Faces of HR

Former VP of HR at Playboy Discusses Progressive HR and Transparency

Not all workplaces are created equal, but that doesn’t mean equality can’t be the focus at every workplace. In this issue of “Faces of HR,” I interview an HR professional who has navigated drastically different workplaces, from Playboy Enterprises to Cars.com to her current role at ActiveCampaign. All along, her focus has been on HR as a fair and progressive position, with a realistic but important view on transparency.

Meet Denise Bindelglass, people team leader at ActiveCampaign, a customer experience automation platform.

How did you find yourself in HR?

I was working for FedEx a while back and I was doing international marketing. FedEx was certainly much smaller than it is today, but I was so impressed by what FedEx did as an organization in terms of onboarding new employees, retaining employees, and creating a high-performance culture. That’s when I had that light bulb moment and knew that I wanted to help other companies do a great job with that.

At the time, I would have had to move to Memphis in order to be part of the HR team, and that wasn’t possible for me. I left and went back to business school to get my MBA, which was an odd choice. Nobody was there for HR—I think I was the only one in my entire class at Northwestern who was pursuing a career in HR—but it did allow me to pivot and it worked for me. I came out of business school and went right into HR consulting, and that was it. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I’m taking a look at your history here. It’s quite the smorgasbord, isn’t it?

Well, in terms of different brands and different types of companies and industries, yes. But the consistent part is that I’ve been leading HR teams going all the way back to the early ’90s.

What’s your favorite change that HR has undergone since then?

It clearly has to be, without a doubt, having a seat at the table. I don’t think every single organization is there yet, but there’s been a huge shift that I’ve personally seen among colleagues in terms of finally understanding that HR is not holding the organization back. It’s there to make it a better business and to help steer the organization toward being a great place to work and being a great business partner. For example, today at ActiveCampaign, my HR team constantly evaluates our benefits to make sure we’re offering the most competitive benefits possible to attract and retain the top talent we need to continue growing.

Even the fact that we now have organizations and titles called “HR Business Partner” is meaningful because it means we’re shifting from what used to be called “HR administration.” And thank goodness; it’s been a long time coming. Not having HR at the table when your people are your most important asset is a total mess.

Do you remember the first role in which you played that kind of HR role? Or were all the HR roles like that?

I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve been very careful to choose companies and CEOs who get it and who were progressive. I was extremely lucky in my first role running an HR team very, very early in my career. I kind of catapulted right into the VP of HR role at Playboy Enterprises working for Christie Hefner, who totally got it back then.

Not only was she one of the few female CEOs at the time, but she also understood the importance of HR. I reported directly to her. I was in all the board meetings, I was part of the executive leadership team and I was very inexperienced, frankly, at the time, but she got it. I was very lucky to start my career at that point and there was no way I was going to not have that continue to be the case.

What an interesting job that must have been. One of the things I occasionally think about is the unique challenges that organizations like Playboy have, especially in the HR role. You’re selling sex appeal and, in some cases, sex itself. Meanwhile, sexual harassment is a big topic. How were those two things balanced in that organization?

Oh my gosh. It was so fascinating. I don’t think I realized it at the time. Christie just gave me an amazing opportunity to run HR for a complicated global organization with a somewhat controversial brand. So I started out in probably the most complicated job I’ve had maybe since then. When I came into that role, it was literally the same year the Thomas-Hill hearings were happening and companies were just then starting to pay attention to harassment.

We were probably one of the first organizations to take that on and insist on the training because think of Playboy and the content, as you pointed out; it’s just a perfect place for something to go wrong, right? I would say we were ahead of most organizations when it came to that, but it was also complicated for other reasons. There was Mr. Hefner, who was an icon and was still involved in the business, but his daughter was running it, and that was a very tricky balance.

Christie’s mom, Hef’s first wife, worked for me on my HR team. We had offices all over the globe; even the Playboy mansion in LA was a company entity. All of the employees who worked at the mansion were our employees, so I had to think about not only editors, writers, and creatives but also chefs, bodyguards, and gardeners. It was interesting for so many reasons. Yeah, it’s been hard to duplicate that.

That’s super interesting. I mean, what a great position to cut your teeth on.

The other thing I’ll just say about this is that Playboy and Christie were incredibly progressive when it came to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which wasn’t even a concept back then. I don’t know that most people even think about that. I think they may think the opposite when it comes to some of the content and some of the controversy around the magazine. But in terms of LGBTQ rights, Playboy was incredibly progressive and proactive. I’ve been able to bring that experience with me to other organizations since, including ActiveCampaign where we have resources on HR dedicated to DEI, ensuring we’re hiring from a diverse pool of talent, creating an inclusive workplace and celebrating our employees’ diversity.

I guess I wouldn’t have expected that. I never really thought about it at all. But especially at that time period, it could have been an organization’s destruction.

Yeah, definitely. I mean, we had a whole foundation set up, and we did quite a bit around that. It was a pretty amazing 10 years.

What would you say is the thing you’re most proud of having accomplished as an HR professional?

I would say continuing to beat that drum of what HR can do for business and just the impact I’ve had on scaling businesses especially. That’s been a theme over the last 15 years in terms of joining organizations that are at that inflection point of fast growth and needing to really transform the organization, either because of a fundraise or just organic growth or acquisition, just to help the CEO take it to the next level and be able to offer so many candidates great opportunities to grow their careers at some really interesting, mostly tech-oriented organizations.

I can’t think of more of an intersection between the human needs of the people of an organization and the business needs of an organization that happens during a transition, an acquisition, or a merging.

I wonder what your philosophy is surrounding these tricky situations. A lot of people are going to get new opportunities, but we all know a lot of people are going to get let go, too. There’s a lot of chaos that surrounds these things that, if left unchecked, people who are your star employees might assume they’re going to get fired and just try and find other jobs, even though it was always your intention to keep them around. I mean, it’s tricky stuff, right?

Yes it is, and I’ve definitely seen that scenario play out where the growth has been aggressive, and then suddenly, for whatever reason, you are talking about potentially laying people off. To the extent that I can control it, I am super careful about that pace and not getting too big for the sake of just growth. I think it’s easy to brag about growth in terms of even the number of employees. I remind people that’s not always the best measurement of success.

I feel like I’ve done this long enough that I have some sense of when I feel like we’re getting a little pudgy or we’re going a little too fast or there’s a little too much volume and maybe we need to just pause for a moment.

The best laid plans o’ mice and men oft go awry, right? My understanding is when you’re talking about a merger, you want to be as transparent as you can with your employees and prospective future employees. But at the same time, it’s such a large project with so many moving pieces that you’re going to have to change directions in all likelihood at some point, or an unexpected road bump will come up, and then those expectations change. What’s your approach toward handling something like transparency when you’re undertaking these massive projects?

I think it’s been different depending on the organization, frankly, and on the circumstances. I agree; I’m all about transparency. But I’ve also learned that confidences are not always kept. There’s the balance between how the organization continues to be productive and trying to share as much information. It’s really tricky.

I’m happy to say that we are certainly not facing this at ActiveCampaign whatsoever at the moment, so it’s not at all a reality for me in terms of having to think about these things; we’re just thinking about how to handle the ongoing growth. But in the past, I’ve certainly been in situations when we’ve needed to make those pivots.

How about we move into the realm of positivity? What are you thrilled about? What is your favorite thing to do as an HR professional?

Oh, there are two things I love so much about my job and the field I am in. One is, from our talent acquisition point of view, just meeting super interesting people on almost a daily basis. But I’d say even more than that is just the variety in my role. I would argue HR is one of the functions where you have the most diversity and variety of things in any given day. It could be recruitment one moment, coaching around performance the next, digging into compensation, spreadsheets, or talking about what new benefits and perks you might roll out. There’s just so much variety, which makes it hard, but I love that part of my job.

Something I’ve certainly enjoyed about interviewing HR people is that almost every single one of them has that energy and that creative love of the challenge because let’s face it: You’re inserting yourself into a very complicated and sometimes very challenging position between leadership and employees. If things go well, that’s great, but if they don’t, you might find yourself being blamed by everybody. Then, of course, you have to deal with difficult things like terminations but also uplifting things like giving people opportunities. I mean, you really have to be made of a certain something to find your way into that role.

I appreciate your appreciating that. I really do. It is true. We are dealing with the trickiest job. If you think about it, we are influencing people’s careers, whether it’s to join a company, to leave a company, to be promoted, to help with career pathing, or to help decide compensation or what their family’s health benefits are. I mean, we are not solely deciding on any of that, but we are certainly influencing it, and that’s a heavy burden. That’s why when I build a team, it’s really important that people understand and appreciate how big that is and how much of an influence we do have on folks every day.

To your point, yes, we’re dealing with all of those very big things, but at the end of the day, we also need to make sure we’re delivering on the little things. If people don’t get their benefit card, or they don’t get a call back and they have a question, that’s what they remember about my team. That’s what they think about. You also have to make sure you’re totally on top of the day-to-day because that, in the end, is what our employees might think of us or might think of our brand as a team.

I would love to hear more about your approach to mental health. It was already a crisis even before the pandemic, and things surely have not gotten better.

That’s very true. We heard that from our employees at ActiveCampaign, so we know that mental health is, honestly, maybe just as important as—or for some, more important than—physical health. We have a young, relatively healthy population, so even before COVID happened, I think we were trying to make sure that our benefits in that arena were competitive and progressive.

But then, of course, with COVID, we doubled down on that when we went remote. I think it’s worth saying that there are many companies, especially many tech companies, that were already distributed, right? They were already remote and had workers all over the place. We did not, frankly. We were very HQ-centric. We were very Chicago-office-centric, so it was a huge shift for us, more so than I think a lot of our other competitors.

For instance, we would bring every single new hire to Chicago for two weeks, regardless of where the person was—Brazil, Australia, everywhere. People loved that. We have a beautiful office in Chicago, and it was a great way to really embed the culture in every one of them. Then, on March 16, that all changed, and we went completely remote. For us, it was a bigger shift than maybe for others. Having said that, we immediately rolled out some virtual programming that we knew our ActiveCampaign employees would appreciate.

We launched a campaign called Your Health Matters, and it had different components to it. First, a therapist-led a series of sessions for those employees who were feeling particularly isolated, whether they lived alone or not. Even though there was a relatively small number of people, they really, really appreciated that.

We also did a series of weekly webinars. We had a theme around nutrition and wanted to make sure we’re all not eating cereal for every meal. Additionally, we did some physical virtual sessions that we brought people into. One week, it was yoga; the next week, it was meditation; and the next week, it was stretching—so a combination of physical and mental health to not only keep everyone connected virtually but also just get ahead, not knowing at that time how long this was going to last.

I’ll leave you with one final question: What are you excited about in 2021?

I am excited about the real possibility that we may be able to bring our employees back physically together. We’re already starting to do that in Sydney, Australia, where we have employees and where cases have gone way down. We are using that as a test case for how to reopen an office elsewhere. It’s perfect because it’s the smaller office. We can test some things out in terms of how to do that, and the teams are really eager to get back together. We are in the middle of that right now.

I don’t think the ActiveCampaign workplace will ever be the same as it was pre-COVID. I mean, we’ve now hired people all over the United States, so we are not Chicago-centric anymore; we have employees today in 30 different states. We’ll never go back to what we were, but we hope that we will have this kind of hub approach whereby we have not only Chicago but also other opportunities to bring people together. ActiveCampaign is growing so fast—we onboarded 300 people in 2020, and we’re continuing to onboard 40 to 50 people a month. Most of them have not met one another; some managers have never met their team in person.

I’m excited about the opportunity and the challenge to figure out how we can not only make remote work as great an experience as it can be for everyone but also offer one another the chance to connect physically again. I’m also just super excited about the thousand employee mark, which we are certain to hit this year. That’ll be a milestone for us. When I started three years ago, we were 170 people, so that’s huge growth. We’ve just added some incredible talent, so I think a thousand will be a great milestone for my team.

You’re right. It’s never going to go back to the way it was, but if we can just reduce the coronavirus threat to something a little bit more palatable, something that’s more like other risks, maybe we can return to some semblance of normalcy.

We will see. We’re on the right track. We’ve told our employees that they’ll never be asked to come back if they don’t feel safe, so that’s been messaged. But we certainly have many employees who can’t wait to come back.