How These CHROs Rewrote the Rules of HR — and Created a Salve for the 2020 Unemployment Crisis

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COVID-19 interrupted business as we know it. Earlier this year, four women leaders — known as the “fab four” — decided to use these disruptions for good. 

At Galvanize 2020: Making Womxn's Resource Groups Powerful by Fairygodboss, Senior Editor of Fortune Magazine Ellen McGirt moderated a conversation between four Chief Human Resource Officers who took on an innovative project in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis: Connecting people who suddenly needed a job with employers who needed talent. 

Their work resulted in People + Work Connect — an unprecedented, analytics-based platform powered by Accenture that facilitates continued employment. More than 500 companies in 95 countries are involved, helping talent from retail workers to chemists find work. 

Ellyn Shook, Chief Leadership & Human Resources Officer of Accenture, recalled the birth of the project: Early conversations she had with fellow CHROs when March 2020’s unemployment numbers looked like they’d be in the millions. 

She said the group felt compelled into action by the human suffering they saw — and the understanding that they could make a difference.  

“We realized at that moment that as CHROs, we had an obligation to step up to the plate and to use our platform, to really push through boundaries and bring down barriers to serve one very simple mission: To put these people back to work,” she said. 

“I couldn’t stare these numbers in the face and not feel a moral obligation… It was such a big problem,” Pat Wadors, Chief Talent Officer of ServiceNow, said. “With our empathy, we felt the pain of unemployment. We felt it deeply. And we knew we had opportunities to help solve some of this. We had no idea how. Ergo, we started to create the rule book.”

That’s exactly what this mission required: Reimagining the talent process from start to finish, and writing the rules as they went along.

“We had to disrupt our own imagination and solve this problem,” Wadors said. 

Lisa Buckingham, Chief Human Resources Officer of Lincoln Financial Group, shared that rewriting the rules often required picking up the phone and talking through different steps of the recruitment process that could be reworked or checked for redundancies. 

“The silver lining that came out of this, I would say, is that we've stretched our agile skills to figure out really, how can we do different things for our organization?,” she said. “We're making sure that we're leveraging all the right domain experts, but coming together and empowering our talent experts and ourselves to pick up the phone and call.” 

“There was no rule book for what we did. We wrote our own,” Shook reiterated. 

Beyond reworking processes to make connecting employers with talent as easy as possible, the leaders also had to rethink a then-commonplace recruiting philosophy. People + Work connect required them to set aside the ‘war for talent’ many organizations were prioritizing during previous years’ record low unemployment rates. 

“I think it was Pat Wadors, she said it first, that we are not going to compete for talent during this time. We're going to compete with our products and our services, and we're going to lift talent up to get the people back to work,” Shook said. 

McGirt noted this was an important shift for the market as a whole. 

“When you decide to own the unemployment numbers as a collective problem, and not just your own people as the issue that you need to focus on, I'm convinced that something important shifted in the HR community,” she said. 

The women agreed an important aspect of People + Work Connect is giving back to the HR community and helping HR organizations do compassionate, well-conceived work in an unprecedented time. 

“I believe the role of the People + Work Connect coalition founders, and now the expanded team, is to give back to the human resources community and to help think through different ideas,” Buckingham said. 

“Our People + Work platform is really a way to do two things: Help decrease the amount of time that people may be between assignments and also help for the HR organizations out there,” Christy Pambianchi, Chief Human Resource Officer of Verizon, said. “Sometimes you can feel pretty helpless on the front line. So this is the way to rapidly connect you with peers.”

The difficulties posed to connection by the circumstances of 2020 is a challenge that the HR community is remiss to ignore, Shook said. 

“HR people have an obligation to help lessen the dip we're going to take around mental wellness during this time,” she said. “We’ve got to go after it.” 

Beyond utilizing People + Work Connect, to build connections during this socially distant time, Buckingham emphasized centering your listening skills and making time for human conversation. These are two aspects of business she believes have naturally improved thanks to the challenges 2020 has presented. 

“I think the marketplace has changed for the better,” she said. “I think there's a new opportunity and I have a ton of hope.”

Pambianchi agreed that our newly virtual world with shifting priorities has provided exciting ways to make a difference. 

“There could be some silver lining upsides to helping people advance in ways that we didn't have before,” she said.

The first step is making that connection with others.

“I'm just such a huge believer in the sum is greater than the parts… [People + Work Connect] is an example of a women's network — the four of us just connecting because we knew each other and saying: ‘How could we do something together?’,” Pambianchi said. 

Shook said making time for self-care and “sharing that with our people very transparently” has helped her be more human and stay more connected, giving her what she needs to take action. 

After all, the action is what separates empathy and compassion — and compassion is what makes the difference. 

“Empathy plus action is compassion,” Wadors said.