was of significance in value you put one person on it with no budget? Nowhere. So you're sending a message already about its 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's changing, like how can you continue to go down this path of the CDO in a role by themselves kinda like an ice cream cone, no ice cream in basically.
Chad (16m 60s):
Steve (17m 0s):
So for a lot of companies though, and especially George Floyd, which is where I think you saw this real paradigm shift.
Chad (17m 7s):
Steve (17m 8s):
So since may of 2020, which is when George Floyd was murdered, companies have dedicated 66 billion to eliminating disparities, in transportation, in housing. So that was a real paradigm shift. The business round table made up of 181 CEO said, you know, we have a broader societal responsibility because prior to that, they came from that Milton Friedman school of thought, which was, we don't have any responsibility other than generating a profit.
Chad (17m 34s):
Steve (17m 34s):
Drucker comes along a little bit later and says, no, you have a broader responsibility here. So when the business round table says, actually you're right. It's why you see Apple investing in homelessness. It's why, when we were at WorkHuman in Atlanta last year, we had our recognition moments and all the recognition moments that came through, went to three charities in the Atlanta area. In other words, we're saying as businesses, we are not gonna leave this government because by and large, our politics are not in a place where they seemingly can solve the challenges of our time.
Chad (18m 4s):
Steve (18m 4s):
So we have this quiet covenant, I think that's happening amongst businesses saying, we'll take it on. We're gonna get together cuz we have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, 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 gonna form partnerships like Bank of America does with Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta. HBCU saying, we're gonna start centers for entrepreneurship.
Chad (18m 33s):
Steve (18m 34s):
We're gonna be focused on women in STEM disciplines. So that's why I have hope despite the fact, I think some things have not changed.
Joel (18m 41s):
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 DEI issues in regards to the economy and a downturn? What happens when that happens? And then when we come out of it, what's your view on what DEI looks like? Is it stronger after the storm or do we go back to more status quo?
Steve (19m 9s):
Well, typically the recession around those matters is always mental retraction. You know, when you perceive DEI as a nice thing to do in cost cutting time, it's the first thing to go because it's an optic in some cases, candidly or a kind of a nice to have.
Joel (19m 24s):
Steve (19m 24s):
But again, who's your customer base? Who are you serving? Who's your employee base? I can't, I'm sure this happened to both of you as well, I can't tell you a number of times. Probably most recently, a couple weeks ago from New England live in Chicago, big Dunkin' Donuts. That's my deal.
Joel (19m 38s):
Steve (19m 38s):
Yes, man. I go to a Dunkin' Donuts, like five o'clock to grab a cup of coffee. Sign. We don't have staff here.
Chad (19m 46s):
Steve (19m 46s):
We don't have staff here.
Chad (19m 48s):
Steve (19m 48s):
Right. So this idea somehow that we can just kind of get through a recession and then we'll be able to, I don't think that's. We had better planned for it accordingly. I will say though, that the pandemic would've led you to believe that too. Right. Because okay. We're all in this moment, this first six weeks are we gonna be around? Are we gonna be relevant?
Chad (20m 7s):
Steve (20m 7s):
You imagine the hotel industry. Airlines industry. We know what they went through. I do think it requires from the early onset. Cuz see your point. You can con you can see, you can see the tides starting to go out vis a vis the recession. So you have to make a B line literally to your employee population, to your customer base and you have to have a very active plan. I'm not referring to kind corporate social responsibility. What your retention plan? Who's gonna be staffing any parts of your organization? It's gonna require that new leadership muscle. It's just not true about managing people through a pandemic, it's also managing through recessions. And it just seems like every damn week, man is just something else coming.
Chad (20m 50s):
Steve (20m 50s):
Something else coming. You know, the other thing I would point out is that the pandemic really magnified this HR, you know, it's always a battle to prove your relevance to have a seat at the table.
Joel (21m 0s):
Chad (21m 0s):
Steve (21m 0s):
Like why are you relevant?
Chad (21m 2s):
Steve (21m 2s):
And I would say the pandemic, I kind of walk around with my chest, pumped up, puffed up around WorkHuman and generally. 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.
Chad (21m 28s):
Steve (21m 28s):
We were the ones who created programming when mental health began to raise its head. We were the ones designing vaccine and safety protocols. We came back to the office, we're the ones designing hybrid ways of working.
Chad (21m 42s):
The essential workers that are out there, man.
Steve (21m 44s):
Chad (21m 44s):
And they were finally titled essential workers and those people lifted up their chest came out.
Steve (21m 45s):
Chad (21m 46s):
Because they knew that nothing happened without them. We saw a supply chain.
Steve (21m 52s):
Chad (21m 53s):
Steve (21m 53s):
Chad (21m 53s):
Steve (21m 54s):
Absolutely. Absolutely. We gotta have a little bit more swag in HR.
Chad (22m 0s):
Steve (22m 1s):
To be honest.
Chad (22m 1s):
We do. We do. Okay. So last question, Steve. We're back. We're live.
Steve (22m 5s):
Chad (22m 6s):
We're here. How does it feel, man? Great.
Steve (22m 10s):
Yeah. I mean, I love technology. I'm a first adopter and just about damn near anything and the three of us could be on the screen, but you