This story has been updated to include insights on the current COVID-19 outbreak.
Karen Niovitch Davis is a seasoned human resources professional with more than 20 years of experience in the financial-services sector, where she has helped guide and design strategic planning and execution for a number of firms, with an emphasis on HR, talent recruitment, employee retention and cultural development.
In 2012, Davis joined Prosek Partners, a global company specializing in financial public relations, where she currently serves as partner and CHRO. Previously, she was director of human resources at Third Avenue Management/MJ Whitman, where she established, built and managed the HR function. Prior to that, Davis was at Moore Capital Management, where she was responsible for recruitment, program development, performance management, compensation and training for the investment professionals and trading teams.
Davis spent the majority of her career with Morgan Stanley, where she served as a vice president with global responsibility. She had various responsibilities throughout her tenure, including global management of the HR function for the firm’s Equity Research Division. She also headed the campus-recruiting programs for the sales, trading and research divisions and helped develop the firm’s campus recruiting strategy for China.
HRE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your job?
Davis: Given the rapid speed at which things have evolved, my days have been about constantly pivoting to what is most important for our employees and our clients at any given moment. Before this, I was on a tight and prescheduled day where I would have 10-12 meetings and calls booked; now, we are in constant triage mode dealing with the issue of the moment and a schedule doesn’t really exist. I also used to do calls most of the time, whereas now we are using Zoom video to stay connected. This has been one of the positive developments of this crisis situation—we are connecting personally now more than ever before, and I would say our culture is even stronger.
HRE: What lasting impacts do you think the outbreak will be for the HR function?
Davis: There is no doubt in my mind that this global “work-from-home” experiment will have a lasting impact on how people feel about the concept overall. In some ways, I expect that employees will reflect on this and say that their productivity was just as good as when they were in the office and that they will ask for more flexibility. That being said, and inversely, many employees have told me that being forced to work from home has been a challenging experience, and more than ever they wish they could be in the office.
HRE: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Davis: I wanted to be a Broadway star. Throughout high school, I was the star of quite a few musicals. I actually was admitted to my college, Binghamton University, on a special talent application for vocal music, but I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t what I was going to pursue.
HRE: Do you still do anything in that realm?
Davis: I do karaoke. I’m good at parties, but that’s about it.
HRE: What was the worst job you ever had?
Davis: Paying bills at an insurance company. It was the most boring job because there was no human interaction. It was literally looking at bills, making sure they were paid, talking to nobody. I think I lasted one semester.
HRE: Going from a job where you had no human interaction to a career in human resources, what drew you to the HR profession?
Davis: At my school, it was very hard to get an on-campus interview as a liberal arts major. The only interview I got was for Saks Fifth Avenue’s executive-training program. The on-campus recruiter for Saks was incredibly impressive. I wound up getting an offer into their executive-training program, but I always remembered my experience with that recruiter. I pictured myself in that type of a role, working with different people, helping others find their dream jobs and opportunities. I was attracted to the recruiting piece, but I also loved solving people problems. Those things all together made me think a career in HR might be better for me than a career in buying at a major department store.
HRE: What is your current primary focus or initiative?
Davis: We are focusing on our new HR Special Situations practice. With the emergence of Glassdoor, as well as the focus on #MeToo, diversity and equality, it’s really forced companies to look inward and assess their own environment. We’ve been called upon by clients to help them navigate tricky employee-relations issues and to help them deal with the internal and external narrative when things might go awry.
HRE: What is one thing your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?
Davis: I don’t think people think I sleep a lot, but I actually do. Even though I am always going a thousand miles an hour, once I get home and my kids are in bed, all I want to do is sleep. I really try to have that down time, so I can come in and do it all again the next day.
HRE: In movies and on TV, HR is often painted in a negative light. Why do you think that is?
Davis: Movies like “Up in the Air” portray HR as heartless executors or a TV show like “The Office” pokes fun at being the person that’s just there to uphold the rules. That’s what people see, yet the role of HR has evolved dramatically. If you watch “Billions,” a lot of what Wendy does is a much more accurate portrayal of what a CHRO wants to be, which is a trusted advisor to the C-suite. I think we are trending in the right direction.
HRE: If you had the opportunity to have dinner with any famous—or infamous—person, living or deceased, who would it be, and why?
Davis: I would choose Jeff Probst, the host of “Survivor.” I just have so many questions about what really goes on behind the scenes because there is so much you don’t see. Recently, there was a #MeToo-related scandal on the show that I personally think the show should have handled differently. I would be really happy to share my views with him on where I think they went wrong.
HRE: What do you expect will be the biggest challenges for HR in 2020?
Davis: The biggest challenge is going to be keeping culture strong and dealing with difficult decisions as firms struggle through a slowing economic environment. It’s also going to be incredibly challenging and emotional with the election coming up. There is going to be a huge amount of anxiety in 2020 for both of those reasons.
HRE: What would be your advice to a young person contemplating a career in HR?
Davis: Given that there are so many aspects of HR, it’s important that young people get exposure to the many different areas of the field to figure out what suits them. Also, finding a strong mentor who will let them be a fly on the wall is important because that’s the way you figure out how people handle tricky situations. That was very important for me, and I still take a lot of that with me and that’s what has enabled me to be a CHRO—learning from a lot of people when I was younger and growing up in the industry.
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