The Top Moments for HR in 2019

December 23, 2019

Photo of group of people, one is holding Tengai, the talking recruiting head robot

Unquestionably, 2019 has been a huge year for HR. (You’re right — HR always has a huge year.) There has been an increased focus on pay equity, workplace harassment, and work flexibility and continued attention on finding star employees in a historically tight talent market.

This year, too, the issues central to HR on a daily basis have often woven themselves into the larger headlines. For example, the biggest global sports event of the year — the Women’s World Cup in France — was won by a U.S. team that is at the forefront of the fight for pay equity. The #MeToo movement, as well, continued to play out in various industries — entertainment, hospitality, military, and politics (that is an industry, right?) — in countries across the world.

There were also lighter moments, such as the viral debates over the resurfaced “Marissa Mayer” resume (is it perfect, or perfectly out-of-date?) and post-interview thank-you notes (imperative, or unimportant?).

Here’s our recap of some of the most notable HR moments of 2019:

Workplace harassment remains a touchy subject

January 9 — Skydance Media names John Lasseter as its head of animation, even though Lasseter, the co-founder and animating visionary at Pixar, had left the Walt Disney Company after employee complaints about unwanted touching. In response to Skydance’s move, two-time Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson backs out of a voice part in an animated feature “Luck.” In a January 23 letter to Skydance, Thompson asks, “If a man has been touching women inappropriately for decades, why would a woman want to work for him if the only reason he’s not touching them inappropriately now is that it says in his contract that he must behave ‘professionally’?”

Does HR need a name change?

March 4 — Lars Schmidt, the founder of the HR consultancy Amplify and the host of the podcast “21st Century HR,” tweets this provocation: “Is it time to retire the term ‘human resources’?” His talent counterparts, pro and con, weigh in. Passionately. Some say, leave it alone and get back to work. Others weigh in with anthropocentric suggestions: People & Culture. People Operations. People Strategy. People. One person tries to resuscitate “Personnel.” He is immediately reported to HR.

IBM’s Watson predicts attrition

April 2 — IBM CEO Ginni Rometty announces that the company’s HR team has a patent for a predictive attrition program that can identify employees who will jump ship for another job in the next six months with 95% accuracy. This is timely news because a few weeks earlier, Gallup released a study saying voluntary employee turnover is costing U.S. businesses $1 trillion a year. IBM says that among the factors that can contribute to employees leaving are lengthy commutes, excessive overtime work, and long gaps between promotions

Alibaba founder touts the ‘blessing’ of long hours

April 11 — Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, apparently isn’t as worried about excessive overtime as IBM is. “I personally think that being able to work 996 [from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week] is a huge blessing,” Ma says in remarks that are posted on Alibaba’s WeChat account. His comments draw lots of attention, considerable pushback, and little demand for work weeks of 60-plus hours.

Five generations converge in the workplace

May — As the school year comes to a close, the first large wave of graduates from Gen Z (those born after 1996) hits the job market, meaning for the first time ever five generations are collaborating in the workplace. Gen Zers are the most tech-savvy generation ever, and AT&T’s campus recruiters bring virtual reality goggles to schools to let students “experience” a day on the job. The company also uses texts, video interviews, and Snapchat to connect with the younger audience. Faced with an unforgiving talent market, employers should also consider tapping into a generation of older workers who have boundless experience, perspective, and commitment. (OK, Boomers, there’s your plug.)

The new face of recruiting?

May 24 — The Swedish recruitment agency TNG announces that the municipality of Upplands-Bro has signed up to use Tengai Unbiased, a robotic interviewer, to find a strategic digital coordinator. Tengai is a 16-inch-tall (41 cm), 7.7-pound (3.5 kg) head with a glowing face (pictured above). “She” doesn’t see age, gender, clothing, or looks and is built with inclusion-and-diversity software to conduct consistent and unbiased interviews and then evaluate soft skills. By July, Tengai has helped Upplands-Bro make its hire.

New York legislates and celebrates pay equity

July 10 — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signs into law legislation guaranteeing equal pay for equal work regardless of one’s gender. Later in the day, New York City hosts a victory parade for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, which had beaten the Netherlands three days earlier to claim the 2019 World Cup. The U.S. players had sued their national soccer federation on March 8, International Women’s Day, accusing it of paying the U.S. men’s team considerably more and of offering the women’s team poorer travel and playing considerations.

A shorter work week works

August 2 — Microsoft Japan begins a monthlong experiment with a four-day work week, giving employees every Friday of the month off. In November, the company will report out that employees were not only happier in August, but 40% more productive. (Somewhere, Jack Ma is saying, “Pshaw.”) Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand–based firm with 240 employees, experimented with a four-day work week in early 2018 and saw a drop in stress levels, a rise in overall life satisfaction, and no decline in productivity. Perpetual Guardian has subsequently adopted a 30-hour week as its standard.

Big business commits itself to other stakeholders, including employees

August 19 — The Business Roundtable, a lobbying organization that represents many of the largest U.S. companies, releases a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation in which it declares that shareholders are no longer king. The statement, signed by 181 CEOs, insists that companies should benefit all their stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, and communities, as well as investors. The statement was long on broad strokes and short on specifics, though it “commits” signatory companies to investing in employees. “This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits,” the statement reads. “It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.” Sounds like a good retention policy.

A voice-activated job application

September 24 — McDonald’s launches what it claims is the world’s first voice-initiated job application process with its McDonald’s Apply Thru, which works off Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. The burger empire and its franchisees have nearly 2 million employees worldwide, and the app is initially available in nine countries. Applying for a job has become as simple as saying, “Alexa, help get me a job at McDonald’s.” Would you like fries with that?

Michelle Obama makes the case for diversity

September 27 — Michelle Obama, best-selling author, onetime first lady, and former campus recruiter, tells a Talent Connect 2019 audience of recruiters and HR specialists in Dallas: “You’re at the table for a reason. So, don’t waste your seat.” In a fireside conversation with LinkedIn CMO Shannon Brayton, Mrs. Obama explains why diversity is important. “Because you don’t know everything,” she says. “That’s the short answer.” She goes on to note that diversity is critical to getting the best answers and the best outcomes, a position buttressed by a mountain of research and evidence. She adds that companies have to have “diverse voices around the table” if they want diverse hiring.

U.S. Supreme Court hears cases about LGBTQ+ rights in the workplace

October 8 — The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two cases centered on the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees across the nation from job discrimination. Title VII banned discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex, and the court will decide whether “sex” extends to sexual orientation and transgender status. Regardless of how the court decides, many companies have already decided that true diversity and inclusion entails embracing current and prospective LGBTQ+ employees.

Best job post of 2019?

December 12 — The Royal Household in London posts a job on LinkedIn for the Head of Digital Engagement. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, is looking for a social media guru to find “new ways to maintain The Queen’s presence in the public eye and on the world stage.” (Netflix’s “The Crown” apparently isn’t enough.) The posted compensation is £45,000 to £50,000 (US$60,000 to US$67,000) and benefits include 33 days of annual leave, access to training and development, and free lunch. Afternoon tea and scones, one presumes, are negotiable.

As you close the books on what we hope was a successful 2019, we wish you a year full of personal (but not personnel) milestones in 2020.

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* Photo from TNG