Reforming a Negative Workplace Culture

Debbie Pollock-Berry shares Save the Children U.S.’s strategies for a cultural shift at Humentum’s #OpExDC2019 Conference

Debbie Pollock-Berry has been the CHRO at Save the Children U.S. for roughly 745 days. It was around day 200 when she realized her organization’s culture needed a major overhaul. “Save the Children was founded on the belief that children have rights. Now we needed to make sure our staff had rights,” she says. During her presentation at Humentum’s #OpExDC2019 Conference in Washington, D.C. recently, Pollock-Berry shared the impetus and methods for Save the Children’s culture shift and how it can help other organizations, especially other NGOs.

About five months into her job, there was a major blowup in terms of a hire Pollock-Berry’s team made with the organization. She wisely offered no details, but said the matter rattled everyone and began a painful time. It was clear the workplace culture needed reforming. “Reform is a harsh word but we were redefining culture and our standards,” she says. And everyone was involved — all 1,500 employees, including senior management. The employees were given more of a voice and now “they are roaring,” she says. Here’s what they changed.

Compensation and Hiring

To avoid bias as much as possible, Save the Children U.S. now has panel interviews for every hire, she says.

“We released a report about our gender pay disparity. The national average is a 22% gap and we’re better, but we aren’t where we want to be. We have a 10% gap and we’re addressing that. We’ve committed to releasing a gender pay report every October,” she says.

Save the Children U.S, also stopped inquiring about salary history in an effort not to perpetuate previous underpayment.

It no longer has a cap on increases for promotions or lateral moves, Pollock-Berry shared. If someone applies internally and gets promoted, they get a fair salary regardless of their prior position. Previously, the cap was a 10% raise even if the employee was gaining a great deal more responsibility. For lateral moves, even those that included more work, the increase was previously capped at 2%, and this is no longer the case, either, she says.

The organization also started paying interns. 

“We have an amazing internship program and we work them hard. We discovered that a college intern, even at an amazing program, can apply for a job and have that experience not count as much on a resume because it’s unpaid,” she says. “Our diversity council got behind this idea and would not let it go. If you work hard, you should be rewarded. We’re doing that now.”

Work/Life Balance

“We have an all-staff meeting every month. Yesterday, the CEO delivered her update and told us she was glad she was able to make the meeting because she’d just been on vacation,” Pollock-Berry says. Then the CEO relayed a conversation with a colleague who admitted she had vacation time accrued but hadn’t taken it. 

And this is something common with NGO workers, Pollock-Berry says. “They’re loyal and committed and sitting on unused vacation time at the end of the year, but we want them to use it and our CEO models that. She told everyone, ‘Just take the vacation!’”

Save the Children U.S. is also expanding family leave. Along with FMLA and short term disability, they offer 30 days of leave for adoption and birth, for men and women. Between FMLA, disability and expanded leave, women can have almost six months off and fathers can enjoy a month with a new child, she says.

“Work/life balance is hard in this sector because we’re so mission-focused and people won’t take the time for self-care or leave,” she says. “To that end, we’ve developed lunch and learn programs about physical, mental, financial and emotional health.”

Workplace Culture Health and Benefits

One of the biggest additions to the benefits program was unexpected. It’s pet insurance. “We got a discount group rate and it cost us nothing, but the reaction was amazing. It felt like I gave every millennial employee $1,000.” Pets are family members and this is something they can use and will save them money and reduce their stress.

Save the Children U.S. also hosted a step challenge and the winning team took 7 million steps! “There were eight members on each team. Each member of the winning team received a $50 gift card to Target and they loved it,” she says. It didn’t cost much, but put a focus on health and fitness and teamwork.

Employee-led Initiatives of Workplace Culture

“We’re starting a subtle campaign called Change Starts with You and getting staff-led initiatives. The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements showed us our harassment policy was outdated and no one knew where to find it or where to report. We had to redo the policy and trainings and we revamped the entire program,” she says.

Staff-led initiatives of workplace culture take a little longer to accomplish but are easier to implement and are very rewarding. Pollock-Berry shared a quote she heard recently that applies to her philosophy on this: “Someone said, if you build it, they will come. If they build it, they’re already there.”

This has led employees to start affinity groups also. There are nine groups including millennials, LGBTQ+ employees, working parents, knitters and a group for African-American team members. 

“These groups create allyships where, for example, the black employees will discuss challenges they face in the workplace and invite colleagues of different ethnicities to attend and learn,” she says.

This type of culture shift has undoubtedly taken a lot of work and hit rough spots along the way, but it’s been very successful. Debbie Pollock-Berry says working at Save the Children US is her dream job and she’s pleased her 745 days in this role have been put to such good use.
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