Faces of HR

HR Is About Moments That Matter

The virtues and values of an organization are tested during key events—for example, how new hires are onboarded, how they are treated when they need time off, and how they are supported when they are let go. These moments express the true spirit of an organization, and one HR professional refers to them as “moments that matter.”

Meet Ritu Shrivastav, Senior Director of Human Resources at Gilead Sciences.

How did you get into HR?

A journey from the courtroom to the boardroom initiated my entry into Human Resources. After I got my California bar, I had an opportunity to intern at a lawyer’s office in Palo Alto. My areas of focus were employment and corporate law. I would listen to conversations in the courtroom and many times think that a lot of this just does not need to be here. These problems are so easily solvable. My past study of human psychology came to the forefront, and I just said, “I would rather go work in the world of organizational development and human resources.”

I remember talking to my senior partner at the law firm, and I was hesitant to have the conversation as it was the beginning of my career as an attorney. But he was very supportive. He said it is great that you have this clarity right now versus investing a number of years. I went back to school and got my MBA, with a focus on Organizational Development. I’ve been in Human Resources now for close to 20 years.

It’s a lot of work to pass the bar to then shift. I assume you’ve never looked back.

Not really. I love the study of law. It allows you, and actually even forces you, to think in many different ways that stretch and widen your horizons. So many a time, I’ll be in a meeting or reading an article, and I’ll just have a certain legal term pop into my head; I’ll be like “Oh, that’s an interesting connotation or connection.” For example, recently I was coaching a very senior leader, and he was upset with an employee in the way he/she dealt with a client.

He had a poor sense of what needed to be done, and I had to reel him back. What actually got his attention was something I studied way back in law school. I said to him, “The punishment must fit the crime. Are you doing right by the employees and right by the organization as a leader?” That really resonated with him. To answer your question, I’m not looking back and wanting to be a lawyer, but the time and effort you put into learning anything stays with you, and it’s beautiful how it manifests day in and day out.

And there’s certainly quite a bit of law involved in an HR function.

Yes, especially around certain aspects of employment law. Law is based on conscience, thoughts, and right principles, which feed directly into leadership behaviors.

Treat people right. Treating people with respect is a basic concept of good behavior, and one can easily build leadership behaviors on respect. Of course, I’m probably oversimplifying a bit, but if you go deep into it, there is a profound connection.

It’s important because a lot of people, unfortunately, look at laws as sort of a game to be played or things to be maneuvered around or to find the loopholes among. That kind of thinking doesn’t really resonate with being a decent person and, by that same virtue, being a decent organization.

The perception of an organization is largely formed by its leadership. Another important aspect is the voice of the employee. It comes through various channels—awards the company gets like “a great place to work,” a supportive place for mothers to work, or millennials’ choosing it. Then, of course, there’s the media. If an employee feels a certain way, God knows Glassdoor will hear about it. And once it turns into a pattern, it starts impacting not just the future talent of the organization but also the current talent.

Because the fact is, if you feel a certain way, it’s about moments that matter. Moments of truth, if you will. It’s key moments that make or break the culture of a workplace, and those moments could be simple things like microaggressions or people feeling very welcomed and included in the workplace. It depends on what that moment is that matters and that voice of the employee will now bubble up. I think it’s great that leadership has the opportunity to make an impact, but let’s not fool ourselves; the actual voice does still today rests with the employee.

What’s that moment that matters that you remember or that you’ll never forget?

Gosh, there are so many. One of my favorites, perhaps, is the unveiling of new leadership behaviors. These new leadership behaviors very clearly and strongly define the expectations of leaders at Gilead. We talked about how you’re inclusive, you listen, you’re growing, and you speak up, but you’re also vulnerable. The executive council is sitting on the stage and talking about it. We had a very senior leader—our head of legal, interestingly, Brett Pletcher—make a statement that I just loved, and I think it resonated, again, very well with our employee base because he said, “You need to understand that this isn’t just about what you need to do, but these leadership behaviors are also talking about how you go about achieving that ‘what.’”

That was beautiful and amazing. Countless times, we’ve sat back, and we’ve had conversations where we’re like “Oh yes, but you know, Jim is really good at what he does, but you know, the way he goes about it is iffy.” How many times we’ve tried to find a solution to help this person. Now, for the first time, it is out there, it’s open, it’s clear, and people can pick it up, read it, and tangibly build behaviors around achieving the result but go about it in a manner that’s consistent with the company’s values. I just loved it. That was a moment that really mattered to me and others because it made it very easy for employees to say “I know what to do and how to do it to succeed at Gilead.”

That is so important. It’s someone standing up and showing the power leadership can really have on their community by being genuine.

I think there is a deep opportunity in how leadership wants to spend their resources in terms of time, money, and people. That opportunity can be: Do you want to spend time fixing a culture, or do you want to spend time building a culture? I’m not saying one shouldn’t fix one’s assets. If there’s something amiss, please fix it. But don’t let it get to a point where it needs to be fixed. Instead, spend time and energy around that early nurturing stage. For example, at Gilead, we have employee pulse surveys at least twice a year, and those are taken very seriously by the HR organization. My team and I will attest to this; we sit down, and we have a global, penetrating conversation. 

We look at slices of data across all regions and ask questions: What is the United Kingdom feeling? What is Italy feeling? What about China, Turkey, India? What are the key themes? Let’s look at these themes, and let’s compare them with last year. What have we done to make a dent in areas of opportunity in the last year? If we looked and did nothing, shame on us. We build these data into strong plans, that are managed and measured on an ongoing basis. 

The point I’m trying to make is that a lot of these issues start to bubble up very early on. I think that’s where the role of HR becomes so important because we are truly those influential partners who don’t just sit at the table but also have deep roots in our employee base.

Those are the conversations we need to have. Are we doing listening sessions? Are we doing focus groups? Are we doing post-survey analysis? When we take these data to leadership and say “here’s what we are hearing,” that’s the role we play—we want to speak truth to power. Frankly, it’s OK to not be popular, but leadership needs to say “I’m listening.” We play those influential partner roles. The question is how strongly and how consistently do we want to keep at it?

It’s so important to not just listen but also really do something with what you hear. It can be very damaging if an employer collects information but then doesn’t address the problems or does nothing.

I think surveys get a really bad rap because of the exact same reason. What have you done since the last time? I think it can lead to resentment and suspicion. After all, what is the point of doing one more survey when you haven’t been able to really touch on solutions in these areas I have flagged over and over? I am not saying we need to solve every employee’s individual problems, but if there are themes and patterns, then take action. 

There also need to be strong cultural discussions around what is considered development. At Gilead, we talk about development, and development isn’t always promotion. It’s about taking the approach of getting more opportunity in terms of growth and learning. It could be new roles, or it could be new projects. It could be looking at expert assignment. It depends on how you want to really look and think about what’s top of mind for the employee. Or, you can be proactive.; let’s talk about our development philosophy for this organization. What is considered to be development? How am I going to develop you? And then, what qualifies as a promotional opportunity or a developmental opportunity? So culture is about being proactive. It’s about making sure you’re yes, responding, yes listening, and even going flat out planning ahead.

Do you share the results of these surveys with the employees in any fashion?

Yes, we do. They are shared at all-hands, and then they are shared at several other smaller meetings, as well.

That’s wise. That way, everyone knows what the issues are.

Absolutely. For example, in my case, I got on the stage with the senior-most leader of the organization—our EVP. I simply presented the results of the survey to the entire employee base. And we said, “All right, here are the scores. You guys loved us here, and this is where we have some good scores, and here are some areas of opportunity. For the areas of opportunity, here is how they’ve shifted from last year to this year, and this is going to be our plan on how we want to tweak and delete and make some changes,” and it’s something to celebrate. You’re up in the wins.

What would you say your biggest challenge has been, and how have you overcome it?

 I’m going to go back a few years in terms of my biggest challenge. My biggest challenge would have been where you walk into the room and you have to actually showcase the inherent value of HR. You can get into an organization where they know how to leverage a strong HR strategic thinker and leader, your senior-most clients, and your CPO who knows that. Then, you come in and are this necessary evil at the table. That’s where I think it gets very challenging. If one has to go back several years in that career and has to jump through hoops to showcase the inherent value of Human Resources, then I’m not sure that’s a great calling card for many of my colleagues. They may think “You know what? I’m not sure this is where I want to be.”

It’s so unfortunate because those places are often the places that really need a good HR person the most.

Yeah.

Obviously, 2020 was very challenging—tragic, really. What do we have to look forward to? What are you hopeful about for 2021?

I’m hopeful for a cure for COVID and about this vaccine that’s almost out. Hallelujah. I’m really looking forward to that. But on a professional, or leadership end, what I’m looking for is to really take our lessons from what we had during this period. We were woefully unprepared. Frankly, the thing is, we, the human race, were very arrogant. We thought, “Well, we’ve beaten HIV and polio and smallpox, so what can happen to us?”

We may not learn our lessons and if we don’t, we won’t have strong and better planning for another global pandemic or situation. We may also take what we have learned in terms of everything personally—for example, many of us have had opportunities to further our development. Many employees have taken the time to get family dinners on the table at reasonable times. Gaining that balance can be so elusive, and protecting it and sustaining it in 2021 will be yet another kind of challenge. Those are my three big ones as an employee and, of course, from a human perspective.