With HR on the Rise as a Profession, Students Want to Get on Board

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | November 13, 2022

If you’re a college student hoping to be employable someday soon, you might study engineering or math–but that’s not for everybody. Erik Raunikar, a student at Oklahoma State University, is sold on something else: human resources. HR is a career path with abundant opportunity, he believes. “I found a near-universal applicability in the business world,” said Raunikar, who has a mission statement ready-made for LinkedIn: “Every single firm out there needs the ability to not only hire the right person the first time, but also train them to become the highest-performing version of themselves.”

This spring, Raunikar will join an HR field stoked with fresh enthusiasm for disciplines like people analytics and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and determined to exercise its broadened reach in organizations. And like many newly minted HR professionals entering the workforce right now, he comes with a new understanding of the business and technical side of HR.

The HR field is growing, propelled by piqued awareness of social inequities, reexamination of workers’ relationship to work, and willingness from the C-suite to expand HR’s involvement in business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for HR specialists will grow “8% percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations.” Employers are adding HR leaders with new specialties, including chief diversity officers, directors of people operations, HR data analysts, and HR tech leaders.

“Covid-19 has had a big impact on the perception and view of the value of HR. It’s seen as a critical and strategic function,” Lynn Merritt, SVP and chief HR officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, told From Day One. “Additionally, the challenge around the war for talent has increased the value and interest in recruiting, career pathing, organizational design, and development, which I think has created a larger appreciation as well as a greater interest for the younger generation.”

The world of higher education has taken notice–and responded with more curriculum and advanced degrees. This year, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania announced that it will add two disciplines for the academic year starting in 2023: an undergraduate concentration and an MBA with a major in DEI, as well as degrees in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in business, citing the “rising relevance” of these two priorities. Cornell University, whose School of Industrial and Labor Relations is regarded as perhaps the best in the field, offers both PhD and master’s degrees in HR, and Cornell’s digital unit, eCornell, now offers executive DEI certificates. Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies offers both a master’s degree in HR management and an executive DEI certificate.

The Path to an HR Career 

Ryan Greenbaum, the director of the undergraduate program in HR management at Rutgers University, says that for most undergrads in the management department, HR isn’t on the radar, at least initially. “Until they get into the intro to HR class, they don’t understand exactly what it is, and right when they get in, they realize how many different parts of each company are actually affected by what HR does.”

To some degree, the shift in focus during the pandemic toward greater concern about worker well-being may be inspiring students who want to be advocates for employees as well as social causes. “They have this innate interest in the subject because they love the human interaction, they love the people,” said Pearl Sumathi, assistant professor of practice at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State. Like Greenbaum’s, her students have little awareness of the field when they enter the classroom, but students quickly recognize the promise of a career in HR.

Giselle Battley, the global head of early-career talent at commercial real-estate firm JLL, sees new enthusiasm for the purpose-driven components of HR. There are two questions she gets from early career recruits: “What are you doing about DEI?” and “What are you doing about sustainability?”

Erik Raunikar, who is pursuing a degree in HR management at Oklahoma State University, aims to get an MBA someday as well (Photo courtesy of Erik Raunikar)

This energy for social and ethical responsibility is new. “That’s something before 2020 I’d never really heard students say, but in 2020 there was an explosion of job opportunities in the DEI field. Jobs that never existed before started popping up,” said Battley. “I’ve had a few students approach me even about the work that I’m doing in D&I recruiting, but I did that for many, many years. They’re asking, ‘How do I do that?’,” said Battley.

Drew Valvo, who works with Battley at JLL as a specialist in learning and development (L&D), started out at the company in a project-management role unrelated to HR, but during the pandemic felt himself drawn toward the growing emphasis on DEI in 2020. Valvo, who has a degree in biology from Clemson University, began recalibrating his career plans. “It was around July where I started to do a lot of introspection,” Valvo said. He didn’t really know how to make a difference, but he knew that marginalized workers needed advocacy. “LGBTQ rights were, and still are, pretty rocky. People of color always experience things differently. I think the pandemic really exacerbated that,” he said.

While still working full-time, Valvo enrolled in a graduate program at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., where he is earning a master’s of science in talent and organization development, with a concentration in DEI. Earlier this year, he moved into his L&D role at JLL. “My degree program has been really helpful in guiding myself both from a personal element, how to navigate and deal with my own change and stressors, and additionally, how to influence business decisions and how to make more inclusive spaces,” he said.

A Burgeoning Field 

While the human side of HR is what inspires many students, the field increasingly depends on digital tools to get the job done more efficiently. At the undergraduate level, both Sumathi and Greenbaum noted greater emphasis on quantitative and technical skills that might look more at home in a business-school curriculum.

“In the time that I’ve been here for four years, they’ve changed the curriculum up quite a bit to incorporate more STEM. They include an analytics track, data analytics, people analytics, statistics for [human resource management],” Greenbaum said.

Businesses recognize the need for quantitative acumen in HR. According to a 2018 study by HR.com and BambooHR, a typical HR department’s weakest skill is “understanding and using HR data.” Only 16% of HR professionals consider themselves HR data experts. “While [HR analytics] has always been around, workforce planning, job design, and employee value propositions will be anchored on workforce data,” said Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Merritt.

At Rutgers, Greenbaum sees a remarkable number of students interested in compensation policy, which happens to coincide with a growing public focus on pay equity and passage of pay-transparency laws. “They start to get a better understanding than what a lot of other students understand,” Greenbaum said. Students learn how compensation is calculated, and how to control their own. “They really dive into it,” he said.

Drew Valvo went back to school to get an MS in HR and now works for JLL as a specialist in L&D (Photo courtesy of Drew Valvo)

As the HR department commands a bigger say in business operations, HR management programs and business programs are starting to take on more similarities. Jeffrey Schwartz, who co-teaches a course on the future of work at Columbia Business School, told Bloomberg Businessweek that talk of the “future of work” in business schools was once about robots replacing humans, but now more closely resembles HR. As Bloomberg reporter Matthew Boyle put it: “It’s less about threats and more about such opportunities as exploring the proper relationship between a business and its workers, or the trade-offs between people and profits.”

Raunikar, the Oklahoma State student, sees his degree in HR management as a natural precursor to a career as an executive. He plans to one day get an MBA and start his own company in his hometown of McAlester, Okla. (Its motto: “Small Town. Big Frontier.”) Raunikar hasn’t decided on the business yet, but he wants to create something that can reduce housing costs and puts more cash in residents’ pockets. For now, he wants the HR experience.

“My end goal in its simplest terms is to leave McAlester–and perhaps Oklahoma–better than I found them. That’s my home, and it’s my duty to fix and maintain. The cool thing about learning HR, though, is I have the freedom to make that choice,” he said.

Appealing to business inclination is one way employers can attract this new wave of HR talent. “Showcase how HR as a function excels in your organization by strategically partnering with the business to accelerate growth and profits. Show the purpose for which you exist and how that translates to the HR strategy,” Sumathi said.

Valvo of JLL has the CHRO position in mind for himself, but detours are welcome because the applications are now so broad. “There’s no deadline on goals. There are so many opportunities that I can kind of go into or lean into that, fortunately, I don’t feel like I’m in a rush to do it,” Valvo said. “There are a huge array of possibilities in the HR whole realm that I’m really excited about.”

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


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ADHD in the Workplace: What You Should Know–and What Can Help

Pete came to our weekly psychotherapy session frustrated with work. He had just returned to his office, post pandemic, and found the new, open plan noisy and overwhelming. Pete, which is not his real name, has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and is easily distractible and sensitive to noise. He had trouble concentrating, was irritated by the constant chatter of colleagues, and, as a result, was feeling less productive.“Could you talk to your manager about getting some accommodations?” I asked.“No way!” he said. “That would be a career killer.”Pete’s wariness is not uncommon. A few of my psychotherapy patients with ADHD have confided in their managers, but most feel it’s unwise to do so. They fear they will be stigmatized and sidelined.Edward Hallowell, M.D., agrees with their concern. The founder of the Hallowell ADHD Centers and one of the leading authorities on the disorder, explained to From Day One: “We’re not there yet. Most corporate professionals think of ADHD as some kind of mental illness.”Given that ADHD is not well-understood in the workplace, how can employees speak up about their needs in a way that feels safe? And how can managers and HR leaders better understand how to respond to those needs–whether employees want to name their ADHD, or not? A well-accommodated employee is, after all, a happier and more productive one. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to remove obstacles to someone’s performance,” said Hallowell. Here’s what experts recommend:Know What It IsADHD is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by symptoms of restlessness, impulsivity and difficulty sustaining attention to boring tasks. It tends to run in families and is often inherited from a parent. There are three types: inattentive (dreamy and distractible), hyperactive-impulsive (restless and talkative), and a combination of the two. Most adults with ADHD have the inattentive type. Though it was long considered to be a childhood disorder affecting mostly boys, research has shown that it persists into adulthood—about 30% to 70% of children with ADHD continue to have symptoms later in life.Ned Hallowell, M.D., a pre-eminent expert on ADHD (Photo courtesy of the Hallowell ADHD Centers)An undiagnosed adult may think of themselves as spacey, messy, or undisciplined—and they often suffer from low self-esteem. A recent study found that only 10% to 25% of adults with ADHD receive an accurate diagnosis and adequate treatment. “They are often inaccurately diagnosed with anxiety or depression, which are really just the fallout of untreated ADHD,” said Ari Tuckman, a psychologist in West Chester, Penn., who specializes in the treatment of ADHD. As Hallowell puts it: “It’s like driving on square wheels.” In dealing with tasks, you will make progress, but it may take longer.And That the Diagnosis Is On the RiseWhile children are still the most likely group to be identified with the disorder, the number of adult diagnoses has been rising for decades. The pandemic accelerated the trend: the overall incidence in adults (30 to 49 years old) nearly doubled from 2020 to 2022, fueled mainly by an increase in diagnoses among women, according to Epic Research, a medical-record software company. While it’s not clear exactly why women are being diagnosed more often, experts theorize that it may be due to increasing smartphone and technology use, which can amplify distractibility and stress, as well as a greater awareness that ADHD can be also be a women’s issue. As more adults are diagnosed, they—like Pete—often face workplaces that are not ADHD-literate.How It Affects Work Performance–But Not Always in a Bad WayPeople with the disorder may have difficulty with organization, time management and procrastination—all of which can make it hard to meet deadlines and work within teams. They find tedious tasks, such as scheduling and filling out expense reports, unusually challenging and have a different sense of time than others. “People with ADHD have more difficulty seeing time and feeling the future,” notes Tuckman,More than half (56%) of adults with ADHD said they believe the disorder “strongly impacts their ability to succeed at work,” according to a 2008 survey by McNeil Pediatrics. A more recent survey by Akili, a therapeutic-technology company, interviewed 500 adults with ADHD and found that employees with ADHD felt the disorder had a negative impact on their career.     And yet, people with ADHD often display qualities that work in their favor, notes Hallowell, who himself has ADHD. He sees the condition as a trait, not a disorder, that has positive benefits like creativity, humor, and spontaneity. “There’s more to it than most people realize,” he said. “ADHD is terrible term. We have an abundance of attention. Our challenge is where to put our focus.” People with ADHD can spend hours on topics that interest them and see details that others might miss, a trait sometimes called hyperfocus. Many successful people have talked openly about their ADHD, including Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, James Carville, astronaut Scott Kelly and JetBlue founder David Neeleman.How to Get DiagnosedIf you persistently miss deadlines, are chronically late, and feel like staying organized is a big effort, first ask a trusted friend or colleague if they find you more scattered than others. Then, make an appointment to see a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating the condition. There is no one standardized test—instead a professional will take a thorough history and may ask family members and friends to complete questionnaires about your behavior. You may be asked questions like, How often do you misplace items, feel bored and restless, or lose track of what needs to be done? If you meet the criteria, your doctor may talk to you about medication, therapy or coaching and, if needed, provide a diagnosis so you can receive accommodations at school or at work.Understand What HelpsMost people diagnosed with ADHD rely on medication to control their symptoms. Typical medications include stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall, which increase the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. There are also non-stimulant drugs such as Strattera. Stimulant medications that treat ADHD are the “most effective of medications in psychiatry,” said Tuckman, and help tame distractibility and impulsivity. About two thirds of people with ADHD diagnoses are prescribed stimulant medications, and that percentage has remained fairly consistent since 2013, according to Epic Research. Some people can help manage their symptoms by exercising regularly, getting proper sleep, and implementing strict organization and reminder systems. Or they hire very competent assistants.Once you are diagnosed and have figured out the best treatment, it’s like “getting fitted for the right eyeglasses,” said Dr. Hallowell. “Things come into sharper focus.”How to Make the Workplace More ADHD-FriendlySmall modifications can go a long way to helping people with ADHD perform better on the job. Tuckman suggests considering adjustments in the three domains described below. As an employee, you can make tweaks on your own or ask your manager for help. As for managers, if you have a worker who is struggling with organization and meeting deadlines, you could take the lead at putting these practices into place.Make distractions softer. Quiet spaces, headphones, and working on off-hours (say, early or late), can help mitigate the clatter of a bustling office. Often working from home is a good solution.Make important information stand out from the chatter. Putting assignments in writing, recording meetings, and highlighting deadlines can help workers whose focus is not great to stay on task.Bring the future closer to the present. Those who struggle with adhering to deadlines will benefit when big projects are broken into smaller chunks, and check-ins are on the calendar with frequent reminders of when tasks are due.So, Should You Tell Your Boss?If you have ADHD, you may be covered under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). However, you might not want to play that card unless you absolutely must, says Belynda Gauthier, a retired HR director and past president of Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD). “The first time I did a presentation on ADHD in the workplace, I launched into detail about how the employee should approach his supervisor or manager and suggested that he might want to go directly to HR first. An audience participant interrupted to tell me that her HR office actually is the problem for her. Oops! I took this to heart, did some serious thinking, and revamped my presentation. I no longer recommend revealing one’s diagnosis until and unless it’s necessary.” Indeed, 92% of surveyed adults with ADHD believe that their colleagues hold misconceptions, the most common of which is “people with ADHD just need to try harder.” A better strategy might be to simply approach your manager with a positive attitude and a few solutions. “Be sure to tell them what you are good at,” advised Hallowell.Gauthier suggests something like: “I am really enjoying processing these widgets, and I think I’m doing a good job. I believe I could do an even better job if I could move to that cubicle that’s farther from the copy machine. So many co-workers use it all day and everyone stops to say hello.” Avoid the use of the word “but” to qualify your suggestions and don’t be whiney, she says.      Accommodations can help, but sometimes the best solution is finding the right job in the right environment with the right supports. “When I finally figured out I had it, it was a relief,” David Neeleman said in a recent interview with Forbes. “I was just really careful to surround myself with people that could complement my ADHD. I have people around me that help implement a lot of the ideas I have.” When you can turn your intense focus on something that truly fascinates you, ADHD can be a bonus rather a deficit.Lesley Alderman, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. In her therapy practice, she works with individuals and couples. She writes about mental health topics for the Washington Post and has been an editor at Money and Real Simple magazines and a health columnist for the New York Times.(Featured photo by Valentin Russanov/iStock by Getty Images) 

Lesley Alderman, LCSW | May 15, 2024

Workers Want Weight-Loss Drugs, But How Can Employers Pay the Bills?

When consumers see splashy TV commercials for weight-loss drugs, they often find the the pitch irresistible. But for HR and benefits executives, they may trigger an uneasy feeling. That's because the revolutionary weight-loss drugs like Wegovy bring with them both magic and mystery–the magic is how well they can work; the mystery is how to pay for them.GLP-1, or glucagon-like peptide-1, drugs have historically been used to treat diabetes. But the development of stronger drugs like Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic in recent years, and now the approval of Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound specifically for weight management, has led to a sharp increase in demand. That’s particularly true as more research emerges showing the drugs may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and potentially bring other long-term health benefits. Yet the medications can cost as much as $1,000 to $1,500 per month–a price that few Americans can afford unless they have generous health-insurance coverage.And unlike expensive drugs for rare conditions, the potential number of patients for GLP-1s is vast. More than 40% of Americans have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that is expected to reach 50% by 2030.Many doctors are thrilled about the potential for GLP-1s to change how obesity is treated, but that puts employers–where nearly half of Americans get their health insurance–in a tricky position. Here’s what employers need to know as they consider coverage for these drugs in the quickly changing landscape:High Costs, Low CoverageWhile employer health plans widely cover GLP-1s for the purpose of treating diabetes, coverage for weight-loss purposes is much more spotty right now. A survey last fall by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 27% of 205 employers covered GLP-1s for weight loss and another 13% did not yet cover them but were considering adding coverage. Meanwhile, Willis Towers Watson (WTW), a global insurance benefits-consulting company that serves many large employers, found about 38% of employers it surveyed cover the weight-loss drugs. Those that do cover them are seeing significant cost increases. The retail price for Wegovy comes out to $15,000 to $16,000 per year, and after rebates and discounts from manufacturers, health plans still pay about $9,000 per year, says Cody Midlam, a director at WTW’s pharmacy practice. The cost per member per month for GLP-1s has doubled each of the last three years, according to WTW’s analysis, amounting to an extra $11 per member per month last year, or about 9% of all pharmacy costs.Companies are aware of the research showing the drugs’ effectiveness at tackling obesity. Yet while doctors say that helping people lose weight could lead to less cardiovascular disease, fewer mental health issues, and savings from avoiding knee replacements or other surgeries related to obesity, long-term data on clinical outcomes remains limited. With high employee turnover in many industries, it’s tough for these employers to factor in potential future savings in healthcare costs over the life of the employee.“Those outcomes take a very long time to manifest,” says Midlam. “It’s not something that’s easily measurable on a short timescale when plan decisions are being made.” Andrew Witty, CEO of UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. insurer, said his corporate clients see the benefits, but first have to deal with the short-term costs. “We’re very positive about the potential for another tool in the toolbox to help folks manage their weight. We recognize that has potential benefits,” Witty said in the third-quarter earnings call last year. “But we’re struggling.”Employers Meet the DemandDespite the high costs and headlines about some insurance plans scrapping GLP-1 coverage, plenty of employers see the upside to covering the new obesity medications. Ninety-nine percent of companies already covering GLP-1s said they planned to continue doing so next year, according to a fall survey from Accolade, a healthcare navigation and advocacy company. Employers reported that after they added GLP-1 coverage, they saw higher employee satisfaction, increased engagement in other well-being programs, and improvements in other or comorbid health conditions. Midlam of WTW says his firm’s corporate clients want to “avoid member disruption” wherever possible.Doctors agree that should be a priority. Dan Azagury, M.D., medical director for the Stanford Lifestyle and Weight Management Center, says GLP-1s have been a “game changer” for many of his patients. “If you stop it overnight, whether it’s insurance, or financial, or shortages, the rebound is ferocious,” he said. “So it’s really very frustrating that they encounter that situation.” Some companies have expressed concerns about the idea of paying for a drug that employees essentially have to take forever to maintain its benefits. But while side effects, including vomiting and gastrointestinal issues, can be unpleasant for some people, doctors like Azagury say they know how to help patients manage them, and that they are seeing more patients have a positive response to GLP-1s than to previous generations of weight loss medications. Holistic Care, Not Just PrescriptionsEven when employers decide they want to help their employees lose weight, there are still lots of details to consider. As companies approach designing their insurance plans for 2025 and beyond, they are trying to figure out how many employees are likely to use GLP-1 drugs if coverage is offered, whether there should be limits on who can get the drugs, and what kind of requirements they should use to prove the drugs are medically necessary. Most companies that cover GLP-1s use some cost-control strategies, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey. Many use prior authorization, step therapy during which patients must try lower-cost drugs first, or specific eligibility requirements.Typically, eligibility requirements have been tied to the standards on the FDA labels for these medications. But some employers are considering restrictions such as only covering the drugs for people with obesity but not those who are overweight, says Tracy Spencer, a pharmacy practice leader for benefits consultant Aon. If they add those limits, she warns that employers should be aware that could change or jeopardize the rebates they get from the drug manufacturers, so they need to predict whether the savings they get from limiting the drugs’ use will offset the loss of the rebates.Benefits consultants like Aon and WTW are also seeing employers shift the way they look at GLP-1 drugs to view them as one piece in a broader strategy to address cardio-metabolic issues.That might mean employers choose to cover the drugs for targeted indications, such as covering Wegovy not for weight loss on its own, but for people with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, which Medicare recently announced it would do. It can also mean pairing GLP-1 coverage with required lifestyle modifications or participation in a virtual weight-loss or coaching program. Employers often have access to virtual health programs through their pharmacy benefit managers, and many have tried these to target diabetes in recent years. The biopharmaceutical company Moderna, which offers coverage of GLP-1s for diabetes and weight management, is one company that has tried this strategy. “In 2023 we saw a spike related to weight-loss management: We looked at claims data, and after mental health, obesity and weight management were the second drivers,” Jeffrey Stohlberg, Moderna’s director of corporate benefits, said at a From Day One conference earlier this year. So the company started using the virtual weight-loss management program Wondr Health, where an employee can work with a physician specializing in weight loss. “It’s not a path to GLP-1s, but [the physicians] can provide medication for that person,” Stohlberg said. Labcorp also announced in February that it would provide U.S. employees on GLP-1s with virtual care and medication management through WeightWatchers for Business. Other companies such as Omada Health and telehealth providers like Teladoc and Ro have launched similar offerings over the last year. Medical providers agree that a holistic approach is needed, but Angela Fitch, M.D., president of the Obesity Medicine Association and co-founder and chief medical officer of the obesity-focused primary care startup knownwell, worries that requiring a standard weight-management program for every person is another barrier and potentially a waste of money if the program doesn’t have solid evidence behind it.“You can offer lifestyle [strategies] in addition to medication,” she said, “but it should be driven by that shared decision making discussion with the clinician.” If insurers want to make sure patients are getting holistic care, she would rather have them require patients to get their prescriptions from a qualified physician who does a true evaluation so that solutions can be personalized. In her role with the Obesity Medicine Association, Fitch often advises employers on their health plan designs, so she understands that costs are a major concern for companies. But in her primary-care practice and others like it, she says her staff are “burning out” as they spend hours each day trying to navigate all the new and often strict and confusing insurance requirements for these medications. “We have got to deal with costs,” Fitch said. “But it should be transparent and flexible.” She worries that overly rigid restrictions are “adding to the bias and stigma of obesity” by signaling to patients that their weight is their responsibility to treat on their own. Her major advice is to view obesity with the nuance that people view other chronic conditions. “You do not need a GLP-1 management solution. You need a comprehensive obesity-care solution.”Abigail Abrams is a health writer and editor. Currently she is the senior manager of content operations for Atria. Previously, she was a staff writer on health and politics for TIME magazine. Her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and other publications.

Abigail Abrams | April 15, 2024

What Transparency Can Expose: an Obvious Need for Organizational Change

In the realm of corporate values, few terms have been more universally embraced in recent years than the notion of transparency. Among its many applications, organizations have deployed it to contend with sticky social matters and public scrutiny of corporate ethics.  At the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos this year, speakers repeated the term like a mantra, reflecting a movement that has been building for a while. Fast Company reported that at the summit in 2021, more than 60 businesses announced a “commitment to transparency” about their effects on society and the environment. In response to pressure from stakeholders on all sides, executives from TikTok, Glassdoor, Google, YouTube, Zoom, Boeing, Twitter, and the White House have all made public commitments to transparency in recent years.Yet lately it has been dawning on leaders that this magic, window-cleaning solution can make things worse, especially if what has been exposed seems to be hypocritical, poorly thought-out, or further obfuscation rather than moral clarity. The most notorious recent example came last December, when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania gave hedged, lawyerly responses when asked in a congressional hearing whether calls for the genocide of Jewish people would violate their school’s conduct rules. Their answers frustrated stakeholders on many sides of the issue.Seeing the havoc that failed transparency can wreak, Harvard is second-guessing the value of transparency, and is considering keeping mum on divisive matters altogether. The Harvard Crimson reported in February that the school’s interim president is expected to announce that the school is considering a policy of “institutional neutrality,” in which it will make no statements on politicized matters. Leaders at other universities are in favor, it appears. During a recent panel discussion on the matter, Yale Law School professor Robert C. Post remarked that “when we speak outside of our lane, we invite reprisals, we invite regulations, which we cannot defend in terms of our mission,” he said. “There may be reasons to do it. But they have to be pretty good reasons because we’re vulnerable, we're especially vulnerable right now.” The public is not ready to retire the notion of transparency, however, so organizations need to take a more considered approach to it and the policies that it exposes. “Corporate values aren’t optional, and they’re more controversial and contested than ever,” writes Alison Taylor in her new book Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World. “[Yet] aiming to base your values on commitments on the full range of stakeholder pressures and demands is a recipe for incoherence and fragmentation.”This has become the principal dilemma for leaders who want to run an ethical business, argues Taylor, a clinical associate professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. “It shows up in HR teams doing employee engagement surveys and trying to make themselves look good. It shows up in these glossy sustainability reports about all the wonderful things [the company] is doing,” Taylor told From Day One. “The thing that has changed is that those defenses don’t work anymore.”The Age of Clarity and CandorThe theory is that if you bare it all, the company will be rewarded for its candor. “If a single concept drives today’s businesses, regulators, journalists, and NGO activists, it’s that transparency is the route to accountability,” Taylor writes in her book. Yet all this new data-dumping, press-releasing, and report-publishing hasn’t necessarily reconciled what companies say vs. what they do, though trust in business has generally grown over the years, especially when compared with trust in government. Yet company after company, ranging from Boeing to Wells Fargo, have taken a shellacking for saying that they’ve fixed problems when they haven’t actually changed the culture or system that caused harm in the first place.In fact, disclosure is easily weaponized, Taylor argues. The companies that release details of their ethical transgressions or corporate misconduct can put the target on their own backs. In her book, Taylor tells of the story of a clothing company, operating in an industry known for its negative environmental effects and human-rights violations, that published a list of its suppliers in the spirit of transparency. They were among the first picked off as the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging forced labor. “The retailer making a good faith effort to be responsible and accountable was first in line for denunciation and punishment,” Taylor writes.Contending with a Public Wary of Good IntentionsAs companies see that their attempt at transparency can get them in trouble, many flatten their reporting into glossy packets and palatable stories. Some disclosures are required by law, yet by and large, these reports are voluntary. To steel themselves against criticism, especially involved tricky issues, many organizations appoint leaders charged with improving company culture and creating a more equitable workplace: chief culture officers, heads of compliance and integrity, and leaders of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To be sure, many who sit in these offices are formidable forces. Figures like Yelp’s chief diversity officer, Miriam Warren, and Bumble’s founder Whitney Wolfe Herd set high bars for the influence executives can have on equity and integrity inside and outside an organization.But some of the leaders installed in these roles are faced with the uncomfortable truth that their position is corporate PR. Taylor sees this often: People take jobs and think of themselves as organizational change agents, only to find that senior leaders think of them as defense mechanisms to protect corporate reputation and, in the case of compliance teams, to deflect regulators.For instance, the chief diversity officer is typically charged with making the business more demographically diverse and equitable for people across every department at every level of the business, yet many of them work with very limited resources. It's no wonder that turnover for the job is high.From Token Hire to Meaningful InfluenceOnce a company decides that it won’t favor transparency more than change, good things start to happen. This is when those leaders originally appointed as tokens can use their positions. If Taylor were to find herself in a role and learn that her presence was manipulative PR, she said, “I would make an argument about transparency needing to adapt the organization to a new generation. You can’t control the narrative, so hiring a load of people to do window dressing has become a waste of money. We can’t rely on confidentiality agreements, and we can’t rely on telling a good story.”Companies have to assume that young workers in particular are ready to undercut nice, neat stories and pounce on corporate misdirection, she says. Where a glossy report no longer suffices, those once-impotent appointees can play a valuable role, holding the company accountable from the inside before an angry public holds them accountable in the open air.Now that the public is suspicious of public declarations of corporate goodness, “no one believes it. There’s a total ‘gotcha’ mindset. Everyone rolls their eyes, and now there’s all this greenwashing and woke-washing litigation,” Taylor said. “It’s a pointless investment. You need to stop treating these as messaging challenges and treat them as organizational strategy challenges.”‘A Less Varnished Assessment of Activities’Taylor’s Higher Ground is loaded with case studies, action outlines, and advice. Not only for avoiding corporate blunders, but also correcting the bad habits and outright crookedness that cause them. Be a “first mover,” setting the example for peers, she writes. Companies often wait until a public scandal to start talking, but this tends to create chaos. She cites the example of Google releasing its transparency report on how it works with law enforcement in 2010. “This was not the result of a specific scandal but an effort to correct widespread misunderstanding.” Its success was due in part to the company being clear about what it can and cannot influence.Sure, there will be companies that invite scrutiny with their reporting, but that’s why Taylor warns against bending too deeply to public opinion and impatience that lures firms into dangerous waters. Don’t succumb to the pressures of social media, which turn companies into reaction engines, she advises. Wait long enough, and sensationalized social-media storms pass. Similarly, transparency often generates “impatient calls for an issue to be addressed instantly,” when real change takes time.Finally, forget about having 100% control over the stories told about your company and control over the behavior of your employees, which some companies increasingly see as liabilities, as evidenced by the new popularity of surveillance tools.Taylor believes that many corporate leaders sincerely want to avoid superficial reporting and put-on commitments to transparency. In five years of speaking to investors about sustainability reports, Taylor writes, “they told me again and again how much they–and their companies–would benefit from a less-varnished assessment of activities.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the BBC, the Washington Post, Quartz, and Fast Company.(Featured illustration by Fermate/iStock by Getty Images)

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | March 24, 2024