Lessons from 9 HR leaders on AI, inclusion, the role of HR, and more

All the shiny new technologies and buzzwords in the HR space make it easy to neglect the basics. So people and culture leaders need to keep a cool head and focus on the essential role of HR, placing people at the center.

We brought together nine experts and practitioners from companies like Zalando, Typeform, and Babbel at this year’s DisruptHR Berlin to get inspired by their ideas. Read on for the key takeaways or watch the videos of the talks here.

The role of HR: back to the basics

You’d probably agree that HR is about more than just hiring, firing, and paperwork. With more processes being automated, the role of HR has shifted. But what should today’s HR professionals focus on?

“It’s a jungle out there,” says Erika Enberg, Director of People & Culture at Blacklane, about all the tools, concepts, and frameworks HR practitioners across the world apply to their work. Instead of putting the cart before the horse, she recommends starting with empowering great leadership. Her recipe for management success: Read about leadership, learn about the people around you, and share your knowledge.

According to Michael Jones “nobody grows up wanting to be in HR.” Before becoming EyeEm’s VP People, he thought of HR as a function that’s all about processes and bureaucracy. This dated view is fading fast and more fresh approaches are revolutionizing the role. Pivoting from Marketing to HR, Michael wanted to focus on the people and keep things simple instead. By carefully stripping away process, “decisions have been made faster, creativity was unleashed, and you could really sense a new energy coming through.” So when looking at his kids, Michael today thinks that HR is something they should actually look up to because it’s so central to everyone’s career and life.

When it comes to technology, today’s role of HR requires tech knowledge and certain soft skills. “We need differently skilled people who are able to use and build those tools. But also people who are able to form an environment where those tools are getting used in the right way,” says new work expert Inga Höltmann.

Putting the human experience first

One topic that ruled this year’s DisruptHR Berlin was a people-first approach to HR.

Whether it’s about 360-degree feedback, employee surveys, or meetings, HR needs to take into account what people are anxious about and what their needs are. “Every time we incorporate fears and desires in our HR processes and tools, we create a more human experience,” says HR guru Joris Lujike.

For Nina Butzke, In-house Trainer at Babbel, putting humans first also means letting them own their personal development. Instead of developing detailed job descriptions and predefined competency profiles, Nina suggests that HR should trust their people. She says: “Employees know what is best for them. Give them the freedom to figure out their own way.

According to Hilary Klassen, CEO and founder of Career Ari and Quahog, the human experience already starts with the hiring process. She wants organizations to “stop hiring and developing based only on job role.” But what’s the alternative? For Hilary, it’s looking at a job as part of someone’s career story. “We’re gonna hire based on purpose, impact, feedback, and personal life balance,” she predicts.

Sarah Guerrier worked in Marketing for ten years before taking over the role of the Head of People Operations at Zalando. One of the first things she did was find the people operations team’s shared why. They quickly realized that their why was simply “putting people first.” To put that vision into action, Sarah introduced the employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) as a measurement of the people ops team’s success. It’s a powerful initiative to drive the focus and accountability of the HR team toward truly serving their people.

Diversity, inclusion, bias, and AI

Diversity is a big buzzword, and many organizations focus on increasing it. But according to leadership coach Inka Kretschmer, diversity alone is not the answer. Inka encourages organizations to “create an environment that is truly inclusive so that people can be who they are and successfully collaborate.” Without an inclusive environment, diversity can actually do more harm than good.

A crucial step toward diversity and inclusion is tackling unconscious bias. Once you’re stepping into realms of AI, removing bias is also prerequisite for writing successful algorithms. “The first thing we’ve got to do is make sure our data is clean, broad, and involves diverse sets of people,” tru founder Bill Boorman says. He deems a new definition of good (e.g., which employees to hire or promote) necessary to use AI in HR while preserving diversity in the workplace.

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