Top HR tips: An insight interview with Chief People Officer at Sephora, Karalyn Smith


Dynamic Business attended the Qualtrics X4 summit in Sydney on Friday 31stMay, which featured some amazing speakers from organisations that are all using Qualtrics as part of their consumer experience management.

The key note speakers, including Karalyn Smith from Sephora, Sonny Sethifrom Uber and Patricia Limanouwfrom Qantas shared business insight and expert advice.  

We had the pleasure of both attending Karalyn’s talk and also grabbing an exclusive interview to ask more about workplace culture and the top takeaways for HR leaders, aspiring HR leaders and for small businesses and startups generally too.


In Karalyn’s talk, we found out that Sephora is a global leader in beauty. It’s now in 34 countries, has 38,000 employees and has 19 sites in Australia.

Their mission is to inspire fearlessness and celebrate beauty.

Karalyn identified 5 key things that employees want:

  1. Get to know me
  2. Make it easy for me
  3. Appreciate me and show me you love me
  4. Make it fun and special – make me feel that I am the most important
  5. Give me purpose beyond profit

Karalyn had a fantastic viewpoint from identifying these: what the employee wants often overlaps with what the client wants… and also what all humans want in relationships too.

She gave some examples of how Sephora meets some of those criteria.

  • For example with number 3, ‘appreciate me’, she spoke on how they do desk drops with gifts – something small to let the employee know they are thought about.
  • For number 4, ‘make it fun’, her example was to have 5 lucky audience members with pink stickers on their chair receive a surprise box of Sephora goodies! Plus, she also spoke about the Sephora’s got talent competition they internally ran with a charity prize for the winners.
  • And for number 5, ‘give me purpose beyond profit’ she told us all about the different classes Sephora have in their stores – one for transgender people to learn how to use makeup and a safe space for them to ask questions, and one for cancer patients to still have confidence during their treatment. This way Sephora is helping the community, and employees recognise that meaningfulness.

What was the culture like before you came to Sephora? Was it similar to how it is now?

When I came to Sephora 2 and a half years ago, I came for 2 main reasons.

  1. The growth of the company
  2. The culture was so vibrant and strong, and it was a place and is a place where human beings matter. They value people, it’s about respect. The foundation of Sephora is people. And that transcends any business change.

Of course things have to change outside of culture, which always affects culture. We’ve moved into different countries and we are a huge brand. We grown so much in 4 years, we’ve seen exponential growth in APAC.

Sephora is a beauty brand and beauty is also changing. The market is changing. The client is changing. So we need to change how we service clients and also think differently about how we hire, and who we need to hire because of that.

Is the people culture hard to manage with all the growth happening at the moment in future?

Yes, it is hard. Anytime you are scaling that means you get further away from the client. And also further away from the employee.

There is always constant change and it’s about how we manage to stay in touch – in touch with the client and employee – when distance is added.

Coming here I have seen the Australian offices, which has been amazing, and they all know each other. In San Fransisco the team is so big that we are in two separate buildings – you could be in the elevator with a colleague and not even know it! So, as things grow, you have to work harder to create a sense of community and keep it human.

In your experience, what are the key things that instil a positive work culture in an organisation?

First you need to be clear on what your mission is and what it is that you’re doing. Strong identity is needed as a company can merge and change.

Redefine who you are, and then think “okay, so who do we need to hire?” It’s reverse engineering. It’s not about fitting into what’s already there, it’s about adding to it.

There needs to be a clear expectation of the need for talent. Especially for startups, it’s not just fitting, it’s having that additive quality as you grow.

There should be diversity, different profiles. Sephora don’t necessarily need to hire people with beauty backgrounds. Why not hire people from hospitality backgrounds or something different?

On the talent side, when seeding talent to add to culture, we don’t want organ culture rejction. Companies should acknowledge a person is different. It’s part of our job to include them – it’s not the new person’s problem. We need to ask “how can we make them belong straight away?” A good way is to reinforce the mission and find ways in which we are similar. Even a company name tag and badge, or a pen or notebook, small things, can really matter to people.

On the employee engagement side, in any relationship you need to remind people why they came in the first place. Work isn’t always fun, and we need moments to remind people how we treat them.

What is your advice to small businesses and startups in establishing up their HR?

Smaller companies can definitely use a freelancer in the beginning if they know someone who has experience with consulting.

However as you grow I would suggest hiring someone not just for the transactional things like payroll and hiring, which could be an easy trap to fall into. Focus instead on an advisor that is a people first leader and someone that shares a passion for your business and understands why you’re doing it.

That’s more of the kind of talent you need as you will be restructuring all the time in the beginning anyway.

In HR, do you often feel that you are “the bad guy”? 

Yes you do get seen as the bad guy. I started my career in management consulting, not HR and I do think HR has a bad reputation. They are seen as transactional, that you can’t trust them, that they keep us all out of trouble.

You know if HR are in the room people say “oh you can’t say or do [that] because HR are here” and to that I just think well, no, the reason you can’t say or do that is because there are simply other human beings in the room! We all have a responsibility to foster the culture we want as we all own it!

It can be hard on HR because we are seen as a function and we are rarely celebrated ourselves. We are the first ones to be blamed if something doesn’t go right.

HR can be a lonely job – where do you go when you need help for bullying or for coaching? In that situation, there should always be an independent person you can go to – like legal counsel – that have access to information if you need help.

Everyone should be accountable for employee experience and a safe fun environment where everyone is at their best, it’s not just HR.

What kind of development advice would you give to any readers wanting to become HR leaders in the future?

  1. If you are an aspiring HR leader, become intimate with the business and be passionate. You are the guardian of culture and employee experience – that is your job. And in the service of the business mission, people can get too disconnected that.
  2. Find advocates and mentors outside of HR to grow and develop, and for support. I chose a mentor who was Head of Marketing. The intent of that was that we had different aspirations and a different career trajectory. They helped to understand what my brand was on a separate level – and allowed me to ask “how do you see me?” Seek people from outside of your world.
  3. Have a voice. You are not just in the room for transactional only purposes or just to service people. You are here for your point of view, your insights and ideas. Assert them and don’t be put into a HR box.

What are the big projects you’ve got going on at the moment and in the near future?

A big project happening now is the new launch of our brand, and not just the side that is visible to the public, but from the inside out. We’re looking at our policies and practices and making sure it really does align with our values and asking questions like – “are we hiring people who create safe spaces?” and “do we have enough training around diversity and inclusivity?”

Secondly, we’re growing so rapidly in Australia and in the US that we are trying to find new ways to find talent and new ways to keep talent, it’s all about scalability at the moment.