Gabe Bell: Disrupting HR for the workforce of the future

Gabe Bell says business is changing, and it’s changing fast. Central Pennsylvania companies should be prepared to adapt to a new kind of workforce, where positive workplace culture and employee engagement informs the talent a company attracts.

That shift in values starts in the human relations department, Bell said. So he and a team of his colleagues, including his twin brother, Mike, have joined a global movement to “disrupt” HR and flip its old-fashioned, paper-pushing reputation on its head.

Bell, 35, heads business development for midsize companies in Central Pennsylvania for the human capital management company ADP. With his employer on board as a major sponsor, Bell and three of his colleagues organized the DisruptHR Central Pennsylvania chapter. The cornerstone of the chapter was the first DisruptHR event in the area held May 2 at Rock Lititz in Lancaster County.

The event started at 5:30 p.m. with cocktails, beer and food, along with vendor tables and raffle items from local businesses.

Then, for the main event, 11 speakers presented their “disruptive” ideas in fast-paced five-minute talks to change the conversation around HR. The common theme: HR’s negative reputation has to go.

We caught up with Bell the day after the event. He was still trying to process the success of the night before.

How was the event?

It was awesome. We sold out. I think we had 210-plus people and people standing in the back. We had 11 speakers who all nailed it. A lot of the other DisruptHR events get a lot of HR consultants, which is great, and we certainly have that, but we also wanted to make sure we got people who weren’t in HR to talk about it. Our speakers included a VP of sales, CEO of a credit union, CEO of a marketing firm, just to bring new ideas. I think that’s part of the reason we got so many people there and had so much excitement.

Tell me about the global DisruptHR community.

In Cincinnati about three or four years ago, a bunch of HR professionals said, ‘Hey, we’re not bringing any new ideas to the table,’ and started the first DisruptHR chapter. A lot of HR meetings can be very stale and focused on compliance and getting our certifications. HR can never get quite get a seat at the executive table. 

I think people want to see HR become more strategic and become more about employee culture and see employees use their strengths, and that’s what a lot of last night’s talks were about.

How is the event structured? How did you find speakers?

When we first started, we contacted a couple people we thought would be good speakers. We asked them to suggest a topic because we wanted people to give their own disruptive idea. We reached out to some local thought leaders, and then from there word spread organically. We ended getting more applications for speakers than we anticipated, and we got the diversity in topics we were looking for.

What qualifies as a disruptive idea?

I guess that’s open for debate. One speaker talked about HR sucks at hiring sales people. He just talked about how the traditional methods of finding people don’t work for sales positions. He said he cleared it with his HR director first! Another speaker talked about how if you want better conversations, then shut up! Someone else said that if you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.

The power of personal branding was also a topic, how companies should identify one or two employees to build their personal brand on social media to have that be a way of attracting talent. With low unemployment, it’s really hard to find qualified people, and a personal brand helped that speaker reach people all over the country, and his talent pipeline exploded.

Who attended the event?

We had a real interesting mix, which we were really excited about. Obviously HR reps were there. We also had a lot of CFOs, COOs, a lot of business owners, consultants, and I think it was because of the diversity of the speakers.

How was the event funded?

We found sponsorships. ADP, the company I work for, is the main sponsor. We had 10-12 total sponsorships and then had area businesses donate for raffles. Local beer was also donated. As of right now, the event cost is at $15,000-$16,000.

What was the average age of attendees at the event?

I don’t know for sure, but when I walked in, I started talking to George Nahodil [president and CEO of Members 1st Federal Credit Union and a speaker at the event], he said, ‘Wow, it’s so young in here.’ He said it’s so cool to feel the energy. I don’t know if it was Rock Lititz or what, but there was a palpable energy. But it wasn’t just young people. I think all the generations of the workforce were presented. It was awesome.

What are some of the values of the Disrupt HR community?

I don’t speak for the whole community, but I think people just want honesty. The atmosphere is a little bit less stuffy, not so much of a focus on procedures but instead on sharing ideas. I also think people care about making places great to work at, engaging employees, and they want HR to be that advocate. Central Pa. has got a lot going on, but we really wanted to start this local chapter because we wanted to start the conversation and make engagement and culture vital to this area. We’re finding that culture and personal branding, as well as employee flexibility, are helpful to attracting top talent.

What do you hope people took away from the event? What’s next?

I think I should take a long nap first. We want to do it again, and I think now that we had such a successful event, and people are more aware of it, we’re going to have the support and the sponsorships to really take it to the next level. We were talking about huddling up sometime in the summer and mapping that out. We didn’t really have anyone talk at the event who was just starting out, so I think that might be a target for us going forward, the companies that are in infancy. We really want to see employees engaged, sharing ideas and putting Central Pa. on the map.

Becca Oken-Tatum
Becca Oken-Tatum is the web editor for the Central Penn Business Journal. She also coordinates and writes for CPBJ's monthly Young Professionals e-newsletter. Email her questions, comments and tips at btatum@cpbj.com.

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