Chief People Officer John Whitaker on why cutting employee development is a costly mistake — even in tough times

Apr 22, 2020 - Joe Matar

John Whitaker of Sage Dental explains how to create a learning and development program employees will love, and how to turn employee experience into a recruiting tool.

Editor's note: this interview was conducted previous to COVID-19.

  • “Make sure your top performers are happy,” warns John Whitaker, Chief People Officer at Sage Dental, “because when the ship starts going down, they're the first ones to jump, because they have options.”
  • Employees value professional development, but you have to offer a program that includes skills that matter to them and deliver it in a way that makes them want to engage.
  • HR needs to do more than get a seat at the table — it has to take advantage of the position by speaking up and contributing to the company’s success.

Any effort you make at improving employee experience and retention can be just as valuable for talent acquisition — and your company’s bottom line — as your employer marketing.

“You have too much talk, in my opinion, about candidate experience and not enough about employee experience,” says John Whitaker, SVP and Chief People Officer at Sage Dental. “That's why people are leaving. If you can't close the window, don't turn on the air conditioner.”

John has an atypical view on the role of human resources within a company — that is, he’s not afraid to encourage his team to knock things down and rebuild.

After stumbling into a career in HR, as many of us do, John has spent more than two decades in human resources and talent acquisition, both in corporate roles and as an independent consultant. He created the HR Hardball blog in 2011 and established himself as a “disrupter” in HR.

Check out the full episode on your favorite podcast app:

“You have to challenge the groupthink in the room,” John says in his interview for Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. “I think that's one of HR’s biggest roles is get in there and shake it up and have a different idea.”

Here are some of John’s ideas on how HR can shake things up to fulfill its role in the success of companies and employees.

Learning and development is a worthwhile investment

Even though unemployment has generally been trending down for several years, the turnover rate of many companies is increasing.

John attributes this in large part to a lack of focus on learning and development — especially of your best employees.

“Make sure your top performers are happy,” he warns, “because when the ship starts going down, they're the first ones to jump, because they have options.”

He explains that after the 2008 recession hit, many companies grappling with how to maintain production while cutting costs held onto employees but dropped appealing benefits, including employee development. He says this has a higher and longer-lasting cost than many realized.

“When we stopped doing that for cost savings, not only did you not train your people or develop them, you didn't develop any leaders,” John explains. “So then you have people who are reporting to people who were never developed.”

Thankfully, companies are realizing the value of professional development programs, and they’re slowly coming back. John warns not to slash those next time your company needs to cut costs.

“It's such an ongoing cost,” he says.

Teach skills employees actually want to learn

The second uphill battle in the learning and development fight is creating something your employees actually engage with. He shares a few keys to getting it right.

  1. Focus on what employees want

Create content that helps employees learn and develop skills they want, not just those that are beneficial for the company.

That could mean providing training and resources in skills that aren’t even directly related to somebody’s current position — but that kind of development can pay off in retention, engagement and productivity overall.

Some training is critical to how an employee does their job. But also include aspirational career skills, like how to manage money and how to improve their LinkedIn profile.

  1. Delivery is critical

John also pointed out the reality of employees’ — or, everybody’s — short attention spans. Don’t expect somebody to sit through a three-hour workshop or watch a 30-minute training video.

Instead, he recommends finding opportunities for “micro-training.”

“If you send somebody a 30-minute training, I don't know how much engagement you're going to get,” he says. “If you send them a series of two minutes over the course of a couple weeks, I bet they watch each one of them.”

He says the days of meetings and slideshows have passed. Consider what your employees actually engage with, and package your content that way — podcasts, video clips, shorter content, for example.

  1. Gamify it

Find some simple, public or private, way to keep track of employees’ training and development progress, John says, because “if you're not measuring it, then who's gonna do it?”

Turning it into a department- or company-wide game or competition is one way to engage employees and make training feel fun instead of mandatory.

If you don’t want to foster that kind of competition, let employees set targets on their own and compete with themselves.

HR needs a voice in the company’s branding

To ensure your brand is consistent wherever a candidate finds your company, John says, “HR and marketing need to be tied at the hip.”

The message you send your employees should be the same as what you send candidates, so you’re selling potential future employees on the reality that current employees are experiencing.

For example, if your talent acquisition focuses on diversity and inclusion, your internal HR should support and develop those values within the company.

This follow through is a simple way to protect your “virtual reputation,” too.

With the popularity of sites like Glassdoor, John says, “you have to deal with that. You now have other people marketing your company for you.” Keeping your recruiting message consistent with employee experience is one way to ensure that marketing remains positive.

You have a seat at the table. Now what?

John says one of the most important skills you can have in HR is to be the person who can say what everyone’s thinking but afraid to say.

Too many human resource reps focus so much on getting that coveted seat at the leadership table that they don’t know how to take advantage of it once they have it.

“[At] companies I was with, the problem wasn't getting to the table,” John says. “The problem was that they were just sitting there watching.”

If you’re just taking notes to pass on to the rest of the staff, you’re not doing your job in HR. Make your voice heard in the room, lean on your expertise to share a perspective other leaders won’t bring.

“You have to be able to find ways that you can contribute to the bottom line of a company’s success,” John points out, “and sometimes it takes you shaking up the traditional role of HR.”

This article is based on an episode of Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. Subscribe in your preferred podcast app.