HR’s Expanding Role in the Employee Experience

One of the late, great Jimi Hendrix’s best-known songs asked listeners “Are you experienced?” For today’s ambitious HR professional, a relevant question might be, “Are you an experience officer?”

Companies such as Fresenius Medical Care North America, Qualtrics and Snag, which operates a platform for hourly workers, are among those this year that’ve appointed chief experience officers with backgrounds in HR and/or whose new purview will include employee experience.

At Fresenius, the company’s new CXO, Angela McClure, will lead the “development of an experience strategy across all audiences, including employees, patients and their families, partners and physicians,” according to a statement from the company. McClure previously served as senior vice president of HR for the company’s Kidney Care division.

Jim Monroe, Snag’s CXO, previously led the company’s people and customer operations, and in his new role will focus on improving the company’s customer experience, which includes employers and jobseekers. At Qualtrics, new CXO Julie Larsen-Green will lead the design of Qualtrics’ “customer, employee, product and brand experiences,” the company says.

At the Digital Workplace Experience conference held earlier this year in Chicago, speaker Fouad EI Naggar said “head of employee experience” is becoming an increasingly common role at companies as they build out their digital workplaces.

“You should think of this person the same way that their employer does–the voice of the end-user for internal systems,” said El Naggar, founder and CEO of software company Sapho.

A poor employee experience can undermine a company’s consumer brand, says Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at data analytics firm Visier.

“You can’t tell people you have an amazing customer experience while employees themselves are experiencing anything but that,” he says.

Many HR processes–such as hiring–seem to have come about more from happenstance than design, says Rubenstein, who prior to joining Visier advised large companies as a partner at Aon.

“Forcing people through an uncoordinated interview experience, a long wait for a job offer and a lousy onboarding process is what happens through default and not by design,” he says.

Employee experience commonly refers to the workplace environment companies provide their employees, centered on culture, physical workspace and technology.

A new survey suggests that companies are struggling a bit in the “technology” category. PwC’s [email protected] and the Employee Experience survey finds that although 92 percent of C-suite executives say they’re satisfied with tech choices at work, only 68 percent of staff agree. More than half (56 percent) of employees say their company is too slow to update technology they need to do their job, while the same number say they feel technology is taking them away from human interaction at work.

Frontline managers are also unhappy, according to the survey: Nearly half (46 percent) of employees with supervisory responsibilities say they feel overwhelmed by technology at work. Sixty one percent saying they spend more time than they’d like getting the technology to actually work.

Companies neglect employee experience at their own peril.

“A positive employee experience gets you out of bed on a rainy Tuesday morning; a negative one might make you consider calling in sick–or looking for another job,” says Chris Rios, managing partner at executive-recruiting firm Blue Rock Search.

HR processes are increasingly being conceived through the end-user’s (the employee’s) perspective, says Rubenstein, much like companies have been forced to reconfigure their customer experience to match the ease and simplicity of brands like Amazon. Employees have come to expect such ease and intuitiveness in the tools they use away from work–and platforms like Glassdoor given them a forum for complaining when those expectations aren’t met.

“HR should think of employee experience as a product that needs to be marketed properly and have its brand ring true,” he says.

Although the CXO role isn’t yet common in HR, it represents a “logical extension of where companies are going,” says Max Caldwell, HR transformation principal at the Hackett Group.

Caldwell says he’s had four recent conversations with CHROs on this topic. Companies such as Airbnb and J. Walter Thompson have created CXO positions within HR, he adds. These roles are typically a redefinition of existing roles previously focused on internal communication, recruitment marketing, employee engagement and culture, says Caldwell. They combine employee research and insights with programs designed to better attract and engage the workforce, he says.

Research by the Hackett Group finds there’s a growing focus on employee engagement as a key HR functional capability, he says.

At some companies, HR partners closely with the CXO to ensure the employee experience closely matches the customer one, says Rios.

Regardless of the actual title, says Caldwell, eventually more HR departments will have someone serving in an empowered role over areas such as engagement, communication and corporate culture. “They’ll be providing much more of a design-thinking approach to how HR is delivering services and how it’s structured,” he says.

Rubenstein advises companies to carefully examine their HR processes with an eye for employee experience.

“We need to think through our processes and ask what kind of brand or tone they suggest–are they fear-based or are they presented as a real benefit to the employee?” he says.

A leave policy created through the lens of design thinking would make it easy for employees to plan for and request time off, says Rubenstein. He cites a company that even requires employees to take two consecutive weeks off during the summer with the explanation that people need that amount of time to fully disconnect and recover from work. Employees who want to take off less time than that need to cite a compelling business reason, he says.

HR leaders should not rely on “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an excuse for a subpar employee experience, says Rubenstein.

“Some people simply confuse tradition with inertia,” he says.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.