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What I Learned at WorkHuman 2018

I attended my second WorkHuman conference this week, and my brain and heart are full. This year’s event addressed relevant and substantial topics in a bold manner atypical for an HR industry conference, and reflected its theme of a more human workplace in the interactions between attendees, organizers, and speakers. It was also set in Austin, a lovely city dedicated to huge servings of excellent food, and home to the sexiest public library I’ve ever seen, which is where this post was written.


(I took this with my iPhone!!! No filter!)

The best part of WorkHuman is the humans, of course. It was incredible to see HR friends from near and far, and meet lots of new people. I lost track of how many times I introduced myself with “Hi, I’m Jane, I follow you on Twitter”.

I should pause here and mention that I paid to attend the conference, and I’m not associated with Globoforce (the company behind WorkHuman). So, all gushing is sincere and entirely voluntary.

There was a heavy focus on #MeToo throughout the event, including a brain-meltingly good panel made up of Tarana Burke, Ronan Farrow, and Ashley Judd, artfully moderated by Adam Grant. The ‘Drive-In’ stage, moderated by Laurie Ruettimann, featured several speakers (and audience contributions) focused on #MeToo and was an excellent addition to the conference.


I’m still processing all that I heard and felt, but I wanted to share a few of the highlights that are fresh in my mind.

You Can’t Lead From a Place of Self-Protection

This was my first time seeing Brene Brown speak and I was not disappointed. She was warm, very funny, and had some clear but difficult messages. A couple that stood out for me were:

“If you don’t have the courage to engage in difficult conversations about gender, race, etc then you won’t be a leader in the next 5 years.” *

I believe this. The discussions about diversity and inclusion in workplaces has been, in many cases and for many of us, pretty abstract until now. I think it will become rapidly and increasingly apparent who is willing to do the uncomfortable work on themselves and with others to have, and learn, from these conversations, and who isn’t. It’s scary, but we can’t opt out, automate, or outsource necessary or uncomfortable conversations.

“Our job as leaders is to excavate the unsaid. And when we prioritize our own comfort over that, that is the height of privilege. If you choose to lead from a place of self-protection you are modeling comfort, not courage.”

HR Needs a New Mindset for the Post-#MeToo Era

The #MeToo panel (which brought together Tarana Burke, Ronan Farrow, and Ashley Judd with moderator Adam Grant) was non-stop insight and wisdom. I’m incredibly grateful to have been in attendance for this discussion. I stopped tweeting a few minutes in so I could listen and madly type notes, and I’ll be revisiting these in the days and weeks to come.

In the meantime, a few gems:

Tarana Burke: “You can’t change policies after you find things out, you have to change the culture before. Companies that are serious about systemic change need to ask about the culture you’re creating”

“Hurry up and take your time. We want long-standing sustainable change; don’t put bandaids on it.”

Burke was incredible: wise, funny, humble, and inspiring. She said so much I want to share, and I will write more about her in future.

Ronan Farrow: “The systems are just as much of a story as the events themselves.”

I’m so afraid that we’re mostly missing this in HR’s response to #MeToo. It’s critical to changing the underlying systems that allow this behavior to exist, not just in the dark corners of our organizations, but as open secrets in the light, too. We’re focused on bad apples, and monsters, and we’re not examining the systems that allowed harassers to target people without consequence, and made coming forward difficult and, in some cases, futile.

Farrow: #MeToo is not really about the accidental hug in the workplace. These objections [That #MeToo has gone too far] get weaponized and used against survivors, but it’s not the same thing. On one level it is pretty simple: respect people. Is it ‘a thing’ that people sometimes hug and have a misunderstanding in the workplace? Yes, but that has always been the case.

“There is a distinction between the abstract concerns being discussed [that a misunderstanding over a hug is ending men’s careers], and the actual problems that are happening in our organizations and society, which is that people are being hurt by sexual violence. The conversation is not evidence based. It’s being used as a cudgel against women who are speaking up.”

Most Praise is Actually Just Comparison

Shawn Achor spoke about the topic of his upcoming book, at 800 miles per hour (as is his way), focusing on the ‘big potential’ produced by collaborative systems (rather than the ‘small potential’ of individual striving and competition). His talk was entertaining and gave me a lot to think about, but this comment hit me like the giant chicken fried steak I had on Monday night:

   “Most praise is just comparison”

Achor’s point is that when we “praise” others by saying that they are better than their peers, colleagues, opponents, or collaborators, we link their joy and potential to others. We foster competition rather than personal growth and development.

Ugh. I do this. A lot. And I’d never thought about it this way. 

Start With the End in Mind

Hearing from Amal Clooney about her work as a human rights lawyer was a really inspiring way to end the conference.

[On what individuals can do about complex problems]: “Say ‘I can’t solve the whole problem, but what small part can I do?’”

She spoke about the “rocking chair test” to guide our actions.

“Imagine yourself sitting with your grandchild and them asking you ‘what did you do when [this event] happened in history?’ Decide now what you want your answer to be.”

Taking Action After WorkHuman

So, we all know how easy it is to go to a conference and leave inspired and full of new ideas…and then not make any changes. To avoid that I’ve created a 30-day behaviour change commitment using Actionable’s commitment engine, and I’m sharing the link with anyone who wants to do the same (you can use one my three suggested commitments, or make your own).

You can pick an accountability buddy (I volunteer as tribute!), and decide how often you’ll be reminded to check in on your commitment (and pick either text or e-mail for notifications). It’s free and there are no strings attached. Click here to make your commitment.

The commitments:

  1. When I feel vulnerable, I will take a breath and practice gratitude (from Brene Brown’s keynote)
  2. When I feel pressure to jump to action, I’ll remember to “hurry up and take my time” and seek sustainable change, not a band-aid (from Tarana Burke on the #MeToo panel)
  3. Before I give someone praise I’ll pause and check that it’s not a comparison to someone else (from Shawn Achor’s keynote)
  4. Or make your own

Will I see you at WorkHuman 2019 in Nashville?

*All speaker quotes throughout are based on my notes, and any inaccuracies are mine.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. KolormeHR #

    Love this recap – I am definitely going to consider attending next year’s conference.

    April 8, 2018

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