Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Neha Mirchandani Leads with Her Heart and Empathy

The past 18 months have put human resources leaders to the test in ways we’ve never imagined. Workplace culture quickly went out the window as millions of Americans began working from home. With a new work environment overnight, HR professionals’ biggest challenge has been keeping employees productive, motivated, and engaged. Neha M

In a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 62 percent of HR professionals said it’s been difficult creating and sustaining workplace culture during the pandemic. And nearly 25 percent report their overall workplace culture has worsened since the pandemic began.

While these are challenging times, sometimes we can make our problem harder than it must be. For Neha Mirchandani, taking a beat to center yourself and gauge priorities can make a huge difference.

 “What’s most important? Your people are most important,” Mirchandani recently told HR Daily Advisor. “And then, what are the things that are the needs and wants and elements of how you can keep your employees happy, engaged, and productive? I think that’s what we really need to center ourselves around and if we do that and we do that with the right human aspect, I think the rest really follows.”

In our latest Faces of HR profile, meet Neha Mirchandani. She leads the people and marketing functions at BrightPlan, an HR tech company specializing in total financial wellness. 

 Here’s what she had to say.

 How did you get your start in the field?

That’s a really great question because I’m probably not your traditional HR person. I started my career on the marketing path and my first job  was as a journalist. So, I bring a completely different perspective to the people function. I’ve spent some 20 -plus years working with B2B SaaS companies, large enterprises like Cisco, Adobe, as well as mid-size and startups. I continue to have a really strong foothold in marketing and it’s only in my current role at BrightPlan that I’ve embarked on the people function and HR function.

Here I have two core responsibilities, I lead marketing and our people function. I think it gives me a unique perspective because everybody I talk to is like, “Wow, you actually see the employee lens and you see the customer lens.” I’m a big believer that there’s a very tight connection between the employee and the customer, and both of their experiences at the end of the day. If we have happy, engaged employees, they are the ones that are servicing our customers and, hence, they are going to lead to and create happy engaged customers as well. So, it’s a little bit of a unique lens that I bring to my role.

 Who is or was your biggest influence in the industry?

There’s been so many different people that have influenced me over the years, so I’ll try to bucketize them a little bit. From a business leader’s perspective, there’s a couple of folks. There’s Geoffrey Moore of Crossing the Chasm fame. His thinking  is something that I’ve lived by, whether it’s in a large company trying to reinvent itself or a startup trying to work out if they have the right product market fit,  Geoffrey Moore has been a huge influence in the way that I think about business in general. And then from an HR perspective, Josh Bersin is someone that brings a lot of amazing insight and is well connected in the HR industry to share some meaningful best practices.

From a women’s advocate perspective, there’s Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. I’ve had the privilege of engaging with her- she’s focused on empowering girls at a young age with STEM education and opportunities. She’s written this book that says, “We need to teach girls how to be brave, not perfect.” Right? Because we teach men how to be brave and we teach girls how to be perfect, but we really need to be shifting our mindset. She’s been a huge influence from a girls and women empowerment  perspective. And then, of course, closer to home, I’ve had some amazing mentors and sponsors over the years that have had a big influence as well.

 What is your best mistake and what have you learned from it?

I’m not sure it’s the best mistake, but it was definitely a huge lesson for me.  I think it was my second job out of college, so it was very early career, and I landed in this job that was too big for my boots. I was running U.S. marketing for a large gaming company based here in the country. And like I mentioned, I started off in journalism. I didn’t even have core marketing experience at that point. I think part of the reason that they hired me was because I spoke French and they were a French-based company, and the hiring manager was French. I had no passion for gaming. I had no experience in marketing, needless to say, that didn’t end well and  I was let go.

The lesson for me was when you’re a novice in your career, it’s important to be thoughtful about the roles that you sign up for. Something may look big and shiny, but it may not be the right thing for you, and you need more of a nurturing and mentoring environment where you can grow and learn. But I would say as your career progresses, then it’s a different ballgame. Then you should be looking at opportunities where you will be able to stretch and grow into a role versus trying to say, “Okay, does this role fit all my experience?” And try to check all the boxes. It’s actually okay to have a lot of boxes unchecked. There’s this Richard Branson quote that resonated with me and stuck with me. He said, “if somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.” 

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

If you just think about what we as an industry have been going through and what the world has been going through over the past year and a half, we’ve had some really hard challenges just as a HR function. From moving teams to be remote, to the emotional, mental and financial stress, and the challenges that employees are faced with, it’s been overwhelming for everyone. With all of that said, I’m very much of a glass half full kind of person. It has been a huge opportunity for HR and the people function, and we’ve been recognized as having a big positive impact on people’s lives.

We did this survey in May and we asked employees, how did they think HR performed during this time? And an overwhelming 91% said that their company and their HR teams actually handled pandemic issues incredibly well. So again, despite all the challenges, I think we’re at the right place at the right time and we have this opportunity to make a huge difference. The other favorite part I would say is, I landed this job at BrightPlan with this blend of people and the customer focus, and it has been an amazing opportunity to see two sides of the same coin.

In terms of least favorite, I feel we’ve made some good progress around inequality and lack of representation across the board, but we have so much more work to do. Women still earn 20% less than men and we see fewer women in leadership roles in the boardroom. And then, if you look at Black women and Hispanic women versus white men in terms of the earning discrepancies there, it’s just insane. And just making it a little bit more personal, I’ve seen this first-hand, being a woman of color and I cannot tell you how many times where I’ve looked around the room and been either the only woman or the only person of color, let alone a woman of color. People of color, and especially women, have to work so much harder for the same opportunities. I want to do my part and contribute to helping us as an industry improve things for the better.

How can company leaders make human resources a value within their organization?

I think we’ve all seen this trend. If you think back to 10, 15 years ago, HR was considered, for lack of a better way of saying it, as more of a back-office function. You’re dealing with people issues, recruiting, and rolling out benefits. It was all kind of viewed as, I hate to use the word tactical, but in some respects, that’s what it was. I think today, especially with forward-thinking companies, we’re seeing HR really have a pride of place and have a seat at the table from a business leadership perspective to really drive a lot of the business agendas.

Again, think about what we’ve all been through in the past year and a half. That would not have been feasible for companies if it wasn’t for their HR teams. It has further cemented HR’s position as a strategic function within companies. If you think about the chief people officer, and how the topics that are being discussed at the C-suite table are really about people-related issues, whether that’s about attracting and retaining talent, the holistic wellbeing of employees and diversity, equity and inclusion. I mean, these are topics that are top of mind for the CEO and the C-suite and HR is front and center in driving these discussions. So, I’m encouraged that a lot of companies are seeing that value. I hope as time goes by that more and more companies will start to do that as well.

 Where do you see the industry heading in five or ten years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

It’s a great question. I think some of the trends have started over the past year and a half,  I see those continuing and then potentially some new ones. From the new  world of work perspective, the way we used to work before and the way we work today has changed dramatically. And I think this  is a change for the positive in many ways. It was a bit of an experiment for many of us. A lot of companies thought you had to be in the office all the time to be productive and now we are so much more productive in many ways. We’ve got to figure out that balance, but I think this flexible, remote, hybrid work environment that we’re in today is a reality and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. That’s the first trend. The second piece I’m seeing bubbling up to the top is mission, purpose, and culture becoming incredibly important, and it is really important even as you think about attracting talent, for example, especially the younger generation. They want to work for companies that are aligned with their purpose and their mission.

 Mission, purpose, and  culture then leads to a supportive company culture or a culture of care. Employees want to feel like their company cares, and not just caring because productivity is your output, but it’s truly empathetic caring, which is not just about the person that you are at work, but the person that you are as a whole person.The person who you are at home with your family is who you are at work, because in this new reality, the lines have blended and blurred between the employee and the dad or the mom or the sister or whatever that might be.

Being human really matters and promoting a culture of care. And then, as you think about, the whole person and caring about their well-being more holistically, that gets into it’s not just about healthcare and physical health but also mental, social, emotional, and financial. So, you really need to care about people holistically, from a holistic wellness perspective and all of those different aspects that I talked about are incredibly important. We’ve already seen this, but I think this will be another trend that will continue related to benefits, the total rewards packages that we offer our employees need to really address this holistic person. With the right benefits packages that are not just about perks. It’s really more about supporting employees and their mental and financial wellness. There’s a PWC study that talks about how finances are the number one stressor for employees, and how they have an impact directly on people’s physical well-being and mental well-being. If you’re worried about your finances, this can lead to mental stress that can impact how you engage at work and at home. 

Employers need to focus on financial wellness because it has an impact on the holistic wellness of their employees. And then finally, I would say diversity, equity and inclusion is something a lot of companies are and will continue to be focused on. I think the pandemic put a renewed focus on this particular topic and I think it needs to be so much more. A lot of companies are talking about equal pay and equal opportunity, but that’s just scratching the surface of what we need to do. It really needs to be about developing a culture of inclusion. Where every employee feels welcome and valued and that they can truly make an impact.

In a recent survey by BrightPlan, financially stressed employees reported an average of 15.3 hours of reduced productivity and engagement each week, leading to an estimated $4.7 billion loss per week for employers due to worsening employee financial health. How can employers reduce stress and improve productivity among employees by providing financial wellness solutions?

Thank you for the question considering that’s what BrightPlan does. Back in the day, personal finances were viewed as being our own problem, an individual problem. “Okay, you need to figure that out for your family and yourself.” And there’s a lot of consumer solutions out in the market as well that enable you to do that. But if you think about it, most of our financial life is tied to our employer. We earn our money through our employer, we get our 401k, HSAs, and have many other options. Everything is tied to the employer, yet why then is finances and personal finances only the problem of the individual?

More and more companies are starting to realize they need to support their employees with their holistic financial wellness, and we work with leading brands across the industry where they are rolling out financial wellness benefits to all their employees. If you did a financial advisor call, it could cost anywhere from $250 to $500 an hour, depending on who you’re talking to. If you wanted to just do a call to get somebody to help you versus what we do. We have a digital platform, and we have human advisors. We look at how much you’re spending and how you are budgeting. Can you put aside a certain amount of money? Are you investing wisely? Are you educating yourself on some of the core values around finances, etc.?

So, we do that via a digital platform, and we also offer unlimited financial advisor calls.  Many forward-thinking companies realize that they need to help their employees. It is core to their mission, their culture and their purpose to support their employee’s well-being. A lot of companies are starting to invest in their employee’s well-being that way. They’re also realizing the connection between financial stress, not just on financial wellness, but on mental health, on physical health, and on emotional health.

 What are you most proud of?

I’d mentioned briefly earlier that I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had some amazing mentors and sponsors. Everybody needs mentors especially early in their careers. You want mentors, but you want to also mentor others. I think the bigger role is sponsors, especially I would say, it is incredibly important for women and people of color as well. I had some great sponsors that really believed in my potential, invested in me, opened doors, made connections and that’s had a huge impact on me personally, so I always try to pay that forward whether it’s on the mentorship front or on the sponsorship front. On the more personal front, I have three boys and just the past couple of weeks have been busy, settling them into college. It’s a proud parent moment seeing what mature and caring young men they’ve grown into.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

This is an amazing time to be in the people function. I like calling our function more of the people function versus HR, because human resources just makes people feel like a number. If you’re really passionate about people and solving tough core human related challenges, then there is no better time than today to get into this field. It’s a strategic opportunity to truly make a difference and add value to not just employees, but customers as well as the company at large. I would also say it’s important to obviously use your head but lead with the heart and lead with empathy.