Employee Experience

How HR can make a difference: Dean Carter, CHRO at Patagonia

This is the first installment of our new blog series, “Employee Experience Visionaries.” In each post, we’ll feature highlights from a conversation with an HR thought leader on company culture, employee engagement, HR’s evolving role, and so much more.

We’re thrilled to kick off the series with a conversation with Dean Carter, Patagonia’s Chief HR Officer. Dean recently shared his thoughts with us on topics such as the incredible Patagonia culture, the business impact of on-site child care, how HR can earn an even more valuable seat at the table, and more.

Now to the conversation with Dean!

On choosing a career in HR:

I looked around and saw a bunch of professions that were mature, but HR was really new and growing. I thought, this is a profession I can make a difference in. I can maybe have some influence and impact and reinvent this.

On why Patagonia is an excellent place to work:

Patagonia has been a dream job. To be able to work in a place that so closely aligns with my values is a huge gift for me. The employee handbook is labeled "Let My People Go Surfing" — that was pretty compelling. Working at Patagonia pushes me to be the person I want to be – to work harder to save a planet in crisis. I'm thankful for that. It doesn't pull me away; it nudges me even deeper to a person I'd like to be.

On the causes that define Patagonia’s culture:

Patagonia is a cause disguised as a company. You're working for a deep mission, and the way you think about HR is different. The philosophy is, we're going to run this company like we'll be around for a hundred years. When you think like that, the decisions you're making about employees and about their children — as if those are going to be your employees for a hundred years and perhaps their children and their grandchildren will be your employees for a hundred years — you’re going to think about HR differently.

Patagonia is a cause disguised as a company

With a cause so intense, we really have to make sure all of our programs and policies and procedures align with the culture. Anything we propose in HR that's not aligned gets rejected immediately. If you get arrested protesting in support of the environment, we pay for bail. For a nursing mom, we’ll pay for the mom and the nanny and the baby to travel. Those are not difficult decisions for Patagonia. They’re just in line with the culture.

On using technology to gather feedback:

The only way to actually see the nature of the feedback in real time is to use technology. We’ve learned that people who are giving feedback digitally are a lot more likely to hit their goals and objectives, and they actually get a 20% higher bonus than people who aren't engaging in digital feedback. And I can share that with the organization. I don't just tell them, "Hey, 62% of you are giving feedback. We need to get that to 75%." I say, "If the person next to you is giving and getting digital feedback and you're not, they're more likely to get a larger bonus than you. That's just a fact."

We’ve learned that when you give someone unsolicited feedback, basically nothing happens. But if you request feedback, the person you request it from is more likely to request feedback themselves. They're likely to request feedback from three other people. So to create generosity around feedback, don't encourage people to give feedback; encourage people to ask for feedback.

to create generosity around feedback, don't encourage people to give feedback; encourage people to ask for feedback.

There's a big fear that using technology will replace face-to-face communication. What we’ve discovered, though, is that digital feedback actually increases face-to-face conversation. People say, "Thank you so much for that feedback" when they see you in the hall.

Before technology, things happened in the dark. We had no idea what was going on. This is a huge opportunity for us to gain a lot of insight around the nature of feedback.

On taking the pulse of the organization:

We ask employees seven questions annually around how strongly they feel the leadership team is living our values. That's a really important survey because the leadership team's bonuses or long-term incentives depend on it. We will ultimately evolve to a situation where we can do a lot more pulsing for feedback.

On his biggest regret as an HR professional:

For years at other companies, I didn't pay enough attention to supporting families with on-site childcare. I didn't do my homework and I wasn't courageous. In 15 years of being a head of HR, I thought of it like a benefit equivalent to a health club or something like that. And I’ve realized there is no benefit that’s equivalent. It's very different and very personal. It is the greatest regret of my career, not pushing this harder.

On how and why to advocate for on-site child care:

My first piece of advice is: Really do your homework. When you do the homework, you see that every study that has ever been done on this points to healthier children, healthier parents, better relationships between parents and children, better gender parity on pay, better gender parity in opportunity, more women in management ... Even for the people who don’t have kids — you bring your best self to work around children. Everything about this is positive.

There is no greater benefit you can give to your working families and to the rest of the organization than on-site child care. Period.

After you've done your homework, be courageous about proposing solutions to your executive team. There is no greater benefit you can give to your working families and to the rest of the organization than on-site child care. Period.

It’s also just incredible for business in every metric possible. I don't understand why, still, only 9% of companies have on-site child care, which is equal to the same amount of companies that have dogs on campus. I'm very passionate about this, and as a profession, we have got to get courageous and do our homework and make a change.

On an aging workforce:

We're all going to need to think differently about “elders” at work. We respect and revere our elders on campus [at Patagonia]. We need their stories and their wisdom, and we appreciate it. Their roles just don't fit neatly into traditional boxes.

There are really talented people with a lot of knowledge who don't want to stop working; they just want to work differently. What we're working on now is having jobs that match people where they are in their lives, including “tapering” jobs for people who may want to work two hours a week and still contribute and be a part of the community. We don't have it solved, but I want to reinvent retirement. I think it's time we did.

On HR’s changing role in the organization:

For years, HR has been working hard to have a meaningful seat at the table — by being in the middle of everything. Everything had to go through HR: compensation, employer relations, performance issues, parental leave …  I believe our role for the future involves disintermediation at HR. People, and technology, are becoming more sophisticated — I don't think everything needs to go through us.

By layering in technology, we now have really rich insights around behavior and performance and humanity that we weren't able to achieve before. We can be more creative about the connection between humanity and performance. We just have to get out of the way. There are so many things we have to let go of. We have to open the black box of compensation, for instance, and let managers in and let them make decisions.

When we use technology, we can help the organization with some incredible insights — and have a seat at the table that is even more valuable than the one we have now.

On advice for new HR professionals:

My daughter is graduating from college and coming into the HR industry. The advice I gave her was: go deep in analytics and really understand statistics. No matter what role you're in, in HR today, you really need to understand how to work with data and statistics. That's the most important thing. The second most important thing is to understand systems thinking — how systems work together. Take some systems courses.

And then the third thing to think about: sports psychology, the psychology of performance. How do you help people get their mojo back when it's gone? There are so many times when people just lose their mojo for whatever reason, and it's up to you to have a conversation with them to help them get it back.

All the other parts of HR you can pick up with some books and experience, but those are things I think people coming into the profession need to have. Data will matter, systems will matter, and humanity will matter, and I think you need to have a balance of all three.

Want to pick up on those HR book recommendations?

Qualtrics compiled a reading list based on recommendations from HR leaders like Dean, you can download that here.

20 books HR leaders should read in 2020