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HR Expert: Shanyn Payne

09 February, 2017

This article by Kate LeGallez was originally published on Culture Amp.

Shanyn Payne’s HR career started at the cash register of her local supermarket. Today, she’s Executive Director, Human Resources at Online Education Services, an Australian business that has been recognized as an Aon Hewitt Best Employer for the last four years running and named ‘Best of the Best’ for 2017*.

She talked to us about what she’s learned about creating loyal employees, building a people-first organization from scratch and not resting on your laurels, particularly when it comes to pay equality.

Training ground

It was the industrial/organizational psychology unit of Payne’s psychology degree that first piqued her interest in HR. By the time she finished university, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in the field.

She spent time gaining invaluable generalist experience, both in HR roles and as a frontline manager, at Woolworths, a leading Australian supermarket chain, and in the retail pharmacy industry. But it was joining employment marketplace SEEK as a HR Consultant that has really defined her career. The SEEK environment and philosophy was a revelation to Payne after the high-pressure operational roles and tight cost constraints she encountered in retail.

Seeing the positive in people

“It was my first time working for a company that was truly, genuinely people first,” says Payne. “I often joke that SEEK made me a better person because I’d been trained in retail to always look for the negative. And SEEK was the exact opposite. All of SEEK’s policies and processes came from a position of seeing the positive in people first.”

She quickly saw how this approach brought out the best in people. “Seeing the positive in people first means that you can uncover so much gold,” she says. “You can end up finding brilliance in people; finding talent that may have been overlooked elsewhere.”

What’s more, she saw how this positivity was paid back by SEEK’s people and how it affected her own outlook. “You end up with a really good trust relationship. You end up with a loyal employee,” she explained. “As a person too, you walk away from your job feeling like you’ve made the world a better place because you’ve helped an individual, but you’ve also been able to help the business. It’s just such a rewarding thing to do.”

Recruiting a people-first CEO

In 2011, SEEK, together with Swinburne University, launched Online Education Services (OES). Payne was trekking in Nepal at the time and when she finally had reception, there was a voice message waiting for her, asking her to lead the HR direction for the new venture.

Among the first decisions the new OES team had to make was appointing a CEO. But before they started looking, the team sat down to work out what kind of business they were creating. “We knew that the purpose of the business was to change the lives of people through education,” says Payne.

When it came to building the culture to support this, Payne wanted to avoid trying to be too many different things. The steering group quickly honed in on the two pillars they wanted to build their culture around: people and service. These key decisions determined the CEO qualities they were looking for and led them to Denice Pitt.

The importance of being vigilant

One of the important lessons that Payne learned from Pitt was to scrutinize every single action they took to make sure it aligned with what they were setting out to do in creating a people-focused, service-focused company.

It’s an approach that Payne and her team continue to adhere to. She’s used it to assess a new seating plan to make sure all the executives weren’t sitting together on one level, wanting to avoid creating an unspoken barrier between them and the rest of the organization. It’s also the reason they adopted a discretionary sick leave policy that doesn’t limit sick leave to a set number of days, but will expand to cover all genuine circumstances requiring leave.

Her vigilance has also served her well in making sure that OES has pay parity across genders. In this space, it means ensuring they have both the remuneration principles and processes in place to constantly scrutinize pay decisions.

Empowering conversations around compensation

She’s put policies in place around conducting pay review audits and keeping tabs on out-of-cycle pay increases to make sure gaps don’t emerge, but she’s also hypervigilant about how cultural norms around pay discussions are established.

“With every single person, and especially females, that come to me with a question around salary increases or bonuses, I make it my mission to make sure they have a really comfortable conversation,” she says.

Payne recalls a recent conversation with a young woman who’d just resigned after securing her dream job, but came to Payne to ask if she was still entitled to her bonus. Payne knew they’d never done this before. “But instead of saying to her, ‘no, you’ve left, bad luck.’ I said, ‘It’s fantastic that you’d bring this to me, good on you for asking the question,” explains Payne. She then helped the woman put together a business case for receiving her bonus. “The answer ended up being no,” says Payne. “But I hope that she now walks away feeling more empowered to have discussions around remuneration in the future.”

Payne carries this same level of awareness to all decisions, pay is just the beginning. And  she doesn’t plan on changing her ways any time soon. “Now that we’re six years old and a AU$100 million revenue business, we still scrutinise everything,” she says. “Before we make a decision, we say, ‘is that actually aligned with our values, is that aligned with our purpose? Let’s make sure we’re sending the right messages.’”

*article updated to include recent award