Corner Office Q&A: Claire Barnes

Claire Barnes became global head of HR at Monster in 2020, right when everything we knew about the world of work began to change. Faced with a completely remote global workforce, work from home challenges, the Great Resignation and strategizing return-to-work amid ever-changing coronavirus variants hasn’t been easy. We sat down to talk with Claire about her HR journey,  her path to the c-suite, and how she feels companies should support women in the workforce in a post-pandemic world.

How did you get your start in HR?

I think it’s fair to say I fell into HR, at least a little bit. I studied English literature because it was something I was passionate about, but when I finished, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, which I’m sure other college graduates experience too, so I went into contingency work.

I temped in different workplaces and ended up working in an HR department. I found that it was something that really made me feel good about what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. I think it was really the connection with people and connecting people to the business goal. Just having that ability to make somebody feel good about coming to work and being able to get the best from someone really triggered something in me and made me believe that that was something I wanted to invest more in, so I began a master’s in human resource management and I got my first job in HR. Luckily, since then, I have had the benefit of having some wonderful managers who have probably seen my potential before I’ve necessarily seen it myself.

Who helped take you to the next steps, and how did they support you?

The first person who stands out would be John, who was my first HR director when I started my career in HR. I worked for a company called Pro Metric, and I joined as an HR assistant.  We’d just won a huge contract in the UK, so it was like working in a startup environment and I was very much thrown in at the deep end. I was learning as I was working but what I found working for John was that I always felt supported. I always knew he had my back and he would ask me to do things that wouldn’t necessarily have had the confidence to do but which he could see I had the ability to do so. He definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. Within six months of being there, I was running large-scale, recruitment for a big customer service organization. And I was pretty young, but he totally believed I could do it and I did and I progressed well from there.

The other person who stands out is a woman named Sarah, who was my manager when I was at Thompson Reuters. She was my manager at pivotal time because I had my daughter then. She was somebody who strongly pushed for women’s rights. She always pushed to have a seat at the table. In fact, I would say she was probably the closest to our CEO out of the leadership team for quite a long period of time. But she also pushed for others, including me.

When I came back from maternity leave, I was able to work four days a week, and I was a VP in HR. None of our team had done that before. There’s a question about whether or not you can balance that, but for me it was so important to have that time with my daughter when she was young and she fully supported me and I think that opened the door for others to do the same.

If you take a side compensation, the most common reason why people stay or leave a job is because of their manager and the experience they have working with their manager. I feel it every day in my own career.

As of February of this year, 1.1 million U.S. women had still not returned to the workforce, What do you think companies need to do to help bring women back and then support them once they’re there?

We have to learn from what’s changed in the last two years. First and foremost, I think it has to become a priority for the business. As an HR leader at Monster, it’s a priority for us as an organization. It’s not just an HR goal. Obviously, our HR goals are important, but it’s a business priority because we know the value that diversity brings in an organization. We know the impact that has on results and profitability.

But it’s also because we want people to come into the into the office or virtual office and feel as though they can be themselves. When I think about what employers can do to bring back or to encourage women into the workforce, I think there are a few different things they should be looking at. First of all, women still remain the primary caregiver in many different situations, whether it’s childcare, eldercare, spousal care, they’re still the primary caregiver.

So when you think about that as an organization, I do think it’s really important to consider what level of flexibility can you offer to your workforce and not just what’s on paper, but what actually do you demonstrate as a business. If you offer work from home, make that a norm versus something which women feel they have to ask for. Really think about your policies and how they show up in the business. If you can’t do flexibility from a work-from-home perspective, think about shift patterns, compressed hours, working weeks, part-time working, what other options are available.

Also, if possible, review your benefits to see what benefits are available to help support women. One of the things that we offer at Monster is backup care. We know that women are the primary caregiver and that means if their child is sick or if their parent is sick and they are no longer able to rely on the care of someone who is either a teacher or carer, then that will directly come back to the woman. So, what can you do?

Last but by no means least is role modeling. It is so important to be able to see yourself in an organization, so think about how your organization is structured. Do you have enough women in leadership? Do you have enough female role models? Is that reflected in your promotional materials? Is it reflected on your website or your job descriptions? You know, sometimes we have an unconscious bias in our job descriptions based on the words we use. You need to really think about all of those different factors and really making a conscious effort to make the environment as inclusive as possible.

Labor force participation rates for women of color are even lower than for white women. What can employers do to close that gap?

We’re working through this at Monster. We don’t have all the answers, but for me, the most important place to start is by asking women of color in your organization. So to begin with, if you have a business or employee resource group, talk to that group. Ask what do you think we could do better? And what do you think is preventing women of color from applying for roles at this company?

I think the other thing to do is really to consider your hiring sources. So if you are finding that you’re getting the same profile of candidates each time, are you using diverse enough hiring sources? Could you be connecting with colleges or  through a different means? So really think about pushing your hiring sources and setting goals for your organization. You need to be pushing your teams to be bringing more diversity to the table, and I know it’s tough because we are in this incredibly talent-scarce market, but it’s really important to today’s candidates that you have an inclusive and diverse workforce. We see that in the research that we’re doing at Monster.

What advice would you give to a woman who’s hoping to advance in her career right now?

My first piece of advice would be to take a step back and think about your career like a job. Plan it. What are you good at? Ask other people, what do you think I’m good at? What are my strengths? What are the areas I could develop?  Then think about what you’re passionate about. Once you have done that, engage your manager and openly talk to them. Say, I want to move on, I want to progress. I want to do something different. This is what I think I’m good at. This is what we’ve talked about. What do you think?

We talk a lot about women supporting women, but we need allies, right? Allies of men and women.  Many men have been influential in my life and continue to be, and so I think it’s also about building that network of allies and mentors around you who can really help develop your confidence.

One of the things which I think a lot of women suffer from and I know that I’ve suffered from in my own life is impostor syndrome. We know that women are less likely to apply for a job unless they satisfy 100% of the criteria on the job description. Men are much more likely just to dive right in and say “I can do that.”

You need people around you who are going to give you that push and that confidence, so that when you’re not sure, you have that support network. Don’t try and look at job titles or think “I must be this by the time I’m 30 or 40 or 50” or whatever. Think about it as what you’re good at, what you enjoy, and how to create a plan around that. Work directly with your manager and build a support network around you because you often don’t see what other people see in terms of what your strengths are.

Explore how you can support women in the workforce

If you’re in a position to hire more women or support your current female employees, learn more tips and strategies to support women in the workforce.