UKG’s Heather Geronemus on Turning Company Values into Action to Support Employees and Their Communities

Editor’s note: This interview is the first in Building Brand Resilience, a new blog series examining the reputational issues facing high-growth tech companies and the strategies they’re using to navigate the new era of corporate accountability.

Employees today are in search of more than their next role; they’re looking for an employer who holds strong values and is not afraid to act on them.

Organizations are navigating new hiring challenges—call it “The Great Resignation,” call it a labor shortage, call it what you will—what is clear is that they have to rethink their talent strategies to appeal to and engage with candidates. At the same time, candidates are less limited by geography, have more offers on the table, and are using that power to hold companies accountable to their stated values.

In this landscape, corporate reputation has become more important than ever before. Values cannot be just a page on a website. They must manifest in both an organization’s internal practices and external actions. Candidates expect businesses to walk the talk through community engagement and investment, thought leadership, workplace culture, advocacy and more. 

HR and workforce management solutions provider UKG has built an authentic reputation that maps back to its corporate internal and external values through numerous initiatives. I sat down recently with Heather Geronemus, UKG’s director of corporate affairs and corporate social responsibility, for her advice on how companies can turn values statements into authentic action to make a meaningful impact on their people and their communities. What follows is an edited version of our conversation:

What are UKG’s core values?

UKG was created right at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, after a merger between Ultimate Software and Kronos Incorporated. Merging during a pandemic was challenging, to say the least, but we pressed on to bring two companies with amazing cultures and values together. When developing the UKG set of values, we didn’t want to just rehash existing values from Ultimate and Kronos. We wanted UKG’s values to be true to what we intend to accomplish in our goal to be the world’s best people company.

Over several months, we had a cross-functional team focus on developing our values—even conducting surveys and focus groups with our employees, customers, and executives, to ensure our values rang true to UKG and our people. The values we chose are United, Kind and Growing. United was immediately important and continues to be as we navigate our merger and build our new, intentional culture. We’re all working toward the same goals, whether we’re collaborating in the office or remotely all over the globe.

Kind speaks for itself. It’s the way we treat our colleagues, our customers, our partners and our communities. Our CEO Aron Ain modeled kindness from the beginning. When the pandemic started, he sent videos to all of our employees to ‘check in’ regularly, provide updates about the merger, and encourage self-care, reminding UKG employees to take care of themselves, take naps, spend time with their families, whatever they needed to balance life and work. 

Growing encompasses our goal of achieving revenue goals while continuing to deliver the best products and services in our market and bringing on the best talent. We’ve already hit on several of our business goals in just our first year as UKG. We’ve hired more than 2,000 people since the merger! We debuted at #6 on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, marking the first time a merged company made the list in its first year. We have very ambitious goals moving forward, and we know we can reach them together if we remain United, are always Kind to one another, and focus on success through Growth.

“During the pandemic, the question became: How do we help our people? How are we going to support the families of the people who keep us strong?”

How did those values impact UKG’s pandemic response?

Our values were the foundation for our Employee Relief Fund, something I’m very proud of that’s completely unique to UKG. In the past, we’ve responded to national disasters with the question: How can we help our communities? During the pandemic, the question became: How do we help our people? How are we going to support the families of the people who keep us strong?

Our answer was to start the Employee Relief Fund, a grant program to support UKG employees and their families who have been impacted by COVID-19 and other disasters. That became the PeopleInspired Giving Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that provides direct financial relief to UKG employees in need, such as a spouse who lost their job during the pandemic.

I’m proud to say the foundation has provided more than $325,000 in grants to over 100 employees and their families. The foundation is funded by donations from our employees at all levels, our company and our investors. This started as a pandemic relief effort, and has since become a permanent part of UKG.

How does UKG live up to its values within the organization as well as externally?

When Kronos and Ultimate merged, our goal was to blend the best policies and programs within both organizations. For example, we extended both organizations’ benefits to the entire workforce of 13,000 employees. This includes covering 100% of healthcare premiums for employees, spouses, domestic partners and eligible dependents; paid maternity, paternity, and adoptive leave, including financial assistance for those who adopt; coverage of IVF treatments; a student loan reimbursement program; and unlimited paid time off; among other benefits. It was a tremendous investment but one we knew was necessary in order to live up to our values and take care of our people. 

Externally, living our values has meant continuing to support our communities even when opportunities like hands-on volunteering and event sponsorship are limited during the pandemic. With so many in-person nonprofit events canceled in the last year, many nonprofit organizations had to return sponsorship funds that had been donated.

UKG told nonprofits to keep the sponsorship funds and use the money wherever it was needed most. We also continue to invest in the communities where we have a strong presence, like Lowell, Massachusetts, and throughout South Florida, and we have donation-matching campaigns for people impacted by tragedies like the California wildfires.

“Corporate social responsibility should be intentional and authentic. It should be driven by what people believe in, rather than what might make the business look good.”

What are some organizational pitfalls that can create a gap between values and actions?

One major mistake is making a bold statement or commitment without backing it up. Corporate social responsibility should be intentional and authentic. It should be driven by what people believe in, rather than what might make the business look good. You should set goals you intend to achieve.

The most effective and authentic actions start from a place of caring and a commitment to take care of an organization’s people. Every employee can be empowered to be part of the solution and shape those values. It’s not about corporate reputation, it’s about authenticity.

Do you have advice for smaller organizations looking to make an impact on their people and their communities?

Corporate social initiatives can seem intimidating or out of reach for smaller companies. It’s important not to be discouraged and to level-set based on reasonable expectations. Not every organization can give millions of dollars a year to nonprofits. But every company has something to give, whether it’s time or expertise or financial contribution. Anyone can be a philanthropist. It’s okay to start small and take incremental steps.