Humans of HR: Meet Dawn Burke, HR Consultant

January 23, 2019 Jess Huckins

Dawn Burke

We’re kicking off a new bi-monthly blog series, Humans of HR, in which we’ll feature human resources thought leaders. These passionate industry stewards align with our company values and are committed to making work more human.

Dawn Burke never thought HR would be her career. After tiring of the irregular schedule that comes with working in retail management, she decided to make a change – and eventually rose from administrative assistant to director of HR. After a decade at one company, she accepted a VP of people role at a tech organization in Birmingham, Ala.

About 18 months ago, Dawn began her own consulting business, where she teaches people about modern HR practices and how to work in a more human way. For our first Humans of HR post, we chatted with Dawn about what working human truly means and what she sees for the future of human resources and employee engagement.


Globoforce: What does working human mean to you?

Dawn: Working human is about creating a work environment in which people can be their authentic selves. Truth is, leaders don’t know what that entails. Working human happens when leaders create intentional and deliberate strategies that allow folks to be themselves.

Although simple in theory, implementation is tough. Why? Because leaders need to model being their authentic selves as well. They need to allow themselves to be vulnerable – tell hard truths, admit when they’re wrong. If you create a culture where people can be themselves through being authentic and showing vulnerability, the rest comes naturally. That allows people to be ‘human.’

Globoforce: How would you say #MeToo and other similar social movements have changed work?

Dawn: When people outside the work environment started taking a stand regarding untenable harassment, ground-level employees felt they finally had the impetus to ask for fair treatment.

People collectively said, ‘This isn’t right.’ Soon, individuals influenced by #MeToo social change created coalitions within the workplace, going to their bosses together and demanding change.

Globoforce: How has that affected organizations?

Dawn: Companies resisting change see higher turnover and, alternatively, the loss of customers. These have been the most profound catalysts for change because the executives, the board members, the stockholders, the private equity groups don’t embrace quick change unless they can see there’s a financial impact.

Globoforce: So they’re seeing employees leave and losing customers who don’t agree with the way they’re addressing social issues?

Dawn: Absolutely. We’re in a vast gig economy right now. Employees have more choice to not work under a corporate umbrella if they don’t agree with the way people are being treated. Now with the low unemployment rate, when somebody stays in an organization for four years, that’s a long tenure.

Globoforce: In your role as a consultant, how do you help others work human?

Dawn: Most of the excellent work is consulting on the typical day-to-day things. For instance, helping an employee and a boss have a conversation around a communication breakdown or learning to tell hard truths about performance. The first thing I always try to assess is, ‘What level of trust do you have in the person you need to speak with?’ Because it all boils down to whether the organization has been built on trust – allowing people to be vulnerable, to create shared experiences, not working in silos, but working together. Once you figure out what the trust levels are, then you’re able to create a communication strategy that can address the issues affecting that particular person at that time.

Globoforce: Can you tell us a story about a challenge someone has faced?

Dawn: This one is a little more dramatic from my corporate years, but an employee came to me, and I could just tell something was terribly wrong. I cut meetings, I canceled appointments, and we talked. This person’s daughter had tried to commit suicide. At the emergency room they went to, their insurance didn’t cover the stay. So a bad situation was made worse by financial impact.

In this case, as in most, people want to be heard. They want your time, and they want your advocacy. It’s us saying: ‘I’m going to make you a priority, and I’m going to do everything within my power to help you get answers.’ I have heard of other examples where HR pros feel deep empathy for an employee’s bad circumstance, but are afraid of getting too close to the situation. They worry they may have to fire that person later.

Some HR pros look at things too much in a box, and that has driven the sense of humanity out of the workplace.

Globoforce: What do you think is still the greatest need in terms of making workplaces better?

Dawn: First, leaders must be aware of the current culture. Because of the speed of work and 24/7 demands, many of even the most well-intended leaders aren’t aware of how people think and feel. However, that is your culture. Once you can assess what employees value, you can get intentional about the type of culture you want to build.

Second, there needs to be more focused intention on human workplace practices. Many people confuse engagement with culture. Engagement surveys are a start. However, the reality is, that’s step one. You have to look at turnover, customer retention, the efficacy of communication strategies, and how leaders model acceptable behavior. Then you can get intentional about doing what you can to make people stay and understand why they’re leaving.

You can’t have finance run your business. Start your strategy with what your culture is going to be. If people are genuinely engaged, financial success should follow.

Globoforce: What are some of your hopes for the future of HR?

Dawn: I hope that the ‘human’ movement continues. I think HR is positioned now better than it ever has been to be connectors as opposed to compliance masters. The future of HR needs to be about empowering leaders with the right tools and modeling the correct behavior, so they can then go out and change the world for their employees.

Globoforce: Are you planning on being at Workhuman Live?

Dawn: Yes, I will be there with bells on. It’s a great conference. It’s one of the best of the year for sure.

About the Author

Jess Huckins

Jess Huckins is senior content manager, sales enablement at Workhuman. She enjoys investigative journalism and true crime, fantasy football, outdoor cooking, and adventuring in the wilderness with her three dogs.

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