Shannon Kirk is Harnessing Employees’ Best Ideas

As vice president of people for California Pizza Kitchen, Shannon Kirk is leading a team that works seven days a week to engage its employees, foster tighter bonds in the organization, and define the company’s future

In the restaurant world, the whole experience caters to the customer. Although that’s true at California Pizza Kitchen, Shannon Kirk sees no reason why the consumer experience shouldn’t also be afforded to the company’s employees.

“We wanted to make ourselves more approachable and change the face of HR and how HR is perceived,” says Kirk, who is vice president of people for the Playa Vista, California-based pizza chain. “Whether you’re at a restaurant or corporate office, it’s very much a family feel at CPK.”

With a thirty-three-year history, the chain counts more than two hundred locations across thirty-two states and thirteen different countries. It also has franchise concepts designed for airports, universities, and stadiums. Whether you’re an employee working full-time at headquarters or weekend shifts at a restaurant to earn extra money, Kirk says the goal is to give everyone the same conveniences.

Shannon Kirk, California Pizza Kitchen

Over the past decade, the company has rolled out a three-part system to make this concept a reality. First, Kirk says, the company created “People Services,” a concierge service for employees that is operational and accessible seven days a week, with English- and Spanish-speaking HR generalists who are there to answer everything from onboarding queries to employee management issues. More than just giving its employees a system to get in touch, however, Kirk says it also gave the company’s leadership a listening platform to understand employees’ concerns and experiences.

The second part of strengthening the connection across the company was to change the corporate tone and make understanding employee benefits an easier prospect.

“Traditional benefits materials tend to use heavy jargon and language that’s hard for people to break down and understand,” Kirk says. “With something so critical to employees—honestly, it’s how you care for and protect your family—it was important for us to make sure they understood that. We needed our benefits communications and tools to be more approachable, friendly, and helpful. We created videos, storytelling, and lifestyle examples to bring plans to life to help employees understand, and we used our employees in the videos to tell their stories.”

The final piece of the puzzle was the launch of Calibrate, a social-based, employee portal, that allows hourly employees to connect with management and other areas of the company. “Before Calibrate, we weren’t able to connect with everyone—we were missing out on about 11,000 hourly employees—three quarters of our company—which is pretty huge,” Kirk says.

The system not only provides hourly employees a platform to get in touch, but as with the creation of People Services, a new tool for better understanding at the upper levels of CPK.

“It allowed us to focus on a lot of employee touchpoints—what you can expect on your first day of work, onboarding, enrolling in benefits, having life-changing events like having a baby, and so on,” Kirk says. “It puts us in their seat to help us understand how they feel and what do we need to do to make it a better experience for our employees.”

Although the three-part system has paid dividends to the company already in terms of engagement (Kirk notes that in the first year of Calibrate being operational, it received 2.8 million page views, while today that number has surpassed 6.5 million), she and her team aren’t about to rest on their laurels. A family isn’t built in three simple steps—it’s cultivated over years of growth and change, and the ideas from the company and Kirk’s team continue to find new ways to further shape the company’s future.

For example, CPK has established the “Kindness Fund,” an employee-to-employee giving program that provides assistance to employees who might run into emergencies or financial crises. That notion of looking out for each other has been there through all of Kirk’s fifteen years with the company, and she says it’s one of the main reasons she stays.

The other reason, she says, is that she loves working with a team that’s in a position to set a new course for the international company.

“We’ve gone through a lot here, and the thing this team hates the most is hearing, ‘We’ve always done it that way,’” Kirk notes. “We all cringe at that. We don’t want to just challenge the status quo—we want to change it. The first answer is not always the best one or the right one. It might be the easiest one, but we need to look at a problem from all sides and consider every different answer.”

Having cultivated a strong family that spans hundreds of locations and several borders, CPK can be sure that thanks to Kirk and her team’s work, there’s buy-in to her way of working and many employees ready to help provide different answers and viewpoints to consider.

Photo by: Karen Vaisman Photography


Aetna offers a broad range of traditional, voluntary and consumer-directed health insurance products to meet the needs of individuals, families, employers, health care providers and communities. California Pizza Kitchen has partnered with Aetna to manage their benefit strategy, improve the health of their workforce and keep benefit costs affordable.


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