HR Department of One Drives Change in DEI and Recruiting for Pandemic Times and Beyond

HR Super Hero: Erin Linkins, Director of HR

Company: Kanopi Studios, a women-led, fully remote web agency that designs, builds and supports websites for clients.

Number of Employees: Approximately 60 in the US and Canada (and growing)

Size of HR Team: 1

Erin Linkins

There's no question the last year was a big challenge. HR professionals have supported and guided their organizations through great change, demonstrating again and again their adaptability, resilience and compassion.

In recognition of these extraordinary efforts, XpertHR put out the call to business professionals asking them to nominate their HR Super Hero. We wanted to hear their stories and to celebrate and showcase their achievements.

Erin Linkins, Director of Human Resources at Kanopi Studios, was nominated for spearheading her organization's shift in their DEI strategy over the past year while juggling all of the additional responsibilities that came with the pandemic. XpertHR spoke with Erin about how she made Kanopi a safer, more inclusive space and transformed its hiring practices to attract underrepresented and underestimated communities.

The interview has been edited for length.

Tell us about your current role in HR.

I've worked with Kanopi for about four and a half years in some capacity or another. I'm currently director of HR and a department of one.

What led you to a career in HR?

It was a total accident. I started my professional career in agencies in the late '90s and was a project manager and loved it, and then was recruited away to become a creative and technical recruiter, which I did for a few years, but didn't love it. The sales and sales metrics aspect of it wasn't really appealing to me.

I have some friends who own an agency and I asked if I could do some part-time project management. They said, "We have a part-time HR position, and since you've done recruiting, maybe that's appealing."

So I started doing it not knowing what I was doing at all, just using Google quite a bit and relying on SHRM and things like that to help me. I ended up loving it and I worked for them for eight years. It kicked off a bigger career, and I've been in HR ever since.

Does Kanopi have an office where you meet occasionally, or is it fully remote and always has been?

Kanopi has always been fully remote. We are located in the US and Canada primarily.

So when the pandemic first hit, transitioning to remote work would not have been an issue for your company, but what were some of your biggest challenges with COVID?

We're pretty diverse in terms of age and family structure. So when the pandemic hit it impacted everybody really differently - some now had spouses at home, some were suddenly isolated at home, some had to educate their kids at home. The biggest change was making space for people to not be okay, because the pressure was huge, and it was overwhelming.

We had to really pay attention to what was happening legally - statewide, provincially and federally - in the US and Canada to make sure we were taking care of our people in a way that was legally compliant, mindful and aligned with our values.

We had an employee who was having performance issues and then got COVID. We were on the verge of termination at that point, and with COVID we needed to figure out legally, what did we need to do to be responsible to that person and support that person through their illness, and still do what was best for the company.

And then on top of that was the racial reckoning in the United States with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. There was just a lot of emotion, a lot of anger, a lot of exhaustion. It was unprecedented. I've never seen anything quite like it. Usually you'll see it with one person here and there, but not a whole company, not ever.

Was there anyone in your company who can also wear an HR hat and help you out with any of this? What resources did you turn to?

Not really. But I don't want to say that I'm completely siloed and nobody was helping me. The director team is very tight. We meet once a week, we bounce ideas, we talk things through. So I felt supported. But as far as the research went and as far as alerting people to what was coming, I am their person. I am the radar that picks up the blips of, okay, there's this major federal legislation, I need to figure out how it applies to us, I need to implement it. I lean heavily on SHRM, other memberships and other professionals in the industry to make sure I'm getting information that is reliable and accurate. But it's ultimately up to me to take this information, disseminate it, and figure out the policies that we need to institute.

Now we're with a PEO (professional employer organization) that tracks any COVID-related leave and helps us stay legally compliant, but at the time, we were just flying by the seat of our pants, and the legislation was changing all the time.

Additionally, we really stepped up our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as well.

What has been the response from employees so far to some of these DEI initiatives?

When George Floyd was murdered, we were going to write a Black Lives Matter post on our website, and my CEO passed it to me to take a look. I responded that it was great to support this movement, and to say this is really important to us, but I also said, What are we going to do? Because it's great to say we support this, but we need to take action.

So we looked into making some donations to Black Girls Code, to the Equal Justice Initiative. We also decided to end some relationships with some clients that were problematic in that regard.

We were also open about the fact that we weren't doing great with hiring people of color and we needed to do better.

We started to align ourselves with communities of color and LGBTQ communities, neurodivergent communities, and really tried to figure out how we can diversify our folks, and also train our managers on how to talk about that.

To give you an example, we hired a woman, who is now our only black female employee on staff. When she was interviewing she asked, "What are you all doing to hire more people of color?" And I said, "That is a great question. We are not doing great at it, but here are the couple of initiatives that we're rolling out to get better at it."

She said, from her perspective, that answer really helped to solidify her decision to move forward in the process with us. At the time, we were largely white and we just knew... this is fake. We have been telling ourselves that this is the truth of interactive agencies for a really long time. I've been told there are no people of color in tech. It's just not true. We're just not doing the work to actually get those folks on staff.

And I think the more you have those conversations the easier they get because you get comfortable with the fact that you just didn't know but you're working to do better.

The person that you were speaking to in the interview wants to work for a company that is trying, making efforts and taking action, even if, as a company, you're not quite where you want to be yet. In the end it helps employees, the company, society at large.

I think diverse voices make for better work. We're pretty diversified in terms of our client base, but diverse voices can help to bring different points of view to the table during the discussion and to say things like, "Hey, I think your target audience isn't necessarily going to have a computer. They might be mobile first."

Some of those things we overlook as being unimportant, but they're so crucial. And then just from an internal cultural perspective it's been great. It really has.

Working in tech, what have you found to be the biggest challenge to maintaining a diverse workforce?

We're a little over a year into this pandemic, and people are antsy. And I think that they're stuck in their houses and they have a kind of wanderlust. So I think there's a lot of trading of talent right at the moment.

For us, we'd had somewhere in the neighborhood of 95% retention for a couple of years, which was pretty incredible, because I think in our industry it's usually 67%. But we've had a little turnover this year from folks who just want a different experience. And in talking to other tech companies in professional forums it sounds like it's a talent market right now and employers are really struggling to find folks, and they're losing folks. I think that's just across the board.

Not enough candidates and more turnover than usual. So I'm wondering, as an HR team of one, do you have any tips to share on how to recruit and onboard efficiently?

Our vetting process is very slow. Our interview process is typically two interviews, sometimes three, and then applicants do a paid mini-project with us. They work as a contractor for about eight to 10 hours with the team on a small piece of some bigger project.

I've been in companies where you just meet a person, do an interview and hire them, and that can work, but I think that's why the turnover can be so high. We really work hard to get the right people in, and if they're not invested in that whole process, they drop off, or we find out they're not a fit.

I think just having a process that ensures that you have quality folks that align with your team in whatever way is reasonable for you is the important part.

Do you have advice for other organizations that are trying to attract a more diverse group of employees? Any advice or tips for someone starting out maybe where you were six months to a year ago?

The first thing is that from the top it needs to be important. Everybody needs to care about this being an important initiative, because if it's just one person shouting in the dark that we need to do this, it's not going to work. You need buy in from everybody.

There's real beauty and strength in admitting that we did it wrong, that we weren't good at it, or that we didn't care about it in the way that we should have. Diversity is inviting a big group of people into a room, inclusion is asking them to sit at the table, and then equity is ensuring that they all have the tools they need to have their voice equally heard at that table.

And so caring that those things are important, not just the inviting people into the room, but making sure that those folks have voices, that those folks are heard, considered and elevated into positions where they can be leaders - that is really crucial.

So, my advice is to say, "Hey, folks, we need to implement a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. Here are the three things I'd like to do to get that started." And that might be doing a survey of our current team. It might just be fact finding: where are we posting currently, what are our percentages of diverse candidates, how are we moving them through?

And setting goals may not be necessarily the best way to go about it. It might be better to say what we are doing currently and what are a couple of things that we can pivot - just to point in a direction that's more aligned with what we'd like to see.

Can you talk about your efforts to instill a call-in culture at your company and make it safe space for employees to say the wrong thing or do things wrong and then teach one another? I'm curious about how you teach call-in conversations.

In the case of having a call-in culture, remembering that person's humanity is key. Most people are good people, and they make mistakes, and I think the biggest thing we can do is to say, "I just want to talk to you about something, it's really uncomfortable, but here's the situation, you might not be aware that this is problematic."

It's really teaching people, because people will come to me and say, "Hey, this happened in a meeting, how do I handle it?", and I always suggest a one-on-one first. We've had instances where folks have called other folks out in a meeting, but I think more often than not other people will process that and take away from it: "Gosh, I don't know what to do. Should I just do nothing? Should I just not say anything?" And my opinion is if you're sitting with it and it's still bothering you, it's probably a good idea to say something.

Let's say for example I use a term that's rooted in racism. The person then could say, "Hey, Erin, can we have a conversation real quick? In that last meeting I heard you say this, and I don't know if you're aware of this, but it's rooted in racism. And here's an article about that, just in case you want to read a little more, but you might in future want to say X, Y, or Z instead."

It's a gentle way of delivering that message and giving the person the space to be wrong and giving the person the space to get educated about it.

Any incidences where I've really had to mediate, I just have to teach them how to actively listen. I'll have one person speak and then I'll just say, "I'm going to walk you through this conversation." I'll say to the other person, "What did you hear them say? Okay, person A, is that accurate? Great. Okay, Person B, what's your point of view here? Person A, what did you hear them say? Does that sound accurate?"

Looking back at the year, were there any positive long-lasting impacts for your company, for your people?

We're spending more time at work than we are with our families, so we need to be a safe space for people to feel like they can come and be themselves, turn off all the stuff out in the world and focus on their work and know that they're respected and valued for exactly who they are. I think just being willing to have the hard conversations around that and really structure a company that's based on a foundation of inclusion is really nice.

We've got a long way to go. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we have no more work to do. I think we've got a lot more work to do. But I think from a starting block perspective we're doing great.