In Employee Experience, What Is True No Matter What?

BY Katie Chambers | February 07, 2024

Katharyne Gabriel, chief of human resources, North America at the Coca-Cola Company, has fond childhood memories of heading to the McDonald’s drive-through window with her mother to enjoy a Diet Coke from the fountain “because it just tastes better.”

She’s not alone in this, she says. Most Coca-Cola employees have a strong connection with the brand. “We are very proud of our company’s purpose, which is to refresh the world and make a difference,” Gabriel said. “And there are many ways that we’re able to then draw from our employees and help them find connection to their career and the community.”

Since the lesson of recent years is that the workplace will be buffeted by one disruption after another, employers need to focus on fundamental values that resonate with workers in any season. In a fireside chat session at From Day One’s conference in Atlanta, Gabriel shared how the Coca-Cola Co. focuses on employee fulfillment.

Gabriel cites three tenets that hold true in elevating employee experience. The first is transparency, or employees feeling like they have full context for why and how certain decisions are being made. Next is autonomy, which Gabriel describes as allowing employees to make career decisions that benefit their personal professional growth and the lives of their families. Lastly is recognition: helping workers be appreciated for their individual identities as well as their workplace contributions.

Katharyne Gabriel, the Coca-Cola Co.'s chief of human resources, kicked off the conference in a fireside chat titled “In Employee Experience, What Is True No Matter What?” (photos by Dustin Chambers for From Day One)

These have been especially valuable during recent years, during which society has faced a pandemic, natural disasters, war, and economic recession. “No matter what is coming at us, how can we best serve our population?” Gabriel said. By focusing on core values like transparency, autonomy, and recognition, corporations can provide a steady foundation even in times of uncertainty.

A Practical Approach to Recognition

“Recognition and specificity around behaviors or goals, those are cultural icons for many companies, including the Coca-Cola company,” Gabriel said. “But [what’s also important is] broadening that definition so that my unique individuality is recognized.”

Coca-Cola’s Thrive Career Network is an example of employee engagement through a combination of recognition and career development. Gabriel says that the corporation’s values of transparency and autonomy are at the forefront of the program. “We’ve tried to be very transparent about the tools and the resources we have for each of us as employees to drive a career in the company,” she said.

They’re also focused on being clear about leadership behaviors that are especially important, she says. “We’ve put our employees in the driver’s seat with meaningful tools to help them effectively navigate what that career path looks like.”

Part of building out an individualized career path for an employee is updating the definition of growth. “We always hear growth, and think it means more–bigger title, bigger remit–and that isn’t what the growth aspiration is for everyone,” Gabriel said. Instead, she prefers the word “fulfillment.” This allows space for those interested in a more traditional vertical growth, but also those who see professional development as an opportunity to try out a new department, mentor others, or learn new skills.

Leroy Chapman, editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, interviewed Gabriel in the fireside chat

“We’ve started with broadening out how we define a career. How do we then make sure that we’re meeting individual needs and recognizing what they’re looking to get out of the Coca-Cola company?” Gabriel said. With 80,000 workers in their network, moderator Leroy Chapman, editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out, “That’s a lot of employees to support!”

Subsequently, that’s a lot of pressure to potentially put on managers hoping to guide and nurture their workforce. Gabriel shares that the company developed a set of manager tools that encourages leaders to facilitate conversations and think critically and creatively with team members about what they need to succeed. This strategy releases managers from feeling the need to have all the answers, but instead to simply be accountable for having the conversation to lead colleagues to the proper resources for their version of fulfillment.

Building a Culture Rooted in Diversity, Equity, and Belonging

“The 800,000 employees between the company and our bottling partners are dispersed in 200 markets across the globe. And we know it’s imperative that we represent the markets that we’re serving in order to stay in front of the consumer needs,” Gabriel said.

“We aim to create equal opportunities for our employees in order to meet that growth mission for the company.” This involves creating an inclusive environment in which employees are set up to bring their individual selves to the workplace and build a career that best serves themselves and their families.

Coca-Cola has the goal to become 50% female-led by the year 2030, Gabriel says. Already, its board of directors and executive leadership team have hit that benchmark, and its North America operating unit is being led by its first female president, Jennifer Mann. The company also hopes to soon have its own demographics in the U.S. reflect current racial and ethnic census data.

One way to cultivate a sense of belonging, especially in a workforce increasingly defined by a rift between older and younger workers, is through listening. “We’ve checked ourselves not to make assumptions about what the workforce entering wants or doesn’t want, and how different  they are from other generations. [Instead], we ask,” Gabriel said.

Coca-Cola works to instill its values in employees early, before they move into leadership roles. The organization is finding volunteerism is increasingly important among younger generations, and in return has increased its paid volunteer hours for employees and created a “Kindness is Refreshing” campaign. This spirit of generosity among younger employees is perfectly aligned with Coca-Cola’s values and bodes well for the company’s sustainability. “Coca-Cola has been at this for a long time, 137 years to be exact,” Gabriel said. “And we’re looking to live this purpose for another 137 years.”

Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.


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