NBA, NFL Leaders Focus on Employee Experience

Human resource executives from the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) shared how they have led their organizations through a tumultuous time defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened employee activism and increasing turnover.

The panel was moderated Aug. 24 by SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2021, which is taking place in Las Vegas and virtually.

Challenging Times

Both Dasha Smith, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at the NFL, and Oris Stuart, chief people and inclusion officer at the NBA, agreed that the last 17 months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have been some of the most difficult times to be in HR.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Stuart said. “If I think about the forces at play since the pandemic began in early 2020, everything that has followed has had an incredible effect on the lives and livelihoods of our employees. That includes the global movement for social justice, which started after the murder of George Floyd, and now we’re dealing with pandemic 2.0.”

Smith said the pandemic has been the hardest time to manage in her career, forcing the implementation of return-to-office policies and vaccination mandates, as well as dealing with the significant turnover being felt across industries.

“I don’t think any of us has seen what we are seeing now regarding [the pull on] talent, not even during the dot-com era,” she said. “It has been a challenge.”

Stuart said the totality of these forces “has created an experience for our employees that they have to navigate, and we have to support them because they can’t do their best work and contribute at their full capacity if we don’t help them through this time.”

But there have been new, unexpected opportunities, too, both leaders agreed, for in-demand talent, as well as new expectations from employees about what they will get from their employment experience.

“Talent is at the beginning and end of every conversation,” Stuart said.

Employee Activism

Employee activism has been on the rise and may have spiked during the last year. “Employees are starting to make more demands,” Taylor said. “More people want to work in a place that aligns with their values.”

Stuart said he prefers to think of it as employee advocacy. “Employees are making decisions about what is important to them, who they want to work with, who they want to work for and what will allow them to live their best lives,” he said. “Looking at it like that, I am not so defensive about it, but more engaged with providing a proposition to our employees about why they should be with us or stay with us and give that discretionary effort we’re all looking for.”

He added that the employees are expecting that the NBA will stand for certain things that represent the core values of the league. “We ask our employees about what is important to them, we have ERGs [employee resource groups] that capture sentiments, and, as a leadership team, we meet multiple times a week to answer the call.”

Smith said employees at the NFL are encouraged to speak to other managers and HR about their needs.

“We want to hear from our employees,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that you will necessarily meet demands, but we are in a time when people need to feel heard and seen, particularly in a virtual world. These conversations are very healthy. As employers, we have to listen. Our workforces are changing, expectations are changing, and we will have to find a common ground. That’s why two-way conversations are key.”  

She added that she approaches all such discussions by going back to the mission of the organization. “Be very clear about your culture and who you are,” she said. “If everyone understands that you are not going to be something that someone demands, people can self-select and that is OK. It’s not a bad thing.”

Taylor agreed, saying the idea that you can be everything to everyone is impossible. “Sometimes turnover isn’t a bad thing,” he said. “People will be happier if they go somewhere that is more aligned with how they see the world.”

Money Matters

New research from SHRM shows that compensation is at the top of the list of what employees and job seekers care about, Taylor said. He noted that a couple of trends driving that finding are wage inflation and—for Millennials and Generation Z—having to pay back significant student loan debt.

“You have to stay ahead of it,” Smith said. “As part of our annual compensation review process, we are benchmarking pay and we shift where we have to. But I think pay is an indicator of other things. People are evaluating ‘what is it that I want and what matters to me.’ For some people, that is pay. But it is also flexibility, support at home with child care, mental health, elder care. People need to feel valued.”

Stuart explained that it is helpful to show people the totality of what they receive in compensation and benefits—their total rewards package. “Some may not fully appreciate the entire investment the organization is making on behalf of employees,” he said.

The NBA has a dashboard that simply but effectively shows the value of each employee’s total rewards package and offers access to the benefits they may not be taking advantage of.

“Beyond that, we understand that we can offer unique experiences that other companies can’t duplicate,” he said. “We think about how we can connect our employees to our business and to the game. We think about how we can build that into their experience with us.”   

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