Some of the Best Things We Learned at SHRM 2019

LAS VEGAS – Early in his career as an HR professional, Jarik Conrad noticed something curious. Co-workers would politely avoid him.

“I would be waiting at the bank of elevators, and nobody wanted to get into the elevator with me,” joked Conrad, now a Senior Director with Ultimate Software. “I learned that it was because we were seen as the company policy police or just the administrators.”

That image may still linger a bit, he added. But now, two decades later, HR professionals are viewed more in organizations as strategic advisors to the enterprise, not merely enforcers of company rules, Conrad said.

He was echoing a recurring theme to SHRM19, the annual Society of Human Resource Management conference, which drew an estimated 22,000 practitioners from around the globe.

HR has become so much more.

At a time when the economy is strong, and there is a raging “war for talent,” HR teams are crucial in finding, hiring, and retaining great employees that keep their organizations one step ahead of the competition. That explains why, if you had a quarter for every time a speaker mentioned employee engagement or employee experience, you would have had a lot of extra money to lose at the slot machines.

So, what happened in Vegas shouldn’t stay in Vegas. (At least this time.) Here are some of our takeaways from SHRM19.

Robots Are Not Going to Take All of Our Jobs

Well, at least not most of them. (We kid!) The prevailing wisdom from speakers was that automation, Artificial Intelligence, and machine learning certainly are having an impact. But there are still limits to what all of that can do. In fact, the idea of humans becoming obsolete in the workplace mostly remains the stuff of science fiction, not reality.

The general consensus was that AI has become indispensable in some areas – like identifying job candidates. But there were countless other examples offered of companies going too far, too fast in their embrace of automation – only to pull back. In fact, 87 percent of employers say they expect to increase headcount, said Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace.

“One of the biggest trends we’re seeing is the partnership between humans and machines,” Schawbel added. “The human element is never going to go away. The future of the workforce isn’t robots. HR will manage the human workforce, and IT and the CIO will manage the automation.”

Recruiting and Retention

Yes, this was Vegas. But R&R didn’t stand for rest and relaxation. Most presentations returned to this central point: How do you attract the best talent and then keep it? One word kept being repeated over and over again.


Great people might join your company, but they won’t stay if there’s a lack of trust. The problem: It’s in short supply.

“I truly believe that the trust between employees and employers is at its poorest today, said Vineet Nayar, author of “Employees First, Customers Second,” in one of the keynotes. “How do you solve that? We need to push the envelope of transparency. When employees walk in the door, we tell them that they should be glad to be here. But we don’t tell them the problems – which people already know exist. People want to roll up their sleeves and solve problems. So, we should show trust in them by being honest.”

During his presentation, Christopher Mullen, Director of Strategic Advisory at Kronos Incorporated, had a slide that highlighted three words. I. Trust. You.

 “It’s simple,” he said. “But it’s so powerful. It takes so much time to build it up, and then with one mistake, it’s gone. Trust belongs to the individual, and it has to be earned.”

Which brings us to . . .

Communication Matters

Clear, continuous communication was cited as the most essential way to build trust in the workforce. If that’s not happening? Office gossip and wild imaginations thrive in a communication vacuum.

SHRM 2019“In the absence of data, we make up stories,” said Brené Brown, author of “Dare to Lead” and other best-sellers. “We’re hardwired to make up stories that highlight our fears.”

Shane Yount, president of Competitive Solutions Inc., delivered that same sentiment in his session.

“What people don’t know, they make up,” he said. “It’s just human nature. If we don’t have a cadence and rhythm of communication that creates clarity, we’re constantly spending our time re-messaging and repeating ourselves. Then, our leaders are on defense, not offense.”

Yount believes employees want to hear regular messages from the company that help them answer this question: How am I helping move the business forward?

“Every metric of your communication process should be about whether we’re winning or losing,” Yount said. “An effective engagement process should remove ignorance as an excuse. You need to move the engagement narrative from how people feel to what people do.”

Personalization of Compensation

Money is nice. More money is better. But money isn’t the only form of compensation today’s employees appreciate – and expect.

Flexible work environments (four-day work weeks, remote working) were hot topics. But another one was tailoring benefit packages to match what employees want. One-size-fits-all is out. Personalization is in. Millennial and Gen Z workers, for instance, may care less about a 401K retirement program and more about a plan to pay down their school loans.

The idea is that in a competitive labor market, companies need to be innovative in making themselves more attractive to each individual candidate.

The Reality of Our World on the Expo Floor

There has been an incredible explosion in HR technologies. (Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, has found that the market has grown to more than $8 billion in size.)

The SHRM trade show floor offered a snapshot into what’s top of the mind for organizations today. And sometimes it was a sad picture, to be honest. For instance, at least one vendor was pitching active shooter training and preventative measures.

Some other solutions that are so 2019 included: online safety training, services to navigate new immigration regulations, recruiting through text messaging, anti-harassment instruction, charitable endeavor providers, employee recognition programs, and finally an especially popular offering – student debt services.

Top 10 Stats That Made Us Think

  1. There are currently 7.4 million job vacancies in the U.S.
  2. 53 percent of people answer work email while on vacation
  3. 91 percent of HR pros believe “soft skills” are the future of recruiting
  4. 7 percent of workers say they have no friends on the job and 50 percent say they have less than five
  5. Employees 55 and older are the fastest growing portion of the workforce
  6. For the first time ever, there are five distinct generations in the workforce
  7. An average employee’s tenure with a company is 4.2 years
  8. There are 1,200 technology solutions on the market just for tracking applicants through the hiring process
  9. 85 percent of hourly workers access the Internet with their mobile devices
  10. Keynote speaker and lifestyle maven Martha Stewart is 77!

Memorable Quotes

  • “Players know the score. If you don’t know the score, you’re not a player.” Shane Yount on how nobody in an organization wants to feel left out
  • “Embrace the suck.” Brené Brown describing advice from a military officer on how to endure painful, challenging tasks
  • “If you suck at HR, great HR Technology will let you suck much faster.” – Tim Sackett, president of HRU Technical Resources
  • “The very tools that are intended for collaboration actually help to distract us. So, you have to be very strategic about what and how you implement them.” Jim Link, CHRO at Randstad
  • “If you want to change people’s minds and inspire action, tell them a story. You can show charts and graphs, but the story is more important.”Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine writer and author of “Humans Are Underrated”
  • “Work should be the place where thousands of hours add up to good lives.” – Johnny C. Taylor Jr., President and CEO of SHRM
  • “People come for the organization and leave because of the manager.” Christopher Mullen and just about every other speaker.

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G.I. Sanders

G.I. Sanders is Senior Director, Creative Services at Dynamic Signal. He specializes in entrepreneurship, digital and social media, design, and marketing. G.I. is based in Dallas, TX with his wife and two sons. Passions include technology, startups, music, fitness and sports.