The Chief Diversity Officer Will Be a New Kind of Executive, If We Let Them

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | October 18, 2022

Among all of corporate America’s problems with job retention, one of the most concerning is the turnover in a newly prominent role: chief diversity officer. CDOs tend to stay in their roles only two to three years, about half the tenure of other C-suite officers. For many CDOs, as well as their colleagues, this is the result of one thing: frustration.

How did a role that so many companies created with great fanfare in the racial-justice movement of 2020 become a dispiriting job for many–and what can be done to improve the situation? From Day One talked with people who’ve held the job, as well as experts in the field, to get to the sources of the problem and look toward solutions.

To start with, the scope of the job is unlike almost any other top-leadership role. “Leading our inclusive culture efforts is an honor that requires a diverse skillset and the ability to anticipate the needs of a vast array of audiences,” said Vanice Hayes, chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer for Dell Technologies. “As rewarding as the job is, it can also be taxing. At times, it can feel like you're trying to solve world peace, like you’re a teacher, a counselor, a politician, a lawyer, a historian–you name it.”

A New Kind of Career Path

As befits a job that’s freshly emerging, there’s no traditional career path that leads to the CDO position. Read the resumes of ten chief technology officers, and you will see very similar backgrounds: advanced degrees in computer science or engineering, a track record building products or designing systems, years of experience managing tech workers and operations. The resumes of chief marketing officers and chief financial officers are similarly consistent. Even new C-suite additions, like chief information security officers and chief human resources officers, have identifiable backgrounds. By contrast, leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) who have spoken at From Day One events have included executives who began their careers in law enforcement and the ministry.

Graduate-school programs on how-to-be-a-CDO are still relatively new, points out Rachel Marcuse, the chief operating officer at ReadySet, a DEI-focused consulting firm. “That being said, we see successful CDOs come from varied backgrounds and experiences, including finance, HR, culture, and products or services. Deep expertise in DEI is crucial and can come from a combination of professional background, education, and lived experience.”

There is little consensus on the ideal resume for a chief diversity officer, but we may not need one. Andrés Tapia, the global DEI strategist at the management-consulting firm Korn Ferry, who was himself a pioneering CDO in the early 2000s, said that when he coaches clients on what to look for in a CDO, background doesn’t matter. He looks for someone who can think strategically, integrate perspectives, communicate well, and influence powerful people in the company. “Notice how non-functionally-specific those are,” Tapia said.

Though a handful CDOs have been around for decades, the majority have been in the role only a few years. The field is developing, and the recent swell in CDO appointments is in part a reaction to the ineffectiveness of the corporate DEI programs of the last 20 years. The old way may have been wrong, but it’s not clear what the new, right way will be. Still, DEI practitioners are looking in earnest.

“Coming into the role, depending on your previous perspective, you may think ‘I got this,’ but then when you get there, you realize it is quite expansive,” said Hayes. “Your previous perspective may have been both accurate and potentially narrow or limited in scope. So the way I handle that is just through focus: How do I make sure every single person that comes to work feels like they're included? Everyone should have the right to enjoy an inclusive work culture. That’s my baseline.”

Vanice Hayes, chief of culture, diversity and inclusion officer for Dell, will be speaking at From Day One’s Austin conference on Oct. 26 (Photo courtesy of Dell)

The chief diversity officer at Indiana University Health, Lisa Gutierrez, believes that without self-awareness, CDOs will repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. One of the biggest “is to only use your lived experience. A lot of people say, ‘Well, I have a lived experience.’ And I go, ‘I do too, but in the D&I space, it’s not just my lived experience, but everybody’s.’ The practice has gone to short-handing diversity work into just a couple of things,” she said. “If I were a newer practitioner right now, I’d be looking at what didn’t work in the past, and get into the front of the line of not doing that.”

Why CDO Is a Different Kind of C-Suite Job

Newly minted CDOs, whether or not they have the right experience or expectations, are not to blame for turnover. The C-suite has yet to accept that the CDO is a different kind of executive. Unlike other executives who own a department and run a P&L, the work of a CDO doesn’t happen in a single department, and there’s seldom an elaborate financial statement.

“We don’t own much,” said Channing Martin, who is the CDO at the advertising company IPG. “You’re being held responsible for diverse talent coming in the organization, but you don’t own recruiting. You’re being held responsible for developing underrepresented talent or women being promoted, but you don’t own L&D, you don’t own talent management.”

The job, then, is influencing other executives to make DEI a long-term priority. “What works is when the leaders who run P&Ls start to own responsibility for DEI. That’s a game changer,” Martin said.

Tapia has found that in some cases, the C-suite appoints a CDO without much thought to qualifications or expectations because a figurehead, not an executive who influences global operations, is what the CEO wants. As a result, the key performance indicators for the role are simplistic: we want more people of color, we want more women leaders.

When this is the case, the CEO isn’t likely to value long-term strategy, and the work becomes programmatic. “If you’re not a strategic thinker, you’re going to become a tactical leader,” Tapia said. “The death knell of D&I is a tactical leader in charge because D&I lends itself to a lot of very fun programs, a lot of tactics,” Tapia said. “But they don’t bring about transformation.”

Executives like the sound of “unconscious bias training,” but “the nonsexy stuff is a structural and policy change that takes a long time,” said Martin. For example, designing a global system for employee self-identification. “That’s tedious and time-consuming and not fun. It requires legal insight, the risk team, the privacy team, the HR team, and the IT team to transform technology systems. Those are the things that really change an organization, but that could take a year and a half, two years.”

The programmatic CDO is also reduced to being reactionary. “You shouldn’t have to wait for somebody’s murder to be designing social-justice strategies,” Gutierrez said.

The Importance of Learning the Business

Many companies underestimate the amount of business acumen CDOs need. “Now you’ve got employment lawyers that are becoming HR leaders. You’ve got MBAs that are becoming HR leaders. As the HR function is being asked to be more of a business operation, you’ve got to have a skill set that can make that happen. And I think the same is going to be true for the diversity function,” said Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, a virtual HR training platform.

Chief diversity officers can be more effective by immersing themselves in their organization’s business, like those in the role of “HR business partner.” Said Gutierrez: “You have to understand the business of the business. The CDO has to fold themself into the natural rhythm of the business and find opportunities to change it.” For example, Gutierrez said that the “rhythm” of one of her previous employers was the Six Sigma framework for process improvement. “Six Sigma is about reducing variation. Diversity is about increasing variation, but in the methodology there are places to build variation in.”

When ReadySet advises on CDO appointments, Marcuse said, “we want CDOs to really understand the organizational mission or business and have substantial leadership or executive experience.”

Martin acknowledges how hard it is to set meaningful quantitative goals when there is no P&L. “There’s a standard of corporate governance, there’s standards around strong financial analysis. There’s no standard in DEI,” she said.

Measuring effects on employee behavior is a good place to start. For example, instead of counting the number of people who participate in unconscious-bias training, Martin says, look for the results, like when employees are celebrated on a peer-to-peer recognition platform, “how many people are responding when a woman is recognized, vs. a man?”

What are the stakes involved in CDO success? Aarti Shyamsunder, the global head of DEI at Accenture’s YSC Consulting, told Fortune recently that the cost of CDO turnover is significant, even if it may beunquantifiable. The loss is more than one of dollars and cents, “it’s about the message that it sends out, the loss of reputation, the suspicion or fear that it might cause, especially in minority group members’ minds. With all these sorts of intangible costs, it’s impossible to put an amount on it,” she said.

Tapia believes a good CDO sets the tone. “A smart, strategic, influential CDO will say to the leaders, ‘I’m happy to take the role. I am your right person, but I’m not the one that’s going to change it. You are. I’m going to work with your CEO and the C-suite because the only ones that can change anything in this organization in terms of culture and processes and priorities are the C-suite.’”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.


HR, How Did You Get So Influential? The Evolution of a Profession

Long before the notion that you could love your work, the HR profession was founded on the fact that work could be harmful to your health. In many ways, the profession's growing focus on well-being is not a touchy-feely detour, but a natural outgrowth from its roots–maybe even a nod to its origins.“The birth of human resources today came out of the concerns for individuals, starting off with their actual physical concerns,” says Barbara Holland, HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “It’s moved well beyond that at this point.” Born on the dangerous shop floors of the Industrial Revolution, human resources has been gathering responsibilities, but not losing any, for 100 years. Where it once was charged with the physical safety of workers, HR’s list of responsibilities now includes employees’ mental, financial, and social well-being, and it’s contending with AI and all its practical, ethical, and regulatory implications.The HR department of 2023 takes on more workload and influence than ever before, and many practitioners are shifting to strategic roles and automating tasks that were once the purview of the “personnel department” of 50 years ago, like benefits enrollment, tax documentation, and fielding FAQs. They’re freeing up time to focus on the more creative elements of the job, like developing leaders, creating equitable work environments, and bolstering employee well-being.How did HR get here, and where is it going? From Day One spoke with HR scholars and specialists to provide perspective about how the last three years of disruption fit into the longer game.In the 20th century, HR went through a tremendous amount of existential change–it evolved from protector of safety to negotiator to compliance officer to paper pusher to strategic business partner–and as of the 21st century, it has come full circle. In many instances, HR has again assumed its role of employee advocate. Now, the profession is tapping into policymaking, giving employees a seat at the table and a say in their working conditions.The Modern Origins of HR: The Safety and Well-being of the WorkerThe modern practice of human resources originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the dangerous working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. “As there were factories and more workers working in one place, that’s really where the whole idea of a personnel department started,” said Kristie Loescher, who teaches HR and management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.Not only were the physical working conditions dangerous, “the emotional and psychological hazards of working consistently in these conditions were immense as well. Long hours, limited sustenance, and impersonal treatment contributed to an already stressful work environment,” wrote the academics Robert Lloyd and Wayne Aho in their paper, “The History of Human Resources in the United States: A Primer on Modern Practice.”  Miserable conditions led to the proliferations of labor unions and their calls for workplace reforms. For instance, following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 workers were killed as a result of locked doors and inadequate escape routes, both the city and the state of New York passed dozens of workplace safety laws in response to pressure from newly formed unions, community organizers, and the general public.Labor unions gave workers a say in their working conditions, and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 compelled employers to give them a seat at the table. Now that there was a need for someone to negotiate with the unions, the discipline of “industrial relations” was born. HR Becomes a Compliance OfficerBy mid-century, among HR’s chief concerns was compliance with regulation. Following the passage of laws that protect employees from discrimination in the workplace–including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1967–installed a department designed to keep the company from getting sued. Its stance was a defensive one, said Holland.Under the new name “personnel,” what would become the modern HR department was steeped in the bureaucracy of mitigating legal risk and all the record-keeping it requires. Exchanges between HR and the workforce were minimal and transactional.Andrea Osborne, who has more than three decades of experience in HR and is currently the VP of people for the product team at the software company Genesys, describes the mentality of the HR department of that time like this: “Here’s your badge, here’s your documentation, here’s your tax paperwork. Bye! I’ll see you on your way out the door.” HR Becomes a Business PartnerThe globalization of business spurred the changes that produced the influential HR department of today. Companies turned their attention to the strategic capabilities of the HR department when, in the 1970s and 1980s, it became increasingly clear the U.S. was now competing in a global economy. In a paper on the international perspective of HR, Randall Schuler and Susan Jackson, both scholars of HR, wrote that “during that period, the focus of business shifted from domestic to multinational to global; the speed at which business was conducted increased; organizations recognized that labor costs and productivity must be address from a world-wide perspective; and many companies realized that competitive advantage could be seized and sustained through the wise utilization of human resources.” SHRM’s Holland began her HR career in the mid 1980s, driven to improve the cool and distant personnel department she encountered in the past. Holland saw transformation beginning to take place. “We were looking to make a difference,” she said. “I came in right on the cusp of the old still hanging on with some organizations, but newer organizations really embracing that HR was more than just a police department and signing people up with their paperwork and then walking around making sure nobody was breaking the rules.”HR operations itself benefited from globalization, according to Holland. “You had influences from other cultures and how people management was handled based on wherever their headquarters was.”Decades ago, the PR department was known for paper-pushing and complicance (Photo by iStock/Getty Images)At the same time, the U.S. transformed from a manufacturing economy to a “knowledge” economy. Where we once made products, we now made services, and that required a new approach to employer-employee relations. “If I have analysis work to do, and customer service work to do, and work that requires more autonomy on the part of the worker, all of a sudden I have to treat that worker very differently. As jobs changed, the way we treated employees had to change,” said UT-Austin’s Loescher. “This whole new area of HR was added in the ’80s and ’90s about employee engagement and development–that if we invest in our employees and give them working environments that are satisfying and then help them develop and learn and grow, they’ll not only be ready for today’s challenges in our business, but they’ll be ready for tomorrow's challenges.”James Bailey, who teaches leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business, noted the influence of social science research in the 20th century, which asserts that people, not factories and machinery and financial assets, determine future business success. “It’s culture, it’s selection, it’s finding the right people, it’s properly motivating them to do their work better,” Bailey said. “Why you can have two firms of equivalent assets and one far outperforms the other is because of the people factor.”Though labor unions declined in popularity by the 1980s, Thomas Kochan and Robert McKersie noted in their 1989 paper “Future Directions for American Labor and Human Resources Policy,” the “rising expectations of workers for increased influence over their immediate work environment and long-term careers.” Following a period of bureaucracy that kept distance between employer and employee, the HR department now had to operate with employer and employee best interests in mind.As companies had to compete in a global economy that could access to talent all over the world, business strategies were adapted to include skills development and employee engagement. According to Loescher, “the profession was changing from one of mere rule implementation and screening of applicants to one where it included connection to the business strategy as well as a connection to the analysis and design of jobs that not only would meet the strategic need of the company, but would be motivating for people to do,” said Loescher.The “personnel” department became “human resources,” and in university classrooms, moved from industrial relations to business schools, said Bailey. HR was officially a business asset. Human Resources Becomes the People DepartmentHR practitioners today will have noticed another change to the department’s name. Just as the change from “personnel” to “human resources” marked a change in the existential purpose of the department, the more recent shift to “people operations” reflects the further expansion of the function in business.“Currently, even the term ‘human resources’ does not seem to convey the importance of human capital as we’ve moved more into a ‘knowledge’ economy, in which human thought, creativity, and innovation are critical to the success of new economy businesses,” said Sherry Moss, the associate dean of MBA programs at the Wake Forest University School of Business.In corporate America, the new term is “people operations,” in academia, it’s all about “human capital management,” marking “yet another step symbolic of ‘We are part of the capital that makes this organization function and we want a seat at the table,’” said GWU’s Bailey. Automation of repetitive tasks, or ones that are at least more easily handled by software and AI, frees practitioners to focus on the strategy of developing talent and better workplaces. As mundane functions are automated, “it will leave more opportunities for the HR business partners to have more human interactions,” said Amy Freshman, senior director of global HR at the HR software company ADP. “Automation will certainly help remove the repeatable mundane tasks. At the same time, what is being asked of HR is changing. In many ways it’s growing, which just adds more to the plate.”As the department gets more involved with the human elements of business, its reputation among employees is changing dramatically. Kam Hutchinson, a global director of talent acquisition who has spent more than a decade working in HR, said workers are more open to interacting with HR than they were in the past. “There’s more of an openness to reaching out to HR for support and seeing them as an advocate for you and not necessarily for the company,” she said. The HR Department of the Future is ProactiveSo, what comes next? As HR cements itself as a key player in business success, where is there to go? HR is no longer just a responsive organization. Its latest goal is anticipation, prediction. For instance, contributing to the excitement around the new discipline of “people analytics” is its potential for predicting things like employee engagement or employee attrition. And the leaders in the department aren’t just thinking about what goes on inside a company, they’re considering the outside influences as well. When Jackson and Schuler wrote their article in 2005, they noted HR’s growing responsibility to monitor the external environment. As people operations is called upon to respond to national crises, social unrest, and mental health needs, that responsibility is even greater today.Holland believes the next HR frontier is public policy. In the last handful of years, SHRM has become involved in influencing lawmakers. Its Government Affairs team has advocated in Washington for policies like paid leave, removing barriers to employment for immigrants, and employer-sponsored education assistance.“Where before we were a reactionary industry or occupation to what’s happening in employment law and things like that, now we’re inserting ourselves to try to actually influence that before the law is made,” said Holland. “HR is trying to actually influence change before it hits us.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter and From Day One contributing editor who writes about the future of work, HR, recruiting, DEI, and women's experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, Quartz at Work, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others.(Featured photo by Violeta Stoimenova/iStock by Getty Images) 

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | May 16, 2023

7 Things HR Leaders Need to Know About AI

Like those car headlights in your rear-view mirror that suddenly are right up to your bumper, artificial intelligence has arrived gradually and then suddenly. While AI has been with us in one form or another for decades, the last six months have brought more disruptive changes from AI than in the previous 60 years.An outpouring of news stories predict that automation will expand on a massive scale, disrupting potentially hundreds of millions of jobs. New tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, which generate images and text on the fly with human-like skill from a simple prompt, can make it seem like the robots are on the verge of replacing us all.In an interview Sunday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that his experience with AI products like his company’s Bard chatbot were “unsettling” and have left him speechless. “We need to adapt as a society for it,” Pichai said. “This is going to impact every product across every company.”  That includes Human Resources in profound ways. While it can be hard to cut through the hype and uncertainty about such a transformative change, here are seven points to help HR leaders wrap their heads around what’s going on, at least in the short term.You’re already using AI at work, even if you aren’t aware of itAccording to a survey by Eightfold AI, more than nine out of ten HR pros are already using AI to perform their jobs. Common tasks enhanced by AI tools range from records management (78% of those surveyed) and onboarding (69%) to recruiting (73%) and retention (69%). In another survey, a consensus 98% say that algorithms will play a key role in deciding who gets laid off in the future.Those numbers are only likely to go up over time. Per that Eightfold survey, 92% of HR leaders say they’re planning to increase their use of AI over the next 12 to 18 months.AI won't take your job, but it will change your jobAI excels at automating rote tasks, rapidly digesting vast amounts of information, and identifying patterns within data. That makes it an ideal tool for rapidly parsing resumes, identifying promising candidates, or devising customized training programs.One of AI’s biggest benefits is the ability to give busy people a head start on necessary but time-consuming tasks, says Jess Lantis, vice president of people operations at Guru, an AI-powered knowledge management platform for teams.  For example, you probably don’t want tools like ChatGPT to write entire job descriptions or company policies for you, says Lantis, but they can get you 70% of the way there–and that represents a huge time savings for people who rarely have enough of it.But AI can’t simulate empathy or form genuine connections with employees, notes Matt Schmidt, founder and CEO of Peoplelogic, a real-time employee-engagement platform. That’s why organizations will always need a 'human' in 'human resources'.Many lower-level jobs will be automated. Organizations need to anticipate thatThe fact is, AI will make some jobs redundant. HR personnel on the front lines must be ready to deal with it.Information retrieval is an obvious application for automation. Someone on staff who spends all day answering questions about employee benefits, health coverage, PTO policies, and so on is at greater risk of being replaced by a chatbot, says Schmidt. But that person could then be given an opportunity to do work that provides greater long-term value to the company, such as skills development.Organizations need to start by fostering an environment of transparency and trust, says Lantis. When people are willing to talk about the possibility of their jobs going away, it allows the organization to engage in a deeper discussion about what they really want to do.“I would go to concerned employees and ask, ‘What do you enjoy doing? What motivates you? What could you be learning that helps you thrive in a workplace that uses AI?’ You should be having a lot of those conversations already.”Lantis suggests establishing programs that allow employees to rotate in and out of different projects, to see if there are opportunities for them to have an impact elsewhere in the organization. Companies may also have to devote more resources to upskilling and retraining.AI may force HR leaders to change how they assess talentShortly after generative AI platforms like ChatGPT became available to the public, people quickly learned how to use these tools to cheat on tests and plagiarize published materials.Potential job candidates can also use these tools to misrepresent their suitability for roles, says Teresha Aird, CMO and hiring manager at “They could use AI to generate tailored yet disingenuous cover letters, respond to online questionnaires, or pass screening tests,” she said. “Remote hires could leverage AI to complete their tasks, misrepresenting their actual abilities and performance.”Last June, the FBI issued an alert about scammers using “deep fakes” and stolen information to apply for remote jobs, pass background checks, and even perform work. HR pros may need to change their assessment methods, incorporating more in-person interviews, situational judgment tests, and realistic job previews, adds Aird.AI literacy is a new core competency–especially for HRWhile you don’t want to hire people who cheat, you do want your new hires to be AI literate, says Eric Sydell, EVP at the hiring platform Modern Hire and author of Decoding Talent: How AI and Big Data Can Solve Your Company’s People Puzzle. One of the skills recruiters will need to look at is how good applicants are at using tools like ChatGPT to do their jobs.“We have to view people as augmented and figure out what that really means,” said Sydell. “Digital readiness is one of the things we‘ll need to be looking at more”The need for literacy extends to recruiters and talent evaluators. "They've got to be somewhat fluent in data and understand how these tools work at a high level," he adds. "They need to look beyond the marketing hype and know the right questions to ask."HR needs to use AI tools for the right reasons and in the right wayAI tools offer myriad ways to make peoples’ work lives better. They can, for example, determine if someone is struggling with a task and offer automated assistance. But they can also be seen as intrusive, especially when used to surveil employees or identify disgruntled workers.According to a March 2023 survey by Hunter Marketing, 68% of executives whose companies have not yet adopted AI cite concerns over ethics.HR pros need to establish clear guidelines about the appropriate applications of the technology, notes Schmidt. For example, Peoplelogic’s AI tools analyze metadata produced by employee interactions to determine the overall health of organizations and teams, but only with the knowledge and permission of people in each group, says Schmidt.“Our goal is to enhance the employee experience,” he added. “Even then, the tools never look at the content of these interactions, and they only display data at an aggregate level.”HR pros need to tread very carefully when it comes to deploying AI, adds Lantis. “Anything that makes people feel like Big Brother is watching over them is a recipe for a really unhealthy culture,” she said. “It ends up encouraging busy work over business outcomes. At the end of the day, you have to instill a culture of trust and of accountability, so people are focused on the right outcomes, not on how many widgets you're making or keystrokes you're generating every hour.”It’s a good idea to get your feet wet nowUnderstanding AI’s potential, as well as its limitations, is essential for people in the HR business. Fortunately, with many AI models now open to the general public, it’s fairly easy to get started. People are using tools like ChatGPT to plan gardens, organize their messy computer desktops, summarize meetings, write wedding speeches, and much more. Getting familiar with what these tools can do now will help later, when you need them on the job.Dan Tynan is a Bay Area-based journalist whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications. He has served as editor-in-chief of Yahoo Tech and executive editor of PC World. He recently launched a newsletter on AI.

Dan Tynan | April 19, 2023

The Great Getaway: Travel as a New Employee Benefit

When Cana Whitted and her husband traveled from Portland, Ore., to Istanbul for their honeymoon last year, they took advantage of a novel employee perk. Whitted, a recruiting manager at the employee-search firm IsoTalent, tapped into her company’s partnership with Dónde, a platform that enables employers to offer travel as an employee benefit.As she planned the trip, Whitted’s employer matched up to $50 in savings she put into her Dónde account each month, then helped with travel advice in picking their destination and setting up side trips, she said. “I ended up being able to book a couple of hikes that I wouldn’t have found on my own, some experiences in the center of the country.”Just as important was the message from her company in providing this benefit. “It feels like you’re empowered to take some paid time off,” Whitted said. "You get to see the world, and they just make it a sweet process.”At a time when demand for leisure travel is booming, and many employees are suffering burnout after years of workplace disruption, a notable number of companies are finding travel-as-a-benefit to be an attractive new way to boost worker satisfaction and retention. Travel companies were natural candidates to lead the way–notably Airbnb, Expedia and United Airlines–but tech companies have joined the trend as well, including BambooHR and Evernote.“Anything an employer can do, now in particular, to be creative in terms of benefits to employees is significant,” says Rick Grimaldi, an HR lawyer and author of Flex: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the Workplace. Today’s workers, especially younger ones, Grimaldi said, “come to the workplace with a very different set of expectations.” Among those are not only fair pay and a sense of purpose, but also an acknowledgement of the need for time off and rejuvenation. “Mental health is a huge issue in the workplace, particularly post-Covid,” Grimaldi said. “So to the extent that an employer is concerned about employee well-being–as well they should–that is now part of the social contract.”Employers have more than altruistic reasons to pursue such benefits. The boost to employee well-being and productivity that comes with paid time off and travel has been well-documented. So have the corporate cost savings associated with retention and strong recruitment capabilities. Many workers now rank personal and career growth as being as important to them as their salaries, said Grimaldi, so they may look at the offer of travel in a benefits package as “an opportunity for me to grow socially and intellectually.”One more factor stimulating travel-as-a-benefit is the growth of so-called “bleisure travel,” in which workers combine their business trips with leisure time. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that nearly half of the ticket revenue at American Airlines, for example, is now coming from people on bleisure trips, “and those customers are spending nearly as much as what corporate travelers once shelled out” for business-only travel before the pandemic.The marketing platform Conductor is one believer in bleisure. The company permits its employees to work two months out of the year from any location in the world. The only catch is that workers must maintain business hours aligned with those of the company’s New York headquarters.Outsourcing the ProgramsGiven that busy HR leaders may not want to administer these programs themselves, startup platforms like Dónde can offer one-stop-shopping for both funding and planning employee getaways. One feature establishes a company-matched, travel-savings program, which works like a 401(k), but for travel. Dónde also aims to make travel-shopping less stressful and cheaper for employees through a marketplace available on its own branded app. Employees set travel goals on the app and monitor financial progress toward them. They can also set up recurring deposits into their travel savings accounts and see company contributions. When workers are ready to vacation, getaways can be booked and scheduled on the app, too.Jessica Lim Sorenson and her husband on a visit to the Dole Plantation in Hawaii (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lim Sorenson)“It’s a way for companies to reward their employees with time off and vacation, and it can look like anything they want it to look like,” said Rilee Buttars, Dónde’s CEO and co-founder. “We believe that the employer and employee relationship will be stronger if the employee is able to take time off and feel like they can have the work/life balance that is so often promised in interviews. The company will get a better employee because they enabled that to happen.”’One of Dónde’s partner companies is Zartico, a “destination operating system” designed to help grow tourism economies. Dónde provides Zartico with employee-rewards programs that include worker-recognition events and employee contests. To drum up attention, Zartico’s chief people officer, Leslie Hooper, launched an internal wiki page and paid employees to craft posts for it, with a couple of workers earning as much as $1,000 each in travel benefits in their Dondé accounts.“We are in the travel and tourism space, so people who work for us–even though they’re data scientists or engineers–they’re passionate about travel and that’s one of the qualities that speaks to them for working at Zartico,” said Hooper. “To have that as an added benefit is very, very attractive to them.”A Range of OptionsThe features of such packages vary widely. Some, like Calendly and Evernote, simply offer workers $1,000 yearly stipends for travel expenses, such as plane tickets, vacation activities, dining allowances and even passport fees. Travel stipends provided at other companies can run upward of $7,000 per year. Airbnb gives its employees $2,000 a year in platform travel credits, while United Airlines allows its workers to travel for free, on standby, on an unlimited basis.HR and benefits leaders who would like to incorporate travel into their company’s benefits package will need to devote some thought to how they might sell the idea to upper leadership. Grimaldi says the C-suite might be a little afraid to offer travel as a benefit, especially at a time when efficiency and austerity are corporate watchwords.Grimaldi suggests that HR leaders conduct research and accrue data that quantifies, to some degree, the positive impact that paid employee travel might have on productivity, retention and recruitment, among other considerations. “Show statistical data as well as anecdotal information where it’s been successful,” Grimaldi said. He also suggests framing travel-as-a-benefit as a cousin of the more-familiar sabbatical arrangement to help communicate its upside. “Then, develop a plan that works for your company,” he said.One of the goals of benefits leaders is to make sure workers understand their options and how to navigate them. That has been a challenge as travel-as-a-benefit gets off the ground. A few years ago, New York City resident Debbie Martinez was working for a tech company that offered subsidized PTO travel benefits and bleisure options to employees, but many co-workers were unaware of them. “It was like something that was a rumor,” she recalls. The company’s people managers didn’t understand how to deliver the benefits. “There was a whole mixup with HR,” Martinez said. “I didn’t really know how to make it work and no one gave me straight answers.”Once she figured out the system, it proved to be a boon. After logging eight days of work in Florida, she added 12 days for vacation. Other destinations included Hawaii and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, both of which included subsidies paid by her employer. “It’s extremely beneficial,” Martinez said of the benefit perk. “I wish more companies would offer it, and sometimes just a change in location while you work is all you need. It was a great reset.”Since her early experience, travel programs have sought to become more user-friendly. Jessica Lim Sorenson, a Utah-based user-experience designer, used Dónde to book her honeymoon in Hawaii last year, partly paid by her employer at the time, Lendio. “You’re getting free money out of it. All you have to do is use it,” she said. “It kind of takes your traditional benefits and gives it a nice twist. It was reassuring to know I can take PTO and I don’t have to feel pressure to always be working all the time.” Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor. You can read more of his work at, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books.

Michael Stahl | March 22, 2023