Chief Chat: Heather Dunn

She’s the chief people officer at Gem
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Heather Dunn

· 4 min read

As part of HR Brew’s ongoing interview series with HR chief executives, we recently sat down for a Zoom chat with Heather Dunn, the chief people officer at Gem, a modern recruiting platform. Dunn is young for a chief human resource officer (she’s 34); she began her HR career just 12 years ago. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, centered around how to grow strategically and quickly as an HR professional, watch for burnout, and build trust with employees.

In your career you’ve made a lot of moves: You started out at Microsoft, went to Dropbox, an insurance firm, and then landed at Gem. How did you know it was time to leave a job? If I think back to themes, particularly during my time at Microsoft and Dropbox, it is that at these companies, I got incredible foundational knowledge. I learned from experts that had decades of career expertise. But I think with both of those roles, it got to a point where I felt like I wasn’t really growing or being able to innovate—especially at Microsoft. In the earlier stages of my career, the red tape and the bureaucracy to get anything done felt like a barrier to accelerating my own career. And so I ended up going smaller and smaller in that sense, to enable myself to be at the forefront of establishing those best in class practices that I learned from some of the larger companies. Also I wanted the ability to move fast, to pilot practice, and to make change more quickly.

Data indicates that HR leaders are burned out. Can you tell me about some of the unique factors of HR that lead to burnout? Not only is HR sort of the caretaker for the organization as a whole, but you’re also in one of the loneliest roles more generally at the company. That sounds very intense when I say it out loud, but when I think about what I get to work on, who I get to work with, what I hear day to day, and who I get to share that with, it’s a pretty limited group of people. And if I think about my own people team, they’re experiencing similar levels of loneliness. And so HR leaders that don’t have an outlet, whether that’s an HR community member or a deeply invested CEO, have really struggled, because they don’t have a support network around them.

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I’ve heard anecdotally that back when people were in the office, the HR person would walk into the elevator, and everyone would stop talking. Is it hard to get outside of your HR silo? Without intention, yes. At Gem, I used to run these sessions called “5-10-15,” where I gathered five people at 10am for 15 minutes. They weren’t to talk about work. It was just a way to more casually get to know folks—especially virtually. I’ve tried to find ways to humanize myself a bit, because it does become an automatic reaction for employees to not want to talk to the HR person. Now that they’ve met my dogs in the Zoom background, or heard about my weekend, I can earn their trust in a quicker way.

What’s an HR trend that you’re glad to see fall by the wayside? I lived through the Microsoft era of staff ranking and force distribution. At the time, we really thought that would encourage top performers to shine. I will always remember a Vanity Fair article that came out and just laid out everything that was wrong with that model. It was the model we were all supposed to be working under. We didn’t know how you could even meet a budget or differentiate performance without stack ranking! It’s been a really positive direction to see the evolution toward no ratings or continuous feedback.

What did that teach you about trends? Do you ever have doubt in your head now and think, oh, this trend could be driving the next Vanity Fair kind of moment? It’s a good question. I will say that some of the extremes on remote work do give me pause— not in a Vanity Fair way. But more: Will there be a correction at some point? I’ve been fairly convinced that there’s so much identity tied to what you do, who you work with, and what’s the mission of the company. I do wonder, especially as companies are not all prepared to go fully remote or maybe aren’t thinking through the DE&I aspects of what it means to go fully remote, I do wonder if there will be some level of correction on how many companies are truly, fully remote.

Correction: A previous version of this interview stated that Dunn started her career in HR ten years ago. In fact, it was 12 years ago.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.