Faces of HR

How Matt Bahl is Shaking Up HR with Empathy & Support

Matt Bahl has been involved in the field of human resources (HR) for nearly a decade. For our latest Faces of HR profile, we sat down with Matt to discuss how he got his start in the industry, his biggest influences, as well as his “best mistake” and what he learned from it.

“First off, only an HR publication would frame this as a “best mistake” question – which I love,” Matt recently told HR Daily Advisor. “As humans we make mistakes all the time. So, my “best mistake” was realizing that all people, at some point, will make a mistake — and that we should approach those mistakes with good faith and empathy. My experience is that true growth comes when someone makes a mistake, is held accountable, but is also treated with empathy and support.”  

Matt began his career as a labor and employment lawyer advising organizations on a variety of matters, including collective bargaining. Today, he is not only a nationally recognized thought leader on workplace financial wellness, but also serves as Vice President of Workplace Market Lead at Financial Health Network – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and the nation’s leading authority on financial health and wellness.

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Matt Bahl.

How did you get your start in the field?

I started working at age 14 as a janitor at a trucking company in Aurora, Colorado. Workers on those shipping docks were some of the kindest, most interesting and intelligent people I ever met, and it taught me a valuable lesson at a relatively young age: regardless of job title or position, people deserve dignity and respect in their workplaces and when they have those things they will almost certainly thrive. I continued to work on those same shipping docks through college until I went to law school. 

After law school I moved to Indianapolis and joined a firm with one of the largest labor and employment law practices in the country. I wanted to continue focusing on helping more workers achieve dignity and respect in their workplaces, and really got a chance to understand how workplace benefits and total reward strategies impacted worker wellbeing. Then I fell in love. I met my wife, who is a Maine native, and I picked up my legal career and moved to the great state of Maine. I bounced around at a few legal jobs, and ultimately landed a role in HR at a large health system. It gave me a chance to really dive into the day-to-day practice of being an HR executive, and I gained a whole new appreciation for how critical HR leaders are for any organization.

As an HR leader I became obsessed with wellbeing programs.  I saw great potential in those programs, especially those linked to financial wellbeing. This led me to Prudential where I had a great experience building and leading teams focused on developing workplace wellness programs. At Prudential I had another career and life altering experience that ultimately led me to Financial Health Network.

It was late in 2018 and I was asked to speak to a gathering of community leaders and financial wellness enthusiasts. I shared a personal story about my Dad and his financial health journey and how it continues to shape and inform my belief that work and the workplace can be a force for good, but that the industry needs to do more to help deliver material benefits to all workers, not just those at the top of the economic ladder.  The CEO of Financial Health Network, Jennifer Tescher, was in the audience and she made a point to pull me aside and we had a really thoughtful conversation.  At the time, FHN was going through some transformation and wanted to bring in more workplace expertise as it was seeking to engage with a broader audience and connect the dots across the financial health ecosystem.  I joined FHN shortly thereafter and helped build out its workplace practice where we have the chance to work with HR leaders across every industry as they seek to improve the financial health of their workforce.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

I’ve benefited from some amazing mentors in my career. It really started with my parents who are two of the hardest working people out there. They instilled in their kids an ethos of working hard no matter the task and also that there was no job that was unworthy of respect. In college, I met Mike Edmonds, who was then the Dean of Students at Colorado College. He remains one of the most important people in my life. He is a remarkable person who always sees the humanity in people, and he pushed me to pursue a life that was bigger and more purposeful than I ever could have imagined on my own.

When I started as a young lawyer I had a great mentor, Greg Utken. Greg taught me what it meant to be a professional, how to think like an HR leader, and how to solve complex problems by breaking them down into their component parts and really taking pride in a craft. When I moved to Maine and started working in HR, I met Judy West. Judy was the CHRO at MaineHealth and she gave me my first HR job and I saw firsthand how a seasoned HR leader navigates their role in the C-Suite and how the very best HR leaders are also strategic business partners. At Prudential, I had the pleasure to work with Kristin Tugman Ph.D. Kristin helped me hone my skills around using data to tell human stories, which is a skill that I use every day when I work with HR leaders.

Ultimately, I have benefited from some great mentors – not all of whom are from the HR industry, but all of them brought a heightened sense of humanity to their work which, to me, is the guiding star of any HR professional.

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

As cliché as it may sound, my favorite part is meeting and working with diverse people, especially those who are passionate about what they do. I’m an enthusiastic person and I find that enthusiasm is contagious and can be an illuminating force for making change. My least favorite part is that HR tends to migrate into silos: benefits, employee relations, talent management, training and organizational development, etc. While each of these functions are an essential part of an HR organization, they often struggle to work in concert. The best HR teams I have ever worked with are very intentional about breaking down those silos and really focusing on what they can do as a team to improve the lives of their people and drive business results. In other words, HR leaders should be constantly striving to put their people at the center of everything they do, and when that happens better outcomes tend to follow.

How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?

The best companies have always seen the value HR leaders add to an organization. HR has worked hard over the last several decades to establish themselves as strategic business partners. It is also increasingly rare to find a company that does not, in one form or another, acknowledge that their people are their most important asset. We see that worker voice and how companies treat their workers are no longer the sole domain or concern of HR. The SEC and investors are asking for more information about human capital practices. As the “S” in ESG becomes more aligned with the people side of a business, HR leaders are going to find themselves with new opportunities to add even more value to their organizations. This also means that HR skill sets will need to continue to evolve. Data competency and fluency are increasingly important skills, and areas where there is a lot of opportunity for HR to grow. 

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

Change happens so quickly now, so I see the industry becoming better and nimbler in the face of constant change. The last couple years are a good example. We saw HR teams mobilize quickly to facilitate remote work arrangements, to enhance safety protocols, to invest more deeply and intentionally in diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and we saw an explosion in interest around enhancing financial health benefits. In other words, the last two plus years accelerated several trends that were already percolating in the workplace.

Ultimately, the HR teams that help their organizations understand the value of listening to workers and designing workplace solutions that meet the material needs of workers will be best positioned to win the now-perpetual war for talent. Those that don’t evolve or rely on outdated frameworks or models of work will survive for the short term, but workers have more choice now than ever and this means companies are competing in new ways for talent at all levels of an organization. Those that can demonstrate how they improve the lives of their people, will be best positioned to recruit and retain talent and also drive better business outcomes.

What are you most proud of?

My family. I am lucky to be the father of three awesome kids and the husband to an amazing partner. We are fortunate to live in a beautiful place (Maine), and I get to wake up every morning and pursue my personal and professional goals with an amazing network of peers and colleagues.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Be curious, commit to being a lifelong learner, treat people with grace and respect, and make sure you understand how the business you support operates.