Empowering leaders to champion people-first initiatives

Portrait of a confident hiring leader

4 mins, 43 secs read time

No leader wants to admit they aren’t people-first. They know great people management, offer flexible work options and mental health benefits or give employees unlimited paid time off. But being people-first is about more than just attractive benefits or a phrase on your “Values” website page.

It’s about looking at business decisions through the lens of people and carefully considering the ramifications for your employees.

We joined Liv Carter, VP of Marketing & Partner Management at Verified First, on the “HR at the Table” webinar to discuss what it means to be people-first and how to champion a people-first company from within.

Why creating a people-first culture matters

To understand what being people-first means and why companies are consciously shifting in this direction, we have to acknowledge where we are and how we got here. Donald Knight, Chief People Officer at Greenhouse, discussed how 2023 has been a year of firsts:

  • We had five generations in the workplace

  • We asked adults and children to figure out how to work and learn in hybrid environments

  • We experienced an overwhelming amount of social unrest that has taken a mental toll

  • We saw a shift in caregiving – not only are parents caring for children, but children are caring for their parents, too

Being human in your people management is challenging right now. With so many firsts, leaders are struggling to navigate how to keep employees engaged, fulfilled and included.

Here’s where people-first comes into play. Being people-first is anchored in empathy and acknowledging that when people show up to work, they can’t leave their emotional stress and anxiety at the door.

Leaders who prioritize their people ask:

  1. How do our business decisions affect the people who fuel our success?

  2. How can we put people-first in the business decisions we’re driving?

Talent wants to work with companies that foster an environment where leaders think about their people in every decision rather than being an afterthought – with leaders who fully embrace people-first cultures.

What people-first cultures look like

When considering a people-first culture, Donald looks at the needs of the business and the strategies it needs to implement through the lens of people. There are many ways of practicing this advanced form of people management, but Donald shared two great examples.

1. Acknowledge struggles

Multiple wars, social unrest and economic uncertainty have taken a toll on people, making it hard to put their best efforts in on behalf of their company. Businesses are struggling to keep employees motivated and engaged.

People-first organizations acknowledge these outside distractions and mental struggles. Leaders know the business needs to carry on, but they also create space for employees to prioritize family, thoughts and feelings.

2. Think through the lens of people

Giving employees early access to wages is just one way to practice being people-first. Instead of taking out high-interest loans, employees who have to help with medical bills or pay for their kids’ sports can now do so without seeing their credit drop or incurring interest.

Leaders who offer this benefit think about employees first by giving the employees who show up for them a benefit that lets them adjust to life’s changing needs.

Return-to-office mandates and people-first cultures

What makes a company people-first is how they approach business decisions. So, while a return-to-office mandate may seem anti-people-first, that might not have anything to do with it.

Many CEOs today have been successful because of in-person collaboration. When considering getting employees in the office, they’re not thinking about potential negative impacts.

At Greenhouse, we make people management work for our people – we offer more flexibility, authorizing a schedule that lets employees work at their best and show up for the people they care about most. Sick kid? Work remote. Want to work together in person? Head to a coworking space. We let our employees choose.

Being people-first means finding ways to give employees the essentials and flexibility they need to thrive.

Challenges of shifting to a people-first culture

The biggest challenge is that we all define people-first differently. Without a universal meaning, organizations need to determine what people-first looks like, a talent philosophy and an employee value proposition. Other challenges include:

  • Leaders thinking it’s impossible to be both people- and business-first

  • Comparing yourself to other organizations and employees questions why you don’t do things like other companies

Tools for gaining C-suite buy-in

Need to get your executive teams to go all in on people-first? Use Donald’s tips:

  1. Allow for co-creation. “The number one tool for buy-in is co-creation. When people feel like they have helped create something, their buy-in on it is a lot higher,” says Donald. Focus on building something together.

  2. Measure and analyze data. You have to measure employee sentiment. Use tools like surveys and dive into the data. Look for what your employees tell you, including if you’re hitting the mark.

Putting people first

Decades ago, a good salary, reliable benefits and steady employment were enough. But as the workplace has changed, being people-first has become a must-have for companies hoping to attract talent and keep existing employees fulfilled and engaged.

And it all starts with cultivating people-first leaders who look at every decision through the lens of their people.

Want to empower leaders to create a people-first culture? Catch the replay for tips on building people-first champions within your organization.

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Sheena Fronk

Sheena Fronk

is a writing-obsessed entrepreneur who founded her all things writing passion project turned small business, wanderluster co. She works with SaaS and tech companies, transforming jargon into conversations using human-centered copy. When not working, Sheena eats doughnuts, plays with her pup and travels the world.

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