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Wendi Safstrom, President of the SHRM Foundation: HR as a Driver of Social Change

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Wendi Safstrom, President of the SHRM Foundation: HR as a Driver of Social Change


Evolving employee expectations for working conditions and years of a tight labor market have created steady challenges for human resources professionals. For a look at how those roles are evolving in response, and, to learn about current best practices, we turn today to Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the world's largest HR professional society. “We're problem-solving based on research that we do in the field with our HR pros with the goal to help HR get better and help them lead positive social change in the workplace.” As you’ll learn on this episode of WorkforceRx hosted by Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan, that change includes ensuring health equity at work, providing support for mental health needs and adopting a “skills-first” approach to hiring, which can provide opportunity to populations who have often been shut out of the hiring process. “HR professionals have an obligation to contribute to bettering the lives of others, and what better way to do that than by employing an individual and demonstrating a culture that's welcoming for everyone?” In this informative conversation, Wendi also addresses the use of AI in hiring, the need for HR staff to attend to their own mental health, and the free resources SHRM makes available to employers of all sizes.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.


Evolving employee expectations for working conditions and years of a tight labor market have created steady challenges for HR professionals. For a look at how HR roles are evolving in response and to learn about current best practices, we turn today to Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Society for Human Resource Management, which is the world’s largest HR professional society.


Wendi brings decades of experience in nonprofit leadership and HR management to the role. She has a particular interest in helping organizations recognize the value of skilled credentials, promoting the adoption of workplace mental health solutions, and helping to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and bringing diversity, equity, and belonging to workplaces.


Thanks very much for joining us today, Wendi.


Wendi Safstrom: Thank you so much for inviting me.


Van: Well, what would you add to that very brief description I gave of the SHRM Foundation?


Wendi: Sure. I think it’s important to mention that SHRM the enterprise — the big SHRM — is the member-driven catalyst for creating better workplaces where people and businesses thrive together, and that’s really kind of our thesis statement, our purpose statement. Our work is focused on elevating and empowering HR to serve as a force for social good. Our job specifically, in order to do that, is really mobilize and equip HR professionals to lead that change, again, so that all talent and workplaces can prosper and thrive.


We talk about the foundation as the philanthropic arm of SHRM. We’re not philanthropic in the charitable sense of the word. Rather, our philanthropic work supports programmatic work that ultimately helps businesses, talent, and again, folks in their community where they work and live, thrive. This is rooted in evidence-based practice. We’re problem-solving based on research that we do in the field with our HR pros, ultimately with the goal to help HR get better and help them lead positive social change in the workplace.


Van: Well, I can’t wait to probe into some of the programmatic work that you’re doing. You know, I was recently in a room full of chief human resources officers, of hospitals, and they definitely see their role shape-shifting within these organizations. What is most interesting to you right now about the role of HR and how it’s changing?


Wendi: I think that we often refer to this period in time as the golden age of HR and I think at no other time, at least that I can remember, has HR been so needed, so necessary, such a priority. I think a lot of that kind of stemmed from COVID in so many ways. CHROs and then all of the field of HR professionals — folks who either have responsibilities that are part of an HR professional’s job, or maybe that’s an aspect of their particular job — were desperately needed. HR professionals really play an essential role as advocates and leaders in opening doors and addressing those societal challenges. There are so many things that HR is involved in from the business perspective, from a people perspective, because good people practice leads to good business practice.


We have seen our membership grow tremendously, in fact, over the last couple of years. I think we’ve got 340,000 members in 180 countries. The neat statistic about that, too, is that all of these HR pros are touching the lives of more than 362 million workers and their families globally. So, I think that speaks volumes about people recognizing the need and having a new found perhaps respect or perspective on the value that HR brings to places of business. That’s everywhere from the Fortune 100s, Fortune 1000s, all the way to our small and medium-sized employers who maybe don’t have a bench strength of HR, but certainly understand, recognize, and have elements of HR-related work within their own specific portfolio.


Van: Well, I bet all 340,000 of those HR professionals have telework on their mind. I’m wondering, what are some of the best practices these days with regards to telework?


Wendi: In terms of telework, we actually have made a shift here, too. I mean, can you imagine being the CHRO for the world’s largest professional society for HR? No pressure, right? So, we really did a deep dive in thinking about what we wanted our culture to be. We made a decision a couple of years ago to switch to a hybrid schedule, and that is working in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and working hybridly or remotely on Monday and Friday. We make sure that we have regular check-ins. We just had a CEO briefing last week. When people are in office, it’s easy to get up caught up in this track where you’re on a Zoom meeting with people who may be in the office and right down the hall. So it’s making a really deliberate and thoughtful effort of when you’re in the office, to getting the teams together and making sure that you’re fostering that kind of sense of community.


We have a lot of folks actually whose job allows them to work remotely. We’ve got customer support all over the world. Our director of engagement and philanthropy is headquartered in New Jersey because that’s the hub of where so many philanthropists and companies who invest in our work sit. And so some of the positions and certainly a lot of the positions that make our business run make sense for remote positions. But so many of the positions that we have really lend themselves to being in the office at least three days a week.


I think we did it kind of by trial and error. Once we instituted this hybrid work situation, it was listening and continuing to listen to our employee base. It was talking to managers and finding out what people managers are doing. And so it’s a really good way for us to be able to do that. We’re thinking and knowing and learning about going into a hybrid situation. Our business has never been better. We’re booming financially, and booming financially means that we get to do good work and lead with our priority, which is to elevate HR. So it’s worked for us.  I think it’s about defining your culture, talking to your employees, listening to your people managers, and then also making sure your people managers continue to manage and lead. We want to make sure people feel this sense of community, whether or not they’re in the office or out of the office.


Van: Well, speaking of good work and an expanding membership base, I was wondering if you could share with us how the SHRM Foundation is supporting HR professionals as they are navigating telework, but so many other changes in the workplace.


Wendi: Sure. So we’ve kind of defined our work. We just updated a strategic plan along with that of SHRMs, and in a nutshell, we focus on equipping and empowering HR in three ways. The first is really widening pathways to work. We’re leading with a skills-first mentality and a talent management strategy.  We have programming to help HR professionals recruit from untapped pools of talent such as members of the military community, individuals with disabilities, individuals who’ve been impacted by the justice system.


We’re also moving into the older worker and Opportunity Youth space. Those particular audiences are often left behind when it comes to being considered for jobs — and that’s even if they make it that far — and so we’re working with the SHRM Foundation to help them not only for hiring, but for future development and growth within the businesses they go to work with. So, this whole body of work linked to widening pathways to employment is really designed to help HR professionals think differently about who they recruit and hire and how they develop talent.


On the skills first approach, it’s about recognizing and understanding that not every position within different organizations, depending on your industry sector, needs to have someone who has a four-year degree and ten years of experience. There are people who come to work prepared differently and we think that really approaching recruitment and retention with the skills first mindset can open the doors to lots of different kinds of talent and audiences who otherwise may be left out of the equation.


We’re also tackling societal challenges. Right now, we are focused on workplace mental health and wellness. As you can imagine, this came as a result of a discussion in April and May of 2020. The foundation team and some of the folks from the SHRM team sat down and said, we are all so hyper-focused on the impact of COVID on our employees and the impact it’s having on their families and folks within the sphere of their care. What’s going to happen when people kind of recover or return to the workplaces, whether it be hybrid or not? What kinds of challenges are they going to be facing? How are they going to be feeling? The stress levels are going to be incredibly high and how can we get ahead of that and make sure that we’re providing not only HR professionals the tools and resources they need to take good care of their employees, but they themselves?


It reminds me of that saying, ‘put your own oxygen mask on first.’ I find that often our HR professionals are not leading with taking care of themselves in addition to taking care of their employees. So that’s really important for us to take that balance.


In that societal challenges realm, we also look at caregiving. Increasingly, we have a multi-generational workforce and we’re looking at someone who may have not considered themselves a caregiver because they didn’t have children, for example. Like, I don’t have kids. They’re now finding themselves in a position to need to take care of aging parents, perhaps. My parents live in Denver, Colorado and I live in D.C. How do we work with HR professionals and workplaces to understand the impact of caregiving and the duties that come with that and how to balance work and life when it comes to those kinds of situations within organizations?


And then finally, as you would anticipate, as a foundation for a major professional society one role we play is really helping to develop the next generation of HR professional. We really want to ensure that we grow our HR professional in terms of workforce from jobs and into careers. We want to diversify and really prepare them to address the needs of not only businesses today — as many of them are students or what we refer to as emerging professionals — but for the leaders and HR professionals that they’re going to be tomorrow. So, we have scholarships and mentoring programs and a whole set of activities for them at different SHRM conferences.


It’s a wide body of work, but we’re pretty laser focused on identifying how we’re measuring success and committed to doing so for those who invest in our work.


Van: Well, when you laid out those four points, they resonated quite well for me even though I’m not in the field of HR directly. So, congratulations.


Wendi: Thank you. It’s been exciting. It’s been a lot of work. You know, SHRM’s been around for seventy-five years and has developed a tremendous reputation, which is great because we can leverage that. But anytime you go into a period of change, there’s growing pains. However, I think we’ve been able to navigate that and I think it starts with leadership from the top. Our president and CEO, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., has been an advocate and proponent of HR. He was a CHRO. And I think that by creating the right opportunities to foster senses of community for our members, and to make sure that the resources we’re introducing are relevant and will resonate with them, is the way that we can demonstrate an ROI back to our members.


Van: On the topic of workplace mental health and wellness, the SHRM Foundation research has shown that 77% of US workers believe that it’s their employer’s responsibility to address mental health disparities. What’s happening in mental health in the workplace that you find most interesting and encouraging? And of course, Futuro Health is hoping to be working with your organization to address some of these issues.


Wendi: Yeah, so we did some survey work that we’re teeing up. It’s really exciting research, we’re going to be releasing this May, because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It focused, as I mentioned, not only on the state of mental health and wellness in the workplace as it impacts employees, but it’s also focusing on the mental health of HR professionals, which I think will be really interesting. It’s embargoed in terms of all the reporting and the data, but I can say that that research was inspired by a need for those in our organizations who are really tasked with implementing mental health policies and practices as I mentioned, to make sure they’re putting on their own oxygen masks first, if you will.


And in fact, we saw a really remarkable response to a field guide for mental health that we launched in 2023. We’re going to be following up with an activator, so not only can HR professionals kind of understand their state of readiness in terms of the kinds of support that they offer through benefits and other kinds of internal cultural meetings that they have within their organizations, but we will show them how to actually implement what they’ve just learned. We think we’ve inspired and empowered HR professionals with the tools they need,  especially for those small to medium employers that are often looking for a turnkey solution.


Then, hopefully, we’ll be introducing an evaluation tool in the next couple of months. We hear a lot that CHROs and HR professionals are invested in workplace mental health and wellness tools — they’ve got different kinds of initiatives going on within their organizations — but how are they measuring success? I’ve been hearing most recently from organizations who’ve been in this space for quite some time, not just after COVID, that they’re still wrestling with that.


So, that is some of what we’re going to be taking a look at on a broad based space. Are the things we’ve been spending our human and financial resources working? How are we defining success as an organization? I think just as important is how are HR professionals handling their own mental health, knowing that they’re tasked with doing that and more to support their employees?


Van: Wendi, is that field guide open to the public? Or how would someone find that field guide?


Wendi: You can go to our website, And yes, all of our resources are available to the public. There is a certification that we have in partnership with Psych Hub that has a nominal fee, but the field guide — as a result of really gracious and generous donations from investors and supporters of our work — is free. There are sections on our website where you can find information about what I talked about on the front end mental health, skills first and widening pathways to work and also information for folks who are considering studying and going to the field of HR.


Van: Wonderful. So let’s jump to the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion, which has gotten very politicized lately. SHRM has been pursuing an interesting dimension of DEI over the last couple of years on health equity in the workforce. Can you give us some details on that project and what strategies are being pursued?


Wendi: Sure. It’s interesting, somebody just asked us how we define health equity because we’ve heard it kind of described and defined in different ways, depending on the

organization. We formed a partnership with the American Heart Association and Deloitte’s Institute for Health Equity back in 2022 and that has really helped us kind of think through what we mean and then the resources we provide and the strategies that we’ve put forward when we talk about health equity. How we’ve defined it is that everyone in society has an optimal and just opportunity to attain their highest levels of health. I think I got that right. That means achieving health equity work will involve creating systems that gives all employees not just opportunities and resources, but an optimal chance to access and utilize those opportunities and resources so they can achieve their highest level of health and well-being.


What we did is we worked with the American Heart Association and Deloitte to create an employer resource guide that really helps employers understand and identify workplace health equity actionable strategies. Those strategies help employers identify and focus on the greatest metrics that could improve health equity in their workplaces.


So, for example, ensuring that an organization’s hiring practices are diverse and inclusive can create work environments that reflect their communities and clients. We know that people who have stress at work as a result of working in non-inclusive cultures impacts not only their mental, but their physical health, and that in turn kind of drives their ability to access, or not, the suite of benefits that’s available to people. So we’ve just really begun that work.


We’re helping our HR professionals in our membership — in small and medium-sized businesses in particular — understand what health equity is, understand how to make adjustments if that’s a priority and a value for them in their organizations, and then point them in the direction and foster senses of community and opportunities to learn from one another.


Van: What interesting work. Thank you for doing that. On your skills first agenda, earlier this month, SHRM and the SHRM Foundation announced the establishment of a Skills First Center of Excellence in partnership with Walmart and a wide range of other collaborators. Tell us more.


Wendi: Sure. We’re continuing to build on SHRM and SHRM Foundation’s Skills First at Work initiative. We’ve been working on this project for quite some time, and with the launch of this Skills First Center of Excellence, it’s really going to be designed to help employers unlock the full potential of candidates by prioritizing a candidate’s skills, talents, aptitudes, and competencies over the sole use of what we refer to as proxies like degrees. It doesn’t mean that degrees are not important. It’s kind of what I mentioned earlier in the podcast…we’re just encouraging and illuminating what’s possible for employers if they adjust their processes, perhaps, and their mindset.


It’s not just HR professionals. It’s recruiting and hiring managers. It’s individuals who are writing job descriptions or setting expectations for the competencies and skills they expect people to come to work with and to be able to do. It’s leading with prioritizing skills, talent, and aptitude and competencies over do you have a four-year degree and 10 years of experience? Which is great, but especially in that untapped pool of talent audience, I think we have a great opportunity to really focus on those two and bring those efforts together.


There’s four components of the Center for Excellence. There’s an AI skills-based advisor. It’s going to help employers see where they stand in their overall journey and it’s going to give them specific tools and trainings and actions to accelerate that progress. There’s going to be a library of skills first resources helping employers select tools by compiling and tagging best practices and resources from a bunch of different providers and then offering a collection of relevant case studies. We do a lot of storytelling and release a lot of case studies so HR professionals can kind of see themselves reflected in the success stories and learnings from others. We’re going to have a skills tech clearinghouse and a solutions lab which is pretty obvious in terms of what we’ll be doing in that regard. And then we’re going to have a skills first credential which is really going to help certify HR professionals, hiring managers and even c-suite executives in what it means to be a skills first practitioner.


SHRM has two levels of professional credentials and we anticipate that will help with recertification credit as well, which is really attractive to our HR professionals.


Van: Well, the skills first movement makes sense because we’re all having to cast a wider net given the talent shortages that are ubiquitous.


Wendi: That’s right.


Van: So, putting on your future of work hat, how do you see talent shortages manifesting in the US economy and what are possible responses to those gaps in addition to the skills first work?


Wendi: I think that it is taking a look at where hybrid or remote positions can be implemented if that fits within your overall culture and scope of work. I’m going to lean in on our untapped pools of talent. We’ve got a tremendous amount of research that I think addresses the stigma and bias that comes with people who think that if I’m hiring someone with disabilities, for example, that to provide an accommodation is somehow going to be taxing or strain the business when in reality that isn’t true. We’ve got individuals who’ve been impacted by the justice system who bring tremendous amounts of lived experiences and a willingness to be able to work hard, and in fact our research is reflecting that individuals who are considered kind of untapped pools of talent work harder and perform just as well if not better than your average employee, if you will.


So, I’m going to encourage HR professionals to think differently. Apply that skills first mindset, consider positions that can be performed remote but be true in terms of your culture and your perspective and why you’ve gone in that direction, if that’s the case. I would also consider  professionals to never stop, like all of us, learning and growing. Often we can get stuck in this rut of compliance and keeping people out of trouble in the HR space. I used to do that way back in the day, and so I think the more we can help HR professionals remember the business case, how important it is to connect with folks within their organizations who are also in the c-suite and externally is really important. I think that will lend itself to creating companies and cultures that are noticed by people outside of your organization and be hopefully make it attractive to go to work for you place of business.


Van: That mindset is going to be very important for this last question I’m going to ask you, which is about the fact that the SHRM foundation believes that HR holds a unique position to lead social change. Tell us why you think this.


Wendi: HR has a unique position to lead positive social change because I think everyone certainly deserves equitable access to the dignity of work. When people go to work in communities they’re contributing to the overall economy of that community. They’re active and proud members of the community. They can provide for their families and that really changes the whole social structure in terms of what’s going on in a particular community. So, by creating cultures that are inclusive, by staying on top of cutting edge talent management or shortage management practices, that can lead to positive social change.


I think HR professionals who are getting involved, and increasingly so every day, with community-based organizations that are bringing untapped pools of talent to bear is a way to improve and change what’s happening in the social landscape. And I think that HR professionals have an opportunity and an obligation to contribute to bettering the lives of others, and what better way to do that than by employing and developing an individual and demonstrating a culture that’s welcoming and right for everyone.


Van: Well, thank you very much, Wendi, for being with us today and sharing your passion and vision, especially for the important role that HR plays within organizations.


Wendi: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.


Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.