Faces of HR

Meeting the Challenge of Termination with Sympathy

When I ask HR professionals what their biggest challenge is, terminations are often mentioned. Many organizations look at the end of employment as a solid, immediate, and permanent goodbye. However, that is far from the only way, and today’s guest speaks about her approach. 

Meet Camille Lewis, Director of People Operations at Canopy.

How did you find yourself in HR?

By accident. I went to school to study English and minored in psychology, and I didn’t have a really strong idea of what I wanted to do after I graduated. I’m not a creative English major who wanted to write, and I always appreciated the corporate world because my mom and dad both work full time throughout my childhood. Then I went to school at Brigham Young University in Provo, and there was an up-and-coming tech company called Qualtrics, who was growing and hiring, and looking for a recruiter. I thought, I can talk to people and learn whatever I need to learn. Fortunately, I landed there, and Qualtrics went on to be acquired by SAP and is now going public. Just having that name on my résumé has been extremely, extremely helpful. Having that experience professionally really set the tone for the rest of my career.

I also studied English. I ended up going back for my master’s in it. I didn’t expect to end up writing about HR.

Yeah. I feel really strongly that there is a lot of luck when it comes to shaping your career. I don’t feel like a lot of people ask “how did you get into HR?” I truly feel like it was a “right place at the right time” situation—there happened to be a very amazing, one-of-a-kind company close by that happened to be hiring. Luckily, I know enough people that I got an interview.

Well, how do you feel about that? Are you happy with how things have gone?

Yeah, I think I’ve had several opportunities to reassess whether I want to stay in HR. Recruiting taught me a few things about the role. I started in recruiting, and then I took a new job that allowed me to take on more HR responsibilities. I feel that when your sole responsibility is working closely with people, there’s just always going to be an abundance of challenges and opportunities. All of that continues to be really motivating and helps me stay really engaged, which I think is not always the case with every profession. I’m very grateful to still feel that way about my role now.

A lot of people I talk to in HR with longer careers than yours still feel that way. Have there been any particular challenges that have been very satisfying for you or that you really like digging your teeth into?

I think taking on this job. I started with Canopy in October 2018, and I’m trying to use the phrase “fake it ’till you make it” less because there are a lot of reasons not to and reasons to give myself more credit, but I took this job, and it was a huge leap for me in that I was joining the executive team. I was reporting to the CEO. We were scaling very quickly. I had 10 direct reports, and it was a significant challenge that required a lot of courage and stepping out of my comfort zone. I think the role in general has provided a lot of challenges. 2019 was specifically challenging because we had a couple of significant layoffs that put me in a position where it wasn’t the fun and games of a scaling tech company.

Now you’re dealing with some very heavy challenges, both with employees who are retained and with ensuring the exiting employees have a soft landing. I’m proud of the way I was able to navigate that situation. And I’m proud that we were able to rally behind the employees who departed and make sure they were able to find employment within a 3-month time period. 

I think there continue to be challenges with COVID. Transitioning to a remote work environment was new for our group. Making sure we maintained connection and transparency and that we all rode together was really important. I feel that we’ve done so really successfully. Just to sum up, I think my entire time at Canopy has been challenging but in mostly very good ways.

I couldn’t help but notice that you did the three-part essay in your response. I have been accused of speaking like I’m writing an essay before. There’s your training at play!

You can take the girl out of the English major, but you can’t take the English major out of the girl.

You mentioned terminations as one of your biggest challenges. That’s pretty common, but it’s also just handled so differently in so many different organizations. Before you joined, was it policy to get people other jobs within 3 months? Or is that something you enacted? What was that whole process like?

Yeah, good question. It wasn’t policy. I would say that it was a combination of my approach to work coupled with our CEO’s mentality. Canopy has always really championed its people. I know that sounds very cliché, but I think when the rubber hits the road in a moment like that, you really see what the company stands for. We just felt like in a situation when a layoff is unavoidable, there are still pieces you can control. One of those pieces is that we had an executive team that was very well-connected in the Salt Lake and Lehi tech scene. There was no reason we couldn’t provide people with introductions and help with recruiting events. This was all pre-COVID, obviously. We encouraged employees who were retained to take time to write recommendations on LinkedIn. I sent updates weekly to employees, letting them know the percentage of departing employees who had found new employment. We cared very deeply about those people and cared about them as people, not just as employees at the company.

That’s a pretty unusual approach, especially if it’s not part of an outplacement policy, and commendable, I should add. It’s so easy for organizations to just think “that’s not my problem anymore” when someone gets terminated or someone leaves. It’s shortsighted because don’t forget that these people are going into a talent pool that is shared with the people you want to hire, that they’re going to talk to each other, that they’re going to remember forever how they were treated on their way out, and that they don’t just disappear. They might be consumers of your product. They might have friends who are. There are all of these business-related reasons not to be cruel to terminated employees, never mind the humane reasons. You said you had the full support of your CEO when you were-

Absolutely. He and I led that charge together; it was something that was really important to him. And not having studied HR in a more traditional way allows me a little bit of mental flexibility, whereas some professionals might default to either the status quo or being on the defense automatically. How can I protect the company from X, Y, and Z? I have, like I said, been a little bit nimbler, and I lead in a different way that maybe challenges some of the traditional approaches that really aren’t there for a reason. That hasn’t gotten me in trouble yet. We’ll see how that continues.

If you let the risk management people lead the charge, they’ll always protect themselves from risk at the cost of other things.

I think that’s the benefit of having or really championing a diverse team. I remember being in our largest conference room with the team talking through the logistics of what that day would look like. We certainly went back and forth on a number of items. I think diversity of thought really comes into play when you can challenge each other and say “Well, is there a purpose in doing that? What does the risk look like?” because certainly, you can’t be entirely careless. But there are some traditions or some processes that are just there. We haven’t been thinking about them, and we continue to follow them without challenging them.

That’s where I came in and challenged that, and it ended up being … I hate using the word “successful” because it was devastating and changed the course of many careers. But at the same time, I think most people walked away feeling like it was successful. And not just at Canopy, but in the area in general and the tech scene, I think people were really amazed at how kindly and how compassionately it was handled on both sides.

People will remember that, and you never know—they might come back later and have the benefit of their new experiences at their other organization. 

We have had a couple already return.

Really?

Yep.

There you go. Work’s very personal. That’s one of the things I always talk about. Even now, these are the people you see every day; you’re forming connections with people you never would have associated with or gotten to know. It’s your life. It takes up so much of your time. And when that ends, it’s not like that identity you had at work just vanishes. It’s still there. I still think about companies I used to work for that I’m no longer with. Not every day or anything, but it’s still a part of who you are. It makes sense to just help people tie that little part of their life off as positively as you can. Like you said, it’s devastating, but why not? Why not have that last little bit of humanity in there?

Transitioning to COVID, I think about how that’s impacted the company. The one silver lining is that it continues to humanize the workplace. Before, I only got small glimpses into employees’ lives or their families—maybe at a company party. And now their kids are constantly running into the screen. Mine are, too. I think that helps continue building empathy and connection at work. Certainly, connection takes a hit in other ways when you’re entirely remote. I just feel so strongly about what you just said—work is such a huge part of people’s lives.

I’ve seen my husband working full time, and I’ve seen how our family is impacted on his good days and his bad days; how our kids are impacted when I leave work or close the computer and had a great, productive day; and how you impact your family and how you go and impact your community or your friends. I feel so strongly that it’s my responsibility to help make that as positive and uplifting of an experience as possible because I think it’s very difficult to measure the impact good workplaces have on communities and on the world.

Absolutely. What’s something in 2021 that you’re looking forward to?

That’s a good question. I am most looking forward to how, in a few weeks, we have a company kickoff that includes a new values launch. We brought on a new CEO at the end of 2019. Last year, we took time to reflect and define what our values are and should be from both a current-state standpoint and an aspirational standpoint. 

I’m very much looking forward to an official rollout of those values and making sure that other people processes tie back to them and that they can be used as our North Star. With that, we are launching what is basically a book club and some leadership development materials around those values, and one of them is Do Good.

There’s such an opportunity to take that value and really operationalize it in a meaningful way. So the book we’re starting with for that Do Good value is I Am Malala, which I haven’t had the opportunity to read, but I’m very much looking forward to doing that as a company and learning together outside of our own function and roles.

If you look at the total impact of all organizations, it’s vast. It’s more than your education. It’s more than your government. It’s more than your religion. The thing that has the single largest impact on the population is how organizations are run. And that responsibility is very easy to overlook, but it’s so important to get right.

Yeah. I think certainly, on the company strategy side, we have a lot of work to do. We are continuing to move up market and continuing to find product market fit. We have a lot of positive momentum, and it’s really exciting to start the year that way and with a lot of optimism for our employees. I think if we can couple that with, as we’ve been talking about, some social and community good, then for me, it makes the richest employee experience. So that’s what I hope to deliver to all of our employees for 2021.

Do you have an HR network—people who work in HR outside of your organization whom you rely on or talk to?

I do. I am in a Slack channel that’s actually run by the leaders of Lattice, which is an HR platform. I think now there are maybe 10,000 or more HR employees and/or HR professionals, I should say. The Slack channel is broken down into different channels. So if I need help with DEI initiatives or with compensation, there are voices in every category. That’s been hugely helpful for me.

What a great resource.

Yeah. It’s been really helpful.

Has there ever been a situation in which you were going to roll something out but you realized you would’ve gotten it totally wrong?

Hopefully not totally wrong, but there have been individuals who have posted something, and I’ve reached out to them independently to get help. The most recent example is compensation—defining our compensation philosophy and benchmarking and, again, maybe some of the things that are a little bit more tactical that I don’t have that background in from an educational standpoint. People have dedicated time to help walk me through that process. It’s really felt like a huge resource and definitely a sense of community.

What’s something you didn’t expect, when you were maybe growing up or developing yourself professionally, to be as important as it turned out to be?

That’s a good question. That’s a really hard question. People ask me how the English major ties into the HR profession. I think the more you read and are introduced to different viewpoints, the more empathy you’re able to build and the more exposure you have to different approaches and different people. I don’t think you can ever underestimate the role empathy plays in a profession like HR—your ability to really care for and understand people and advocate for them and support them throughout their careers. That is something you can take with you regardless of the company you work for. The more people can focus on that piece, the more successful they’ll naturally be in this profession.

Well said.