Coworking with Mari Kemp

She’s the senior vice president of human resources at Ease
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· 7 min read

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Mari Kemp has over two decades of experience in human resources, but like many HR professionals, her career path started outside the industry, first in marketing, followed by a transition into office management, which led to positions as an HR generalist, an HR manager, and ultimately to her current role as senior vice president of HR at Ease. The San Francisco–based tech company, which has over 200 employees, provides benefits administration and HR software to insurance brokers and their small- and medium-business (SMB) clients. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

How would you describe your specific job to someone who doesn’t work in HR? As the SVP of HR, I connect the people to the business. My job is to understand that every single business is a people business. I work to align people strategies with business strategies to build strong organizations, which means I need a strong understanding of the needs of the business and its trajectory. I have to consider what high performance, developing people, team building, setting clear objectives and key results (OKRs), management by objectives (MBOs) etc., will look like for this business, and how to develop strategies, programs, and initiatives that connect with the overall goals of the organization.

What’s the best change you’ve made at a place you’ve worked? Changing the way HR is perceived in the boardroom. A lot of people, CEOs included, believe [that] the HR team is simply who you call when something is wrong. Instead, I’ve worked to get boards and executives to see HR as a proactive and strategic partner by placing an emphasis on data. Having data to back up where the organization is moving and how people are feeling makes the HR team a true and validated partner. Behaviors are very well represented by data, and data is often indisputable. The numbers don’t lie. Having reliable data to turn to provides a measurable metric and stresses the importance of HR to board members and executives.

What’s the biggest misconception people might have about your job? People think that HR is just for the company, that we’re only going to protect the company and [its] executives. That couldn’t be further from the truth. HR actually works very closely with the law, and part of that is ensuring everyone has fair and equal treatment within all levels of the workplace. Our goal is to zoom out and make decisions from a neutral perspective that betters both the organization and the people. It takes a strong HR professional to not bow down to certain pressures and demands and to look at problems from a neutral point of view. For example, when you’re having those tough conversations around termination, HR needs to ensure that the person was set up for success prior to termination, ensure performance goals were crystal clear, and make sure that no additional help could have been provided. HR is not there to shatter lives but to make employees’ lives better.

What’s the most fulfilling aspect of your job? Seeing people go from where they are to where they want to be is huge. That’s the ultimate win. It’s the best feeling when you have people telling you that you helped them grow, develop, and advance in their careers.

What trend in HR are you most optimistic about? I’m really bullish on diversity. Over the past year, there has been a lot of momentum around diversity. That, coupled with the shift to remote work and the ability to hire anywhere, removes any excuse companies previously relied on. There is no reason for companies to forgo diversity efforts in the world of remote work. Speaking from a people-empowerment perspective, there are also no excuses for individuals. The fact that you can largely work remotely provides an additional platform to put yourself forward, and people shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to recruiters and HR teams about roles they’re interested in. My hope is that companies and individuals take this step forward so that organizations become more representative of the people they do business with.

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A variety of research suggests that a lot of organizations are falling short of their lofty rhetoric when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion…How can an employer avoid getting into a situation where employees perceive the organization’s DE&I efforts as just paying lip service or going through the motions? Absolutely, and I can totally agree with all the negative press, because for a very long time, just saying “diversity, equity, inclusion” was just the right thing to say to check a box. What I’ve always found that was missing was accountability. And if you don’t have a diversity footprint that functions as an active force throughout your organization, then it just becomes talk.

Your executive metrics should tie into diversity—diversifying your team—and that’s not just  recruiting, that’s also promoting diverse employees into management roles. As well as being able to have all hiring managers [be] accountable to that.

It’s really important to report on and show that data. So what I do at Ease is, I have a quarterly metric that we now monitor every single quarter. Our diversity within ease is 50% women and 50% men. And think about, too, diversity is many things. It could be background, nationality, gender, it goes in so many different directions, and I think that if an organization honestly tackles one—for example, ours was balancing our gender gap within the organization, then it was then going deeper, balancing our compensation gaps, aligning [that] with gender within the organization—all of those things are really important. And so how our employees believe it, is that in our own all-hands meetings, we report the impact, but not only that, not only do we report it, but they see it and they feel it within their department…I think that’s the difference: That we make sure that they understand it and they feel a part of it.

What trend in HR are you least optimistic about? Turnover and moonlighting. Remote work is a double-edged sword: There are a lot of benefits and a lot of downsides. We’re already seeing, and will continue to see, a huge amount of turnover due to the vast number of job openings and opportunities right now. Companies have to do their best to keep engagement up because that sense of cohesion and community is missing in the remote world. It’s easier to quit a job when you’re lacking that human connection. 

Remote work has also led to an increase in moonlighting, or holding a second job, which is also something companies will have to manage. Organizations have to decide if they’re okay with their employees having more than one job, and if not, they have to implement clear policy guidelines that prohibit moonlighting.

What do you wish you had more time to do more of in your position? You know, in a virtual setting, and I just wish I had more time to learn about the employees in the company individually. Spend some time with them, talk to them. With the virtual setting, you don’t really get those connective points in person anymore. And I really miss doing that. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said “to create a data-driven HR function,” but we’ve achieved that now. And now it’s more in the place of getting to know people, connecting with them, understanding them, helping them feel part of the community, letting them feel heard. I do that remotely, but I really wish I had more time to do it with every single employee in the organization.

Tell us one new or old HR tech product or platform that’s made your life easier, and why: The platform Lattice has been a major tool that has aided us in tracking and assessing performance data as we’ve embedded exit surveys into our internal Ease platform.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.