Episode 4: Supporting Employees in Turbulent Times

Listen as host Rodney Bolden talks with Cheryl Palmerini, Chief Administrative Officer for Global Human Resources, about helping employees face challenges.

Invested at Work Podcast

Episode 4: Supporting Employees in Turbulent Times


Cheryl: The biggest things I feel like we have to do right now is engage our employees, listen to them, provide feedback, empower our managers, and ensure that they're not just managing, but they are leading as well.

Rodney: You have challenges and you're looking for solutions, and that's especially true for workplace financial benefits. Your employees have their own set of life goals, entrust you to help them along their financial path. What makes a difference? How you support them through inevitable economic changes.

I'm Rodney Bolden, vice president Morgan Stanley at Work Financial Wellness. On this podcast, we'll talk about all things related to financial benefits and how we can provide your organization with clarity and financial empowerment.

When we say that we're living through turbulent times, this means something different to everyone. In the workplace, most employees have a vision of their role and future financial plans, but this can be rocked by shifting market dynamics and constant change. So how can you help ensure that your employees feel like they're standing on solid financial ground? 

I'm here with Cheryl Palmerini, the Chief Administrative Officer for Global Human Resources at Morgan Stanley. For the better part of 20 years, Cheryl has been helping people navigate the ups and downs of a changing industry. We're going to share the biggest lessons we've seen emerge from turbulent times in the past to help you give that knowledge and stability to your employees today.

This is Invested at Work. Thinking about the past two decades, and I know you've been in HR for a little while now, we've had a lot of different challenges in different eras. So thinking about, say, the Great Recession, the financial crisis, all the way up to the current pandemic, I'd love to hear your perspectives because sometimes people forget that not only are you an HR person, but you're an employee. So both as an employee as well as from an HR person, what were some lessons learned? What were some things, some challenges that you experienced?

Cheryl: There are two very specific examples that come to mind when I think about my career over the course 20 plus years in HR. Number one at Morgan Stanley, I was in HR when we did an acquisition of Smith Barney, and that was a trying time. It was 2008, 2009, and the financial crisis was in full effect at that point in time, and there was a lot of uncertainty.

I think one of the biggest things I learned personally in that experience was I could only control what I could control. And so I put my head down and I did the best I could do with what I had to offer. 

It all worked out, and it worked out the way it was supposed to, now when I look back on that time, it was probably one of the best points of my career because I learned the most and it was a great opportunity from a career perspective.

The other example we're all fresh out of, COVID and the pandemic. I was newly back in HR from a role I had done in the business, newly back from maternity leave when COVID hit, so it was a very trying time for me trying to balance being a new mom, my firstborn, and really feeling the effects of yes, I'm an HR person and yes, I'm leading the organization through this, but I'm a person and I have my family needs.

You layer on top of that, I had a team of employees that were supporting the employees at Morgan Stanley and I had to be thinking about their mental health. And so really balancing my needs, the needs of the employees at large, and then the needs of the HR employees, which was very different. We were having in HR different conversations than we ever were previously. You can't touch health questions and those sorts of things, but in a time like this, it was really necessary to help ensure people had the support that they needed.

My biggest lesson learned in that was, I guess, a couple of things. Number one, HR people are people too, and they're employees too, and they needed the support and they needed someone or someplace they felt like they could go, that the firm cared and was supporting them, number one. Number two, you cannot communicate enough, especially in a time like that. I had people come to me saying, "You're saying the same thing over and over again." And I said, "Yeah, but that's what people need to hear, the same thing over and over again so that it really resonates." 

Rodney: For a lot of HR professionals, HR leads, stock plan admins and plan sponsors, they didn't have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and not running towards the crisis.

Cheryl: That's right.

Rodney: So hats off to all of you for doing that.

Cheryl: Thank you. Now let's come present day, economic turmoil right now, labor disruptions. If I'm an employee and I am in this day and age, I may be looking at my 401(k) and seeing, gee, the value is not what it used to be. If I own equity compensation through an employee stock purchase plan or I get equity compensation as part of my overall compensation, I may be looking at the value of my company's stock and saying, "Ooh, it's not what it used to be." 

How do you help employees navigate through some of the current challenges with their finances and in the current economic environment, especially when looking at workplace financial benefits?

What I have learned with my work in employee experience during these times is workplace financial wellness can no longer be just for the top of the house. And so you look back at most recent, the Great Resignation to add another turbulent time. Employees now more than ever are really trying to think about what's the value prop for me to stay at this firm?

I think financial wellness has to be at the core, from a mental health perspective, has to be the core of the stability for the employee. That's the number one thing that they think of when they're working. What is my compensation, how am I investing for my future, and what does that look like longer term for my family? By the way, I don't know them all, and so I need an expert to be able to go to or a place to go to say, "What's available, and what makes sense for my family?"

Rodney: You said the workplace financial benefits that employers offer can be that help to employees during these times, but they don't know. How do you help them learn what you have to offer and what you're providing that can assist them in economic times such as what we're going through right now? 

Cheryl: Number one is listening. I think most companies have some sort of a survey, and to me that's just the tip of the iceberg. That should be table stakes. But really creating spaces for employees to provide feedback and input for them around what's working and what's not. I think we all do a very good job of putting things up on a site and allowing for folks to navigate them. But for me, and what I've learned with employee experience, is meeting employees in moments that matter to them, when they matter to them.

So what does that look like? I've recently had a child, what does that look like? College savings. And the list goes on, I'm saving for a home, I'm refinancing, whatever it might be. Packaging the benefits in a way that it's easier for employees to understand and resonate with what they're going through.

I think historically we've all done a great job of putting things up and saying, "Okay, I'm going to communicate to all employees that were now doing this program," but if it's a program around refinancing your home and you don't yet own a home, guess what? You probably don't care. And so you're going to file that away. And then when that that time comes, you're going to go, "Wait, what do we have and where do I find it?" Or maybe even forget that the benefit exists.

And so how are you truly identifying the moments that matter for folks when they matter and hitting them with the full suite of benefits, whether that be financial or otherwise, so that it resonates with them and they feel like, wow, my firm's really doing something for me rather than expecting them to just find everything. 

Rodney: Any best practices you want to share on conducting an employee survey that's going to be effective and get the type of feedback that is actionable?

Cheryl: Yes. A couple of things. One, it's all in the way you ask the questions. It starts in the very front. You want to make sure the questions you ask are actionable, they are actually getting at the heart of what you can do with it. That's number one.

Number two, I would also layer on focus groups where you're having conversations. I actually think you get more out of the focus groups. I think the survey is you get a very good baseline, especially if it's a large company, you get a good idea of what people are thinking. I think focus groups are a really nice way to layer those on. However, you have to be careful of who's moderating those focus groups. It really shouldn't be HR because people are going to think, oh, well, what's going on here and why are we doing this? I think business leaders, that's number two.

Number three, really ensuring the diversity of the folks that you're doing those focus groups with. I don't just mean ethnic or gender, I also mean age, I mean background to ensure that you're really fostering a good conversation. 

Lastly, but probably most importantly is feeding what you're hearing and what the action plans are back to employees. Was my time worth it? Did they hear me? Do they care? And be honest with that. There are some things that you're going to hear that you're going to say, "This is not a priority for us," and I think that's okay. But at least saying, "We heard you, and right now our focus is here." I think if people feel like they're heard and the time they took to take the survey was useful, they'll feel really good about providing feedback.

Rodney: One key thing I want to reiterate is providing that information back to the employees, because I've certainly seen, and I've been in situations where you provide feedback about the organization and you feel like it went into the ether somewhere.

Cheryl: That's right, some black hole.

Rodney: Yeah. And you don't see any follow-up actions to confirm it, what the concerns you expressed were actually heard and someone took action. 

Cheryl: By the way, I would even take it one step further for the people you did the focus groups for, gathering them back together. Maybe it doesn't need to be the exact focus group at the same, but even doing a separate session with all of those folks to say, "Thank you for taking the hour out of your time. Let me talk to you about the key things that we heard. Let me talk to you about the action plans."

The other thing I would do is if you're the moderator and you've got someone sitting around the table who's clearly really passionate about a topic or really upset about a topic, mark that down and follow up with that person one-on-one later. It doesn't have to be the next day, it doesn't have to be the same week, but make sure those folks feel heard. Thank you for your time. I understand that was really frustrating. I'm really going to take that away and see what we can do about it, or let me get you to the right place that can help ease your concerns.

I think things like that go a long way. And we have to remember those experiences for those employees will spread. So they're going to talk to not only their colleagues, but people outside the firm. I work for a great place, they listen to me. People want to feel heard.

Rodney: Yeah. You're right, they're going to become that ambassador. I can see that. 

Cheryl: Both internally and externally.

Rodney: Exactly. Exactly.

Cheryl: We need to scale.

Rodney: Yeah. And speaking about trying to get people to come to your organization, right now we're in an interesting time because you have some industries that are downsizing, but at the same time you have some industries, like in healthcare, that have severe workforce shortages. 

Can you talk a little bit and provide a little of your perspective, because I'm sure having been in HR for 20 years, you've been in both situations? How do you deal with that? What are some things that you can offer to our audience? We hear other terms like quiet quitting and quiet promotion. And so employees are disengaging because they're concerned about their future or they've taken on more responsibility because the workforce is less than what it had been.

Cheryl: Look, on the quiet quitting, quiet promoting, it really comes back to listening and actioning at the end feedback. Are we recognizing the right folks? Do we have folks who are disengaged? Why are they disengaged? I think we have a tendency to say, "Oh, they're disengaged. They're on their way out," or, "They're not performing well, they're not the right fit." That's not always the case. Disengaging could be not performing well, and maybe they are in the wrong place. They're in the wrong role. So really engaging those folks where it makes sense for your goals.

I would say on the, we've got some industries who are downsizing, and then we've got industries that just can't find people, to me, this could be a little bit of a diversity play. It is human nature when we are looking for talent for a specific job to dip into the same talent pools we have. Where are our competitors? Who's working there? What kind of talent do they have? Are they willing to come here?

What that does is it actually insulates the function and it doesn't allow for diversity of thought. And so I do think all of us, regardless of industry, need to do a better job of thinking more creatively about the types of skills we need for the job, not the pedigree we need for the job. Those are two different things to me. If we start to think a little bit differently about the skills we need, could we open ourselves up to other candidate pools, other locations, other industries to hire folks into? 

I do think that that could actually make for a better experience for your clients if you're having that diversity of thought. Obviously there are carve outs where you have to have special accreditations or hold special licensing like nurses or whatever, but how are we thinking differently about the management of those roles, the support of those roles or onboarding opportunities to get people to get those accreditations that are not from the same background where we always hire from?

I would challenge the places that are feeling that they're at a deficit, are you truly thinking creatively, strategically about the talent you need, where you're looking for them? Are you being honest about the skillset that you truly need? And can you think a little bit differently to get more diversity of thought in the door to make that a that much better experience for your client, whomever your clients are?

Rodney: Let's talk about the role of a manager when it comes to workplace financial benefits, because we talked earlier about employees are just not aware of everything that's available, and even at times when they may need it, they may not know it's there.

Cheryl: Well, this comes back to the program that we're working on around employee experience and moments that matter so that it is easier for folks to find. I'm buying my first home, I go on, I click on buying my first home, and it lists all the benefits that the firm has to offer in buying your first home. Or a manager could go there and say, "Let me educate myself so that I can help support this employee." I do think managers just have to take a more active role in an employee's full life. Gone are the days of there's this line between personal and professional. I mean, it's really blurred now. 

Rodney: Absolutely. When we've seen everyone's living rooms and homes on Zoom-

Cheryl: And dogs and cats.

Rodney: ... and dogs and cats and little babies.

Cheryl: I actually think it's wonderful. I really do. I mean, I am a very empathetic leader and I want to know about those things, and I want to share those things about myself because I'm a person and I want them to know that I'm not expecting them. If they need to go drop their kids off at school, I'm not expecting them to be on 24/7. We all have lives and I trust that they're getting their jobs done. 

I recognize that not every industry can provide that level of flexibility. But where you can, I do think it's important. And I do think that's why there's a difference between managers and leaders. Leaders have that empathetic arm. Leaders understand the right questions to ask without overstepping. So really communicating, engaging folks.

Again, with the line of personal and business being really blurred, gone are the days where managers stop asking questions when they get to, "How's your workload? You're good? Okay, great. Thanks so much." Employees are expecting more. Engage more. How's the workload going? How's the hybrid going? Tell me more about how you're feeling about your job. What can I do to help you? Really opening those lines of communication.

Rodney: You referred to the My Experience Program. Tell me a little bit more about that and how that helps employees with their mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and financial wellbeing.

Cheryl: I think this anxiety is actually coming off of the heels of the Great resignation for a couple of reasons. Number one, if you did move during the Great Resignation, you're now in a new role and you're probably sitting around a lot of people who are also new and can't provide the level of direction that you need. If you didn't move during the Great Resignation, you might be regretting it and saying, "Should I have?" or at least wondering if you made the right decision. 

We created a program called My Experience. What My Experience does is it looks around the entire firm at all of the benefits and support we provide employees regardless of what department it sits in, HR, corporate services, technology, financial wellbeing, across the gamut. What we're looking to do is number one, first and foremost, organize all the information in a way that resonates with employees.

For example, you don't have to know to go to this department to get this information. Employees don't care what department is creating it. They just want the information. So number one, we organized all of those benefits in four pillars that resonate with employees, my career, my workplace, my wellbeing, and my culture.

The next phase that we're going into now we're calling moments that matter, and this is coming back to how are we organizing the benefits in moments that matter for employees and hitting them when it matters for employees? What does that mean? I'd love to be able to use AI to identify when somebody becomes a manager of people for the first time.

Instead of them having to go and dig and find out are their financial wellbeing program benefits, what kind of training should I be offering my employees, how do we do compensation, how do we do year-end reviews, that person we can see systematically when somebody becomes a manager for the first time. Wouldn't it be really nice within a week that we just deliver up a congratulations on becoming a manager, these are all the things that you need to know now being a leader? Where do you go for these things? 

I think another great example is I'm returning from parental leave. How do I talk to my manager about the flexibility I need? How do I engage in college savings? How do I sign my child up for benefits? All of those things, wouldn't it be great if we just sent one thing to employees and said, "Congratulations, here are all the things that you need to know and you're probably thinking about that your firm has to offer you."

This is a way to show employees we do think of them, we do care about what their experience is. We are listening. At the end of the day, we are listening. And look, everybody listening to this knows this, we don't work on these benefits for fun. We want people to use them. And so how do we get that traction is really important.

Rodney: Absolutely, those moments that matter. And I think about delivering financial education at some of those key points. You talked about the new parent and thinking about college savings, but also raising a money savvy child.

Cheryl: I even think about when you get deferred compensation for the first time, when you get options for the first time, what does that mean? What does that look like? How should I be planning for that? There are so many points in an employee's life cycle that we really can be proactively coming to them and just showing them what we have as opposed to assuming they're coming to look for it. 

Rodney: Because it is part of family planning.

Cheryl: 100%. 100%. I also think them realizing the firm is thinking of them in those moments. This is again, with the blurred lines of personal and professional. How are you thinking about your family? It's critical. Actually, it's table stakes now. Again, back to employees really rethinking what their value proposition is to stay at the firm they're at.

Rodney: Yeah. When you see surveys around best employers to work for, you always hear coming out of those surveys, employees describe that employer as they feel like part of the family. They feel like they care not just about providing them with a paycheck, but also providing them with a means to support their family and advance their family towards its financial goals.

Cheryl: That's 100% right. 

Rodney: What are some of the key lessons learned, takeaways that you want to share with our HR leads, stock plan admins, and plan sponsors that can help them navigate these current turbulent times?

Cheryl: The biggest things I feel like we have to do right now is engage our employees, listen to them, provide feedback, empower our managers, and ensure that they're not just managing, but they are leading as well.

Rodney: . Cheryl, one final question. Tell me, when you think about work, what gets you out of bed in the morning, happy, excited to get to work? In other words, what makes you invested at work?

Cheryl: I am invested at work because I feel challenged. I truly enjoy the people I work with. What that means is I feel like I can be honest with them and have honest dialogues and debates most importantly. But I think at the end of the day, the ultimate is that I love what I do. I think if you love what you do, success will follow you. It truly will. I don't think you have to look as hard for success if you're just having fun and you're enjoying what you're doing and you're making an impact. 

Rodney: That's perfect. Cheryl, thank you for joining me today.

Cheryl: Thank you for having me. This was fun.

This material has been prepared for educational purposes only.

Morgan Stanley at Work services are provided by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, member SIPC, and/or its affiliates, all wholly owned subsidiaries of Morgan Stanley.

©2023 Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC.  Member SIPC.    

CRC#5633741    (04/2023)

You have challenges and you’re looking for solutions. And that’s especially true for workplace financial benefits. Your employees have their own set of life goals and trust you to help them along their path. What makes a difference - how you support them through inevitable economic changes.


On this podcast, we’ll talk about what we’ve learned and how you can provide your organization with some much-appreciated clarity and education around workplace financial benefits. What’s one constant in life? Change. Cheryl Palmerini, Chief Administrative Officer for Global Human Resources for Morgan Stanley, has been helping employees navigate challenging times and changing markets for the better part of 20 years. Throughout it all, she’s picked up strategies to help employees feel like they’re on solid financial ground—even when they’re facing headwinds.

In this episode, Cheryl and host Rodney Bolden, Vice President Financial Wellness, discuss the importance of having strong workplace financial benefits in place and communicating about them effectively, particularly in times of stress. They also cover how surveys can be a tool for listening, how companies can proactively provide resources to support employees at key points in their lives—both inside and outside of work—and how managers can become leaders (hint: there’s power in empathy!). 


This is Invested at Work. Listen in. 

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