Steve Pemberton has come a long way since he entered the foster care system as a toddler. The chief HR officer at workplace recognition company, Workhuman, chronicled his life story in a book released in 2012 that was subsequently made into a movie.
The book, A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home, tells how Pemberton was taken from his alcoholic mother when he was just 3 years old, never to see her again. When he was 5, his absent father became a victim of gun violence.
Pemberton was bounced around in the foster care system and spent years in an abusive foster home. Despite that painful beginning, he was eventually able to thrive, and his background had much to do with teaching him the value of diversity in the workplace and society as a whole.
Pemberton, who had a white mother and an African-American father, remembers being aware that his nomad-like childhood was different from the other children at school. He says when he was 7 years old, he asked his social worker why it was so hard to find him a home.
“And she said, ‘Well, it’s because we don’t know if you belong with a white family or a Black family,’” Pemberton says. At his age, he didn’t understand what she meant.
“But as life moved on, I remembered that conversation,” Pemberton adds. “And it is, for me, the most impactful diversity lesson of all – which is, you shouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what someone is; figure out who they are.”
Pemberton notes that everyone has a story. “And that story’s rarely to be found in the label that you walk through the world with.… It certainly is part of it, but it’s not the entirety of who you are.”
Building an Inclusive and ‘Human’ Culture
Seeing people for who they are and embracing a “human” workplace—one that sees people as the organization’s greatest asset—point leaders to the broader message of how diversity can work effectively in the larger society, Pemberton says, and recognition plays a role. For example, when women and people of color are recognized consistently and at the same value as others, “that’s a strength story that you’re telling.”
“And I would say that the pandemic has accelerated that desire and that need, that we’re looking for community and connection,” Pemberton says. “And when you have so many other parts of society that either seem to be fractured or polarized, people want community. They want connection. And they’re most likely to find it in the workplace … and so we shouldn’t underestimate the power that the workplace has to show us what humanity actually looks like.”
A company’s culture is also affected by societal concerns such as the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. At Workhuman, Pemberton says leaders have “leaned into those questions” because “we think, humbly so, that we have a small contribution to make in that conversation.”
Many organizations have gotten involved in equity and justice issues recently, and that’s as it should be, Pemberton says, noting that corporate America has committed to investing $66 billion to advance racial equity and eliminate disparities.
“Corporate America has been, by far, the leader in responding to these larger societal issues,” Pemberton says. “And I think there’s a recognition … that we do have something to offer here, that we do have something to say, that we don’t exist simply to make a profit. We’re here to better society.”
Role of Recognition in Promoting DEI
Pemberton’s company, which is co-headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and Framingham, Massachusetts, near Boston, powers company recognition and reward platforms. And recognition is key to realizing the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, he says.
The company provides a peer-based recognition and HR platform that allows companies to incorporate their values into their culture, which has a direct impact on retention, succession planning, promotion, and creating a human-centered workplace, Pemberton says.
“If you wake up every day thinking about who you can recognize for a job well done and do that with your peers rather than a top-down approach to recognition, it can create a very different kind of employee experience,” he adds.
Role of ERGs
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are crucial to his company’s DEI efforts, Pemberton notes. His company has several, including groups focused on issues relating to women, parents, sustainability, and LGBTQ employees. The impact the ERGs have on the company is considerable, he says.
“So much so that we often will kick off our entire companywide meetings hearing from one of the groups, especially when there’s so much unfolding in America, in particular, on these matters,” Pemberton says. “There’s no better resource to hear from than our humans who navigate those worlds every single day.”
Getting the most benefit from ERGs, Pemberton says, requires listening. “When we are thinking about how we advance our own internal efforts … whether it’s matters of equity or gender or disability or sustainability, listening to those individuals who often are bringing their personal experiences and their personal passions to the workforce is so instructive,” he says.
In addition to listening, Pemberton advocates allowing for the kinds of cultural celebrations ERGs bring that can “paint a picture of how equity and inclusiveness can actually work for the rest of society.”
Recruiting and Retention
When focusing on recruiting, Pemberton advises beginning with the talent a company already has. “The talent you have could often be your best resource to recruit externally, too,” he says. Beyond that, he advises casting a wide net and communicating to recruits “where you stand on matters of DEI.”
Pemberton says the talent being recruited wants to know where an organization stands on DEI matters. “They want to know that they work for, or would be willing to work for, a company who has a degree of social responsibility to society, to the environment.”
Once talent is hired, retention needs to be a focus. Communicating how someone’s career can progress is crucial, Pemberton says, noting there has been a history of barriers for many people.
“One of them is so prominent and pronounced we’ve coined a name for it – the glass ceiling – which refers to what women have run into in terms of ascending to leadership positions,” Pemberton says. Without a career progression plan for diverse talent, an organization can be successful on the recruiting front but end up losing talent after a short time.
Pemberton’s HR career was the primary motivating factor in his decision to enter the race for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 2020. He dropped out of the race during the primary season, citing a system that favors wealth and incumbency, but it was the experiences and perspectives he gained as a DEI and HR professional, as well as his other life experiences, that led him to the race.
“Even today, I look at the United States Senate, and I don’t see anyone who has had the particular journey that I’ve had,” Pemberton says. “And I do think that you bring a different perspective to matters of public policy when you have lived that life differently than others have.
“And what’s more, I think it really does push you more towards reconciliation. How do you heal? How do you solve? Because that’s what you have to do every day in HR. And absolutely what you have to do in the DEI space.”