Erin Miller, VP of Human Resources at PrecisionHawk, joins The HR Risk Podcast to discuss how to engineer belonging in the workplace. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple PodcastsStitcher, or your favorite podcast app!

Jennings: Our topic today is How to Engineer Belonging in the Workplace. We spend eight hours or more every weekday with our colleagues. The community of people we work with is a huge part of our lives, and our ability to integrate into and belong to that community will partly determine whether we’re effective members of our teams, whether we grow to our career potential, and even whether we stay with an organization. For employers, employees who don’t feel a sense of belonging are a risk when it comes to morale, productivity, and retention. Joining us today to discuss how to engineer this sense of belonging is Erin Miller. Erin is the VP of Human Resources at PrecisionHawk, a drone robotics startup, and is a progressive people strategist with a passion for driving innovative human resource and people-first practices.

Jennings: Erin, welcome to The HR Risk Podcast.

Miller: Thank you so much for having me.

Jennings: Erin, before we jump into the conversation, could you give us a little bit more about your career and the roles that you’ve played as an HR practitioner

Miller: Absolutely. My journey getting to HR started out interesting because I started my career in sales. I took the love of building relationships and really focusing on trust and open honest conversations and turned that into an accidental career in people and HR. And I really cut my teeth on learning the best people practices during my time at The Motley Fool; it’s a financial services company out of Alexandria, Virginia. And it was there that I got to learn about progressive people practices. I was the director of people development and then my last two companies, I’ve been head of HR.

Jennings: I love that, we think of sales as being sort of a tribe unto itself so often in a company. But there’s the insight that sales is about relationships. And HR, if it’s being done well, it’s also about people and about relationships. In those experiences you’ve had as an HR practitioner after your sales career, are there any issues or risks that really stick out in your mind that you’d like to share your thoughts with our listeners about?

Miller: Absolutely. And I feel like this topic has become a bit of a buzzword and a buzz topic over the last couple of years. But you know, one thing that I learned in sales was giving someone a time and a place to be heard and really understand their challenges. That was one of the ways that I found success in sales. And that’s also what I’ve found in HR. It’s really about being present for someone and helping them find that sense of belonging in an organization. And I think the biggest risks that companies run today is not creating a sense of belonging and that sense of community within their organizations.

Jennings: That makes sense, I mean the risks really seem to potentially run the gamut from retention issues to morale slagging and productivity slagging, to even, you could imagine litigation snowballing from a sense of folks not having that sense of belonging and there isn’t that culture that folks feel apart of. What are some of the ways that you’ve addressed the issues of creating a sense of belongingness, creating this culture, making sure that if folks aren’t feeling connected that that they get connected? Or what are some best practices that you’ve seen others do that that you’ve maybe learned from?

Miller: Yes, absolutely. With this, every human at that core wants to belong, even as adult. I think about times that I’ve started a new job and it takes me back to that six-year old Erin starting kindergarten and looking around wondering “who’s going to be my friend, who’s going to sit with me at lunch?” And all those feelings come back to us. Even as we’re in bodies of 40-year olds and 50-year olds, we are still those people that are walking into a new environment looking for who’s going to be my friend, who’s going to sit next to me at lunch. And one of the best ways to build a sense of belonging is through appreciation and really helping people feel valued. A couple of things that I’ve done, and I’ve been at companies where they’ve done this, is really investing in a social recognition platform and that can come in many ways.

Miller: We use the HRIS Namely and they have an appreciation platform where any employee can get on our Namely page and say, “you know, hey Andrew, thank you so much for your help on that project. I really appreciate you putting in the extra hours with me so that we could get it over the finish line.” And when employees are able to see each other appreciating each other, it catches on and it means a lot. And there’s also companies out there like HeyTaco!YouEarnedItGloboforce, and all of them are technology solutions for you to empower your employees to really appreciate each other and the work that they’re doing. Once a month at our company we have a dinner called “Sushi with the CEO,” and we choose eight employees and they go out to dinner with our CEO. It’s really their opportunity to get facetime with a CEO who’s very busy and they get the opportunity to ask questions, get to know the CEO, and also to understand what is the CEO’s vision of our company and what keeps the CEO up at night and what are some of the challenges.

Miller: And when you have those small interactions and they get the opportunity to have facetime with one of our leaders, it really goes a long way. And it also shows them that they are a piece of what’s going to make us successful and we do appreciate them. It’s been something that we started about six months ago and I’ve gotten really good feedback that people like it and they like the opportunity to ask the CEO whatever question they may have in their mind. Another thing that doesn’t cost any money that is really meaningful is every employee gets a personal handwritten note by our COO, and she writes a personal note thanking them for everything that they’ve contributed to the company over the last year. And then we also pair it with a gift card to something very specific to that employee.

Jennings: Personalized.

Miller: Exactly. The HR team helps the COO really figure out, “does that person love dogs, did they love food, are they a yoga enthusiast?” And so we really make sure that gift card personal to that individual.

Jennings: I like that. It’s a lot of different options and the recognition reminds me of a group that I was part of several years ago, a really hard-working group. And we did sort of the low-tech version of that. We had this board with index cards and you were supposed to write something very concrete and affirmative, or appreciative, of somebody else on the team. And I think that did a lot for morale. It was cheap and easy and simple and there’s no software involved. One thing that you said a few minutes ago really struck me about whenever we start a new joband I’ve certainly felt thisyou feel like you’re the six-year old in kindergarten again, and you’re a little bit unsure about your place in the social scheme of things. And typically I’ve found that there’s some inflection point where you go from feeling a little bit like an outsider to “oh, I belong now, I’m part of the group.” And that’s always been a little bit of a random, kind of ad hoc process, at least in my experience. Are there ways that that HR leaders and people leaders can speed up that process that somebody reaches that “I belong” inflection point?

Miller: Absolutely. And I’ll tell you how. One of the things that The Motley Fool did while I was there: there was a room where our board of directors met and outside of that room, they created an employee photo wall. That’s been something that I’ve brought to the last two companies that I’ve joined and it’s so simple. On the first day of someone’s job you ask them for a photo that they approve of, you print out the photo and you stick the photo up on the wall and automatically that signifies their face is among all the other faces who are already at the company, just that visual of you are part of this amazing community of people at this organization.

Miller: The second thing to do to engineer it and get it going quickly is someone’s first day. We figure out all the things that they love and we’ll put balloons at their desk and if their favorite candy is Twix or they just want chewing gum, we make sure that it’s there. We also on somebody’s first day choose a random group of eight to ten people that go out to lunch with this individual. They’re not people necessarily on this person’s team. We choose everyone from different departments. What happens is their first day they’re meeting eight people from across the company that they may not work with directly. So the way I engineer that kind of sense of belonging right away is exposing the new employee to a number of different people in different areas of the business. That way when they’re walking through the hall, they’re meeting their manager, they’re meeting their team, but now they have eight other people from across the company that sit in different places that know their name, that ate lunch with them their first day. It’s really creating that shared experience that down the road somebody can say, “oh yeah, I had lunch with Suzanne on her first day,” even though we’re not on the same team. But “we learned that we loved these x amount of things and we can’t believe we have that in common.” So it’s really engineering those meaningful collisions early.

Jennings: I think that’s a great idea. So often the first day is orientation to the company’s policies, orientation to what your role is, and I think you’re pointing out that it’s equally important to orient people to what it is to be a member of this group and this miniature society. And I think that’s a great way to get that started and to engineer that process to happen a little bit faster. We’ve talked today about some of the best practices that HR practitioners can do to create that culture of belonging. If those efforts aren’t always successfullet’s say that there’s a small HR team and there are lots of people and it can be a little bit hard to make sure that everybody is having that click moment where they finally feel like they fit into the social climatehow can it be identified when that click isn’t happening and how can that be addressed. How can any risks associated with it that be mitigated?

Miller: Absolutely. There are a couple of ways I’m going to approach what you just asked. I think as HR professionals we probably get stuck in the trap of sitting around a conference room table and we think we’re coming up with great ideas and those ideas are not resonating with our organizations or our employees. I think as an HR professional and you’re trying to create something innovative or new or progressive for your organization, I think step one has to be give the power to the people. I think it’s really important that HR professionals are meeting with employees and figuring out what are we doing well, what can we be doing better, what’s missing? Don’t sit in a room with the other HR team and come up with these ideas, but as a team disperse and go set up one-on-ones with employees from different areas of the business and make sure that you’re meeting with people that represent every community that’s in your organization so that you’re not only pleasing the college students or the new grads that have joined your company, but you’re also entertaining the retirees, the parents that are working really hard, just talking to a multitude of different people to ensure that you’re meeting their needs.

Miller: And I’m a big fan of letting people come to HR and say, “hey, I have this idea” and the best way to do it is really to give the power to the people. Give them a budget. Or if they come to you with an idea, ask them “how can I support you?” Because you know you’re winning as an HR or people team when you are sitting back and watching the work happen and watching that sense of belonging grow organically. You don’t want to be the HR person that is always like, “you need to come to this happy hour. You need to come to this dinner. You need to join book club.” That’s I think when you know it’s failing, when HR is the only driver. Successful is when your employees have the power to create clubs and create their own sense of community and HR is simply removing blockers and supporting that natural, organic growth.

Jennings: Let’s say that HR in the conference room and a group of employees in another conference room came up with the same idea. I think if employees are really the ones driving it, it’s much more likely to have good uptake just because people are invested in it and so that’s another good by-product.

Jennings: Erin, if our listeners want to continue the conversation, where should they go for that?

Miller: The only thing I will say is that I’ll be attending WorkHuman, it’s a thought leadership conference around progressive people strategies that’s happening in Nashville on March 18th. So if anyone wants to follow me on Twitter, my Twitter handle is @ThisTweety. Otherwise, I’m on LinkedIn and I will be pumping out content from this conference that really does speak to building that sense of belonging and community within organizations.

Jennings: Great, and I will add links to those on our show notes on the website. Erin, thank you for joining The HR Risk Podcast.

Miller: Thank you for having me, Andrew. Such a pleasure.


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