Innovative HR: Anthropology, Reciprocity, & Technology with Saint-Gobain

Saint-Gobain tried to get the Top Employer certification to really, truly demonstrate that the company, which is more than 350 years old, can continue to grow, evolve, and be leading edge.

Today we are excited to share a conversation with Valerie Gervais. She is the Senior Vice President of Human Resources with Saint-Gobain in North America, one of the largest building materials companies in the world. The company was founded in 1665 and, today, has over 170,000 employees in 67 countries, with eight research and development centers worldwide.

Saint-Gobain creates innovative materials to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, in terms of sustainability and people's comfort and well-being, and as Valerie shared, “We're trying to do the same things with our employees.”

To achieve that goal, Valerie and Saint-Gobain did something truly innovative: they hired a business anthropologist.

Valerie wanted to emphasize personalization, as opposed to HR’s traditional one-size-fits-all approach. But to do that, they had to acquire much deeper insight their people – how they feel, what they think about their work, and what really matters to them.

To find this information, Saint-Gobain hired an anthropologist to research some of their sites. She went to a factory, observed what was happening, took part in some meetings, and talked to their people. “The great thing about anthropologists is that they go in with no assumptions at all about what they're looking for... I think it's a great way to try to discover something that you don't even know exists..”

Just a couple things they learned from the anthropologist:

  • The anthropologist introduced the concept of Fragile Moments, or the idea that people change and want to be treated differently throughout their life. They’re now looking at each employee’s stages of life, as opposed to just their generation or experience.
  • Interestingly, their people said their relationship to the employer is too transactional, and they want it to be more reciprocal. Valerie is really embracing reciprocity as a core tenet of Saint-Gobain’s HR going forward: “I give you my best as an employer, you give me your best as an employee. We are in this together.”

Valerie believes that technology fits perfectly with what they’re trying to accomplish, “in terms of making people more tangible with personalization and making them more autonomous.”

For example, Saint-Gobain offers a digital catalog where people can map out their career, and work out the development needed to support their growth (now or at different stages in their career). The offerings go beyond just training, so they can plan their ideal future in the company and continually work to develop themselves.

“That's the idea of reciprocity and collaboration. We offer a platform, we offer resources, but we are not going to design your career for you. Again, it's reciprocity – we are in this together.”

Saint-Gobain also recently introduced the Give a WOW Peer Awards Program, a peer-to-peer recognition program. This software creates an opportunity for anybody to be able to recognize everybody, instead of it always coming from management. This digital platform allows employees to nominate their colleagues.

In the near future, Valerie plans to implement a program that will allow their people to get involved with causes and activities that they care about, especially in the areas of sustainability and wellness. “There're a lot of people who want to give back, who want to do good things in the world, and want to get engaged in these kind of causes and activities.”

Three Things To Discuss With Your Team:

  1. Be aware of fads, and be cautious with generalizations. Know your organization, know your people, and do what's right for the business.
  2. Go deep, really listen, and develop an understanding of your people – Don't stop at an engagement survey. This is why Saint-Gobain hired an anthropologist.
  3. Embrace reciprocity, and bring the human element back into everything that you do in HR.

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And remember… Develop. Always.




Production & Development for Top Employers Institute’s Talent is Transforming podcast series by Podcast Masters