Connecting People to Purpose

Paloma Thombley, VP of People and Elizabeth Cherner, Employee Experience Manager share how Handshake supports its employees with thoughtfully crafted benefits, opportunities for connection and how the People team empowers individuals to realize their career goals.

The first few faces you’ll see when you join Handshake are Haelin Kim and Elizabeth Cherner. They’re on the people team, guiding the onboarding and employee experience for new hires, meeting them where they are, and connecting them to their teammates within the organization. 

“It’s an honor, truly,” Elizabeth says. “Getting to see every single person and putting on a Handshake smile for them and welcoming them in a warm way is something that’s been really special.” 

Handshake’s VP of People, Paloma Thombley, leads the team, which spends its time making employees feel safe, supported, and empowered. Elizabeth’s and Paloma’s work is all about connection—connecting needs to solutions, identities to communities, talent to opportunity, and people to purpose.

We talked with Paloma and Elizabeth about how Handshake supports its employees with thoughtfully crafted benefits, opportunities for connection, and how the People Team empowers individuals to realize their career goals.

What does the People Team do at Handshake?

Paloma: We make sure that employees are onboarded, that they have everything they need to be effective, that they’re excited about working here, and that they understand how their work connects to the mission. We also help them understand how they can grow in their careers.

Your team is growing really fast, just like Handshake as a whole. How has this helped the People Team better support the Handshake employees?

Paloma: We’ve gotten to be more nuanced on our swim lanes. For example, Elizabeth has been able to carve out the employee experience function, which is the area that, I think, has the most impact on our ability to engage and retain our employees and make sure they understand what it means to be at Handshake. 

What do you spend your time working on, Paloma?

Paloma: I’m figuring out: How does our team scale? How do we continue to support Handshake in the ways we think are most valuable? How do we make sure that people coming into the organization understand what it feels like from a culture perspective? 

People need to be able to trust our systems, have their questions answered, and get what they need to be successful in their roles.

How does the People Team support Handshake’s mission of democratizing opportunity?

Paloma: We help people orient themselves and figure out what they need to do to get them where they want to go. 

All the programs and materials we create for people as they go through the onboarding experience or get involved with our Communities connect them to our mission.

Our team is also involved in creating initiatives and programs that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So many of the students that use Handshake are from groups underrepresented in the industries they’re a part of. They use Handshake to get access to things that they would not have necessarily had access to before based on their school or location. The same is true of our own teams. At Handshake, we have a lot of people who switch industries and come over from education, for example, and have never worked in tech. Our goal is to ease that transition so you understand who we are and feel like you can come in and contribute your skills towards what we are building here.

What’s a specific goal or project that you’re working on right now?

Elizabeth: We just finished the onboarding refresh, which is something that is going to be really impactful. Haelin has been instrumental in moving this forward. We not only changed all of the content we’re offering, but we also changed the forms that folks are receiving the content in, trying to make the experiences a lot more engaging because we’re now in this virtual environment. 

In addition to content adjustments, we also lengthened the onboarding process to a weeklong event, rather than one-day, which will immerse new hires in more of the business from the start. Beyond that, we moved to a bi-weekly new hire cadence, with a goal of ensuring deeper cultural connections and an overall stronger programmatic impact by bringing on larger cohorts. Joining a company virtually can make it hard to pick up the nuances of a company and understand how to navigate to get what you need to do your best work. 

This revamp allows us to focus on giving new hires the tools they need to understand who we are, what we do, and how they can fit into the bigger picture. 

How has Handshake adapted its working style as a result of the pandemic?

Paloma: The biggest one is that we used to be a company that was predominantly in person,  but now we’re quite distributed, so we’re focusing on creating inclusive practices to ensure that however you choose to work, in our offices, your home office, or a variation of both, you are supported, and your team can continue delivering results.

The team is also more thoughtful and intentional about how we communicate with each other and how we document our communications and decision-making. 

Elizabeth: Additionally, pre-COVID, there wasn’t anything that brought the company together in a virtual setting except for a company-wide All-Hands meeting.

The first event that we planned when we went remote was a Talent Show. We know everyone brings more to the table than their title and their job skills. So we decided to kick this off as a reminder of our values, that we are Empowered by Diversity, and that celebrating our unique skills/talents will bring us closer as a distributed team.

It’s amazing to think the first thing that we pulled off was asking people to get up in front of hundreds of coworkers to perform a talent—and it happened to be incredibly successful! That event got the ball rolling on connecting virtually, and we just hosted our third-annual show— they continue to be more and more successful.

We’re still figuring out how to bring people back together in person and have those connection points, but it is important that we maintain this virtual environment that we’ve created. On that note, something else you’ll see is our incredibly active virtual Slack space, which we use both as async work related communication, a space for our Communities to connect and discuss topics important to them, and as a purely social space. It’s really neat to feel genuinely connected to folks via this tool when not spending a lot of time together in person. 

How did Handshake expand its benefits to better support employees in the last two years?

Elizabeth: We try to provide relevant and timely benefits to what is happening in the lives of our employees and the world overall. The first thing we made sure of was to ensure people were set up to be able to work in a remote environment. We implemented a work-from-home stipend. After employees are sent the device that they need for their role, they have the option to spend $500 on things that are going to make their space more comfortable. The goal was to be less prescriptive in the equipment folks were receiving and instead ensure that they had access to funds to set their space up in a way that would allow them to be most effective/productive.

We also have a variety of time off policies; for example, outside of our general Flexible Time Off, we offer COVID Caretaker Time Off and Volunteer Time Off, which we adapted as a direct response to the macro environment and what has transpired over the past two+ years. 

We have two periods of Collective Company Time-Off, one week in July and another week in December. We acknowledge that the lines between work and home have become more blurry than ever before, and we recognize for many of our employees, this also means increased rates of overworking and burnout. We believe employees perform at their best when work is a meaningful part of their life, not their whole life. So, this dedicated time off allows the entire company to unplug on the same schedule twice a year and allows us to support our employees in taking the rest they need.

We have also implemented Handshake’s Sabbatical Program, where all full-time employees who have been at Handshake for at least four years are eligible for a four-week paid sabbatical (plus an additional week if one of the weeks is spent volunteering). Lastly, one of our newer policies is Holiday Time Off (HTO), which was introduced to recognize the importance of diverse national origins, faiths, and traditions. It is important for us to give employees the time and space to celebrate their own cultures while working here, so we separated this from our flexible time off policy to ensure that people can actually be offline when it’s most important to them. 

How does Handshake help employees take care of their mental health and well-being?

Elizabeth: We’ve created a lot of resources around mental health. Resources such as “How to Find a Therapist,” for example, plus a clear breakdown of what our insurance plans offer and how employees can use their pre-tax funds.

I also personally partner with our Mental Health Community to create thoughtful programming for Mental Health Awareness Month. In previous years, we offered a book stipend for folks who may want to read up on things related to mental health. We also host an annual Wellness Week each fall, specifically during our busy back-to-school season, to ensure that folks have the space to prioritize their mental wellness when our business is at its busiest. 

Paloma: We try to meet our communities where they need it. We connect with Community leads to ensure they’re getting a pulse of how their community members are doing, especially regarding mental health.

Our employee community, Wakanda, for employees of Black or African descent, is a group where we’ve had a lot of discussions about how to create spaces and opportunities and resources that provide mental health resources to the Black community. We approach situations in a nuanced way so that not everybody gets the same thing but that we provide resources that help people in the most useful ways.

I’d also add, another way we seek to take care of our employees well-being includes compensating our community leaders. We’ve intentionally created a Employee Community Lead compensation policy, designed to recognize our community leaders’ high-impact work and advocacy. In addition to their base salary, each employee community lead will receive a quarterly $1,500 cash bonus. We believe this is an important step in recognizing those leading our employee communities to ensure that they feel supported and appreciated for the added responsibilities and emotional labor that comes with their role. 

Career growth is top of mind for job seekers right now. How do you empower Handshake employees to build the careers they want?

Paloma: We give people access to various resources so they can choose what best fits their needs, availability, and bandwidth. It’s really up to you to define what you need to get to the next step of your career.

We firmly believe that it’s not up to a manager to define someone’s career trajectory for them. We want people to have a sense of ownership, so we provide the tools, resources, and opportunities to get you from here to there—similar to how Handshake supports students using our platform. 

For example, we offer every employee a $2,000-per-year learning stipend for professional development to be used toward conferences, coursework, participation in professional development organizations, certifications, etc. 

Our Learn Grow Repeat program, which is our learning and development program, focuses on giving people the tools and resources to drive their own career growth. 

We have a partnership with Strive, which does management development training. People interested in moving into management, or going into management within a year, go through this training to build a foundation before taking on direct reports. 

We also work with a company called Reforge, which is geared toward product design, engineering, and marketing roles. It’s a career development opportunity with coursework and cohorts.

What’s one characteristic you’ll find working at Handshake that you won’t find working at another employer?

Elizabeth: Passion. I’m surrounded by people who care more deeply about their work than any company I’ve ever been at. The caliber of humans here blows me away daily. 

Paloma: Intentionality. People here are very thoughtful and purposeful about the decisions we make. We’re very aware of how even tiny decisions can impact students’ trajectory, so we have a group of people who are intentional and thoughtful about how they proceed, and how they weigh everything that goes into making decisions, which I love. We don’t take decisions lightly. 

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