by Nori Gale
Some professions rely upon a definable skillset with an emphasis on technical knowledge: to be a plumber, for example, one must have a knowledge of pipe and drainage systems; to be a copyeditor, one must have a grasp of subject/verb agreement, how to identify different types of clauses, and many other grammatical rules. Other professions, like nursing or coaching a team sport, rely more heavily on less quantifiable skills. A good nurse is naturally caring, patient, gentle, direct, and funny. He or she should be attentive to details and have a strong sense that his or her decisions can have a profound impact. These are skills more related to personality than to specialized learning. Skills that are less easily quantified have an incalculable impact on one’s ability to do a job well.
Those who work in Human Resources are required to have many of these less predictable or definable skills. Like a nurse, a Human Resources professional must have a developed emotional intelligence and a wide range of skills that are more improvisational in response to unpredictable circumstances than they are clear-cut.
At WEX, the Human Resources department is made up of approximately 85-90 people with professionals spanning locations in the U.S., Australia, the U.K., the Netherlands, and elsewhere across the globe. Jessica Shawn is a Human Resources Business Partner for WEX, based in Fargo, North Dakota, and has been with us for over eight years. When talking about her role in the company, Shawn emphasizes the dexterity of her position at WEX, where she must care for WEX’s workforce as well as the company at large. “My role as a Human Resources Business Partner is to support WEX employees and the business in whatever ways are needed. I love the variety of the role and every opportunity given to me to help employees.” The desire to help and to support is linked directly to those ineffable qualities that are sometimes overshadowed by more technical skills. Shawn’s abilities as a Human Resources professional substantiate the value of these kinds of supposedly “soft” skills, which improve our lives in quieter ways.
Loving Being A WEXer
Jessica Shawn has a great sense of fulfillment from her work, which she attributes in part to her team.“I am surrounded by incredible people. Some people are lucky enough to have a work family and that’s just true for us.” Shawn describes how she’s felt even greater appreciation for her team since moving to working from home. Daily messages shared amongst colleagues provide a needed boost. “We say things to one another like, ‘Hey, just checking in on you,’ ‘How are you?’ and ‘How are you doing with having the kids at home?’” Shawn’s team is finding new ways to care for each other in this new work environment.
She describes feeling inspired by her colleagues, individuals who have chosen to work in HR for the right reasons. “The people on my team care about our employees and want to do everything they can to help us all move forward.”
The care that Shawn’s team delivers has taken on heightened importance at WEX during this pandemic. “We have seen a greater focus on employees needing support for themselves and their family members as they try to navigate COVID.” WEXers’ increased reliance on the HR department has impacted the practices Shawn and her team have used in the past. “There are a lot of unique pressures our employees are experiencing like worrying about elderly relatives, worrying about kids at home, concerns with personal safety related to COVID, and feelings of isolation in being home 24/7.” As a result of COVID, HR has inherited a new layer of employee care.
Parenting During COVID
According to a tally by Education Week, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia closed schools in March of 2020. These closures impacted about 32.5 million students attending at least 64,000 schools. A recent New York Times article reported that in the spring, at least 17 states required daycares to fully or partially shut down. ChildCare Aware of America released a report on September 24 showing that nationwide 35% of non-residential childcare facilities and 21% of in-home child care centers were forced to shut down by July of this year.
Many WEXers across the United States were impacted by schools and daycares closing during COVID, including Shawn and her family. “Amelia’s daycare shut down permanently in early April. It was gut-wrenching as she had started there at three months old and the teachers were like family.”
Telling Amelia was difficult for Shawn and her husband. “We sat on the floor and we cried together. She asked if she would still be smart enough to go to kindergarten because they didn’t finish working on letter tracing at daycare. Five-year-old worries are heartbreaking.”
They had a hard time finding a new facility mid-pandemic. “We always viewed daycare as not just a spot, but a place that loved our child and nurtured her development. Many weren’t doing tours or weren’t adding more children due to new state recommendations on classroom sizes. We ended up with Amelia home with us for 13 weeks.” For those challenging months, Shawn and her husband had to get creative about how to juggle their jobs and care for a child. “Both my husband and I are incredibly thankful to our employers and the flexibility provided us.” Ultimately they found a place they were happy with and Amelia started kindergarten this fall. Amelia now attends public school a few days a week and daycare to make up the balance. “She started at a new daycare on June 1st. The house was eerily quiet and I questioned if we were doing the right thing. Amelia’s armful of craft projects and stories of her new best friends solidified our decision.”
WEX has found a variety of ways to support employees during the pandemic, including offering additional personal time off for emergencies that might arise from COVID. “The emergency time off was a fantastic benefit that allowed not only those facing childcare issues but all employees to have additional flexibility. This season of life is throwing many unforeseen challenges our way and employees may need some time away. From thoughtful re-entry plans, to ETO, to messaging around taking care of yourself, WEX has stayed true to the promise of ‘employee-first.’” WEX messaging to employees was always reassuring and expressed support. “It was said early and often ‘We understand you may have interruptions,’ which made it less stressful when kids would inevitably appear on camera. In a positive twist, it has been fun to ‘meet’ each other’s kids and learn more about each other’s lives by seeing the homes of colleagues.”
Working from home while there are kids in the house has required changes for people worldwide and Shawn is no different, “Finding grace for myself and giving myself permission to not have it together every moment of every day has been important. As much as I would try to have everything ready as I prepared to jump onto a call, Amelia would burst in with random questions like what she should have for her snack. I have also had to adjust some meetings around drop off and pick up times for school.” Shawn shares that sometimes she can feel overwhelmed and counsels us all to honor those feelings when they come up and take a moment to breathe and refocus. The grace she shows to herself is reflective of her approach to caring for WEX’s employees – she empathizes with their needs, challenges, and concerns.
Disrupt HR – A Fulfilling Interest Outside Work
Outside of her home life and her work at WEX, Shawn has a passion for the organization “Disrupt HR.” Disrupt HR describes itself as “an information exchange designed to energize, inform, and empower people in the HR field.” Shawn first heard of the organization from a post on Twitter. Shawn was intrigued and reached out to learn more, and before long had secured a license for an annual Disrupt HR event in Fargo, North Dakota.
Disrupt HR is an international program to which individuals can buy a license to host a local event. “We were actually one of the first smaller- to mid-markets to host a Disrupt HR event. We were set to have our five-year anniversary, but ended up doing a ‘4.5’ virtual event due to COVID.” Shawn describes it as an evening meant to inspire HR professionals but it really can be useful for anyone from any line of work. “It’s an open forum. Last year we had someone speak about being a stay-at-home dad and the difficulty of finding work after his son started daycare. We’ve tackled tough topics like hiring felons. We’re looking at bringing topics to our events that push the envelope of day-to-day work in HR. Looking beyond the resume, looking beyond the background check, trying to disrupt the norm.”
Disrupt HR is formatted differently than other conferences. As Shawn describes it, “The talks are only five minutes long and the slides automatically advance every 30 seconds. Professionals often describe speaking at our events as one of the hardest talks they’ve ever given. The way the event is structured, the speakers need to be fast-paced and have to stay on top of their timing. It’s a tall order to participate in an event that’s so different in that way, but participants also say it’s one of their favorite events. They feel the strongest sense of accomplishment when they’ve completed it.”
For this year’s event, Shawn and her team chose to do a “look back” year. “We decided to host a virtual ‘look back’ with previous speakers giving 2020 updates to their topics. We had fantastic discussions around mental health in the workplace, working with children at home, and social justice.” Shawn shared that many of the topics that were “disruptive” in previous years are now the norm because of COVID. The comment that stuck with her from this year’s event came from a meme posted on social media about checking on extroverted friends because they are having a hard time being home. “A friend of the speaker who identified as an introvert asked where the care was to check on her when she was uncomfortable being in the office. Whenever this all ends, we might be able to find where we all fit and feel best for work. It will be interesting to see what topics we have next year. I believe the pandemic has changed the landscape of the workplace forever.”
Fond Memories: A Role Model Extraordinaire
Shawn’s dad, George, was a major role model and inspiration in her life. “We unexpectedly lost him in November of 2018. I am so thankful for the years I had with him and the incredible impact he had on my life. From him, I have my sense of humor, my nose, and most importantly, a role model for how to be an engaged and supportive parent.”
“He and Amelia were absolutely best buds and so I’m very thankful that they did have a couple of years together and we have some great pictures and memories. They had a special bond between them.” Amelia reminds Shawn of her dad, which is a bittersweet experience for her. “My dad was very thoughtful and kind and I see that in her. She has this kindness that I’m so proud of.” Shawn describes how Amelia showed huge empathy towards others from a very young age. She could read a room and know instinctively who needed a little encouragement. Shawn, her dad, and Amelia all share these traits. Shawn’s own empathetic and kind nature makes her an excellent addition to WEX’s Human Resources team, as well as a force for good in the world.
The Unexpected Benefits Of A Company Merger
Finding out their company, Discovery Benefits, was getting acquired in March of 2019 was a surprising jolt for Shawn and her colleagues, and filled them with uncertainty. “Going from being a privately held company to being part of a publicly-traded company is a scary leap. With all of the things that you hear about Corporate America and large companies, we were concerned. It’s been amazing to see everything WEX does to take care of our employees and has made us all proud to be WEXers, especially as we’ve been navigating COVID. During this difficult time of living and working through a pandemic, our employees have expressed how clear it is that WEX cares about them. This care comes through in the communications regularly transmitted from leadership to employees and in the decisions that have been made to navigate this event. There’s no doubt WEX puts employees first and it’s been reassuring for all of us.”
Leadership Is Often About Being Good At Listening
One additional quality Shawn brings to her work in Human Resources is her natural leadership ability. Shawn leads with a firm but gentle hand. “My approach is to make sure everyone has a chance to voice their thoughts. It seems to pretty consistently be the case that you will leave a situation better if everybody has an opportunity to be heard. Some people are more interested in hearing themselves than hearing others so it’s important to make sure that everyone has had an opportunity to provide the input they hoped to share. There are some situations where you have to step in and be the person in charge and there’s not room for everyone to share their opinion, especially in an emergency situation. In that case, you can’t really get a quorum you have to move forward but you can still do it in a way that shows you’re thinking and caring about others. Of course, I am not perfect at this and always strive to grow and develop as an employee and a leader.”
Shawn’s insistence on listening, her emphasis on the importance of her team, and her overarching empathy for those in a variety of positions, similar and different from her own, mark her as an invaluable leader at WEX. We’re grateful to have her as part of the WEX community.
Harvard Business Review