View from the top – Rhonda Brown from FutureWork Consulting

January 20, 2023

In our most recent edition of “View from the top”, we interview Rhonda Brown, Founder and Managing Partner of HR consultancy, FutureWork Consulting.

Rhonda Brown served as an Employment Attorney, Ethics Program Head and HR team member for several years at a privately owned publisher. Her work involved advising on all types of HR legal issues across all 50 states. Rhonda has also provided compliance management, advice and employee training in the US and four other geographies. Two years ago she became a strategic HR consultant, putting her people skills front and center, offering her background in finding lawful and compliant solutions as a value add. 

What do you think is not talked enough about in HR? 

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about HR getting a seat at the table, being part of C-suite deliberations. That can only happen if HR leaders take a strategic approach to their role. For too long HR professionals have been seen by executives, and even by themselves, as administrators. Wage and hour laws change – HR recalibrates payroll to match. A state mandates pay transparency, so HR adds pay ranges to job postings. By contrast, an HR department with a strategic approach sees such moves on the horizon and offers management a game plan, well before such changes become law. With a strategic approach, the department would have prepared a wage calibration to ensure that pay changes were implemented equitably. HR staff would have undertaken a pay equity study and already begun to make internal adjustments so that published pay ranges for roles were equivalent to rates being paid to employees already in place. Wise legal and people interventions in both cases.

On-demand consultants can be important partners in such strategic problem solving. They can maximize resources for an already-busy HR group by designing responses to emergent problems – an employee engagement program to improve retention, performance management practices revamps, best-in-class family care and medical leave programs, compensation studies – with workable timelines for the HR department to implement. Because of their varied experience with different-sized companies in assorted industries, a consultant can often predict future challenges that HR should prepare to address and share ideas for meeting them. 

What are you really, really good at? 

I am good at seeing around corners. I’ve held various roles – Head of Employment Law, Interim HR Director, Ethics and Compliance VP – and I am good at compiling bits of information to reveal a trend or an area worth watching. At one company where I worked, we had paid internships years before they became common in our industry. I pushed for that because I thought payment better reflected the legal requirements, but also because paid internships created a bigger pool of candidates, and cost the company very little compared to the good will and engagement they created. I read several years ago that five generations were at work together for the first time in history. In very broad terms, each group brought strengths and weaknesses, like institutional knowledge and change skepticism for those long on the job and technological agility versus impatience for learning the basics for those with less job history. The development of productive working relationships among these groups without intervention might have happened on its own, but it would have taken time. HR was already sensing tension between managers and team members about differences in work styles. Rather than wait, I completed coursework in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) education where I gathered concrete ideas that I shared with colleagues and used to design training on building inclusive teams. 

In what specific areas of HR are you addressing DEI and how? 

I have urged clients I work with to adopt objective performance measurement because it is essential to an effective diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) strategy. Studies show that as managers, our default is to assess men and women on different criteria and to provide individuals from underrepresented groups less specific – and less valuable – feedback. That means hire and promotion rates will differ by gender and race and other categories. These differences can doom a company’s DEI&B efforts and mean highly capable individuals aren’t hired or developed. Determining the attributes that lead to job success in your business and creating processes through which candidates and staff are all evaluated on their mastery of those competencies offers a powerful antidote to subjective, off-the-cuff reviews. Competency-based management offers firms a range of advantages. It enables better hiring decisions. It supports strategic objectives by ensuring staff are evaluated on behaviors that drive business goals, contribute value to customers and serve as brand differentiators. It provides employees transparency, development guidance and career mapping – which are important in recruitment and retaining employees. And it  moves a company a long way towards advancing its DEI&B commitments.

What are the key qualifications and skills you look for in members of your HR team – and are your requirements changing/evolving? 

Adaptability and resilience are key. To keep an organization on the cutting edge and prepared for the future you need individuals who are comfortable with change and quick to embrace it – that’s the adaptability needed. They cannot be deterred if a new policy or program feels as if it undoes one instituted just a few months before – that requires resilience. It’s also important to match staff working and learning styles to your corporate environment. Some companies are able to issue dictates to managers and staff who will step up to do what’s asked. At other offices, independence is prized and HR’s job can feel like herding cats – bringing each group along at its own pace, based on customized value propositions. Someone who chafes at not being able to make recommendations and have them acted on in short order is not going to be happy with having to use persuasion and emotional intelligence to sell each improvement. Finally, I look for people who think strategically, or who can learn to think strategically. Those attributes – a willingness to look forward, continue learning, to ask others for insights, take calculated risks and consider all sides – are necessary for an individual to grow beyond a strictly operational role in HR.

What areas do HR need to be preparing for now
?

The last few years have been ones of constant employee upheaval – leaving HR with little time to stop and contemplate the big picture, let alone prepare for the future. At the same time, the move to remote and hybrid working models, virtually overnight, a new emphasis on employee physical health and mental well being, the growth of the gig economy, and an increased focus on engagement and inclusion as a way to combat quiet quitting and improve retention have presented opportunities for HR to reinvent its role. Employers and the HR teams have had to reorder their priorities in order to respond – forward-thinking policies are required and offering creative solutions can move HR teams from just implementation into the earlier design and deliberation stages. There are many issues employers and their people teams could explore now to better position themselves for the future. These include exploring setting salaries equitably based on geography, that is, should someone in well-priced Milwaukee working at home make the same salary as someone who works from in an office in far-more expensive San Francisco? Would a cost-of-living stipend attract candidates? Or, can you create benefit offerings that can be customized – choosing between a 401(k) contribution or student loan repayment, additional PTO or flexible scheduling for family care needs, reimbursement for home office expenses or transportation subsidies or a company donation match to an employee’s charity of choice. Flexible work and scheduling arrangements are another. Does a four-day work week make sense – can you craft modified, less-than-full-time roles for senior executives and managers who would otherwise be leaving the workforce? Can you build a compliant program to use independent contractors for specific projects – a trend individuals and firms find increasingly attractive? And, how do you keep your DEI&B efforts vitalized when people are engaging so much online? 

To be relevant and support strategic business objectives, HR departments need to step away from day-to-day demands and spend some time on discovering ways to future proof their businesses. HR consultants can play a role in kickstarting this exploration – brainstorming and bringing the benefit of their exposure to challenges and solutions used at other companies and outlining project plans that HR teams can integrate into current workflows. 

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