Best Practices in Employee Relations – Ulta Beauty

Episode 4.23: Join us for another installment of our “Best Practices in Employee Relations” series. In this episode, we are pleased to be joined by Devon Byrne, Vice President of People Enablement at Ulta Beauty.  Ulta Beauty is the largest beauty retailer in the United States, and an award-winning organization, recently recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of the “Best Large Companies”, one of the “Best Employers for Diversity”, and one of the “Best Employers for Women”. Here, she explains:

  • Why Ulta Beauty has staying power in an ever-changing retail landscape, and how its Employee Relations approach has played a role in that success;
  • How the diversity of their associates and of their workspaces has allowed them to be more thoughtful about their approach to employee relations;
  • The value of employee relations teams partnering with DE&I teams; and
  • Why prioritizing care for associates makes it possible for those associates to show up as their best selves, each and every day!

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Why Ulta Beauty’s Retail Model Has Exceeded Expectations While Other Retail Operations Struggle

  • Ms. Byrne, the current VP for People Enablement at Ulta Beauty, said many factors are at play as to why Ulta Beauty has staying power in an ever-changing retail landscape. 
    • The first factor has to do with how leadership makes decisions. At Ulta Beauty, leaders contemplate both the guest and retail associate in decision making efforts.
      • This is done by asking questions like: 
        • How will guests react to this decision? 
        • How will associates react to this decision? 
        • Will an associate be successful in being able to sell this product? 
    • The second factor contributing to Ulta Beauty’s success is allowing guests to utilize them as a one-stop shop. Not only does this beauty product and makeup retailer sell prestige and mass cosmetics, but the organization also provides eyebrow waxes and salon services. 
      • The leadership team came to this one-stop-shop approach by figuring out who the ideal Ulta Beauty guest is, what they want and delivering that to the guest in the best way possible. 
    • By listening to guests and associates, and doing what's right by both groups, the company’s success happens naturally as a result. 
  • Additionally, Ulta Beauty’s response to COVID-19 allowed the organization to become more successful. 
    • As a result of COVID, Ulta Beauty had to change and become more agile. 
    • COVID-19 has critically changed the way they operate by allowing more remote work. While many other corporate HQs allow for remote work, Ulta Beauty has rolled out remote work opportunities for those in the retail locations and distribution centers.
      • This helps with feelings of equity across employee groups, no matter their job type. 
    • A challenge of rolling out remote work for some of these locations meant teaching managers how to approach managing in a different way. This yielded questions like: 
      • How do you manage from afar? 
      • How do you manage in a remote environment? 
      • How do you conduct a store visit when you can’t get to the store? 
      • How can you still be connected and engaged with your employees if they’re not in person? 


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Reflections On Employee Relations Best Practices At Ulta Beauty

  • The team at Ulta Beauty makes it their mission to care about the whole individual who comes to work every day, which includes their non-work life. 
    • At every level, the leadership of this organization asks themselves how they can put this principle into action.
      • A few concrete ways are Ulta Beauty’s Employee Assistance Program, two 24/7 phone lines, and being able to deploy on-site counselors and perform critical incident stress debriefs.
  • Another way they focus on employee relations best practices is by examining the experience of the job candidate. 
    • Understanding that many guests choose to apply for work at Ulta Beauty, Ms. Byrne considers the onboarding process begins even when someone is a retail guest.
      • The fact that Ulta Beauty often turns passionate guests into prospective associates is a sign that they have created a positive retail atmosphere. 
    • Often, if an applicant has a negative experience with the employment journey at Ulta Beauty and doesn’t come to work at the organization, the company will try to correct the poor experience that they faced.
  • Additionally, Ulta Beauty prioritizes taking care of associates by helping them show up as their best selves daily by providing resources.
    • This can look like offering employees more opportunities to get involved through an employee app called WorkJam or employee recognition practices like sending e-cards that highlight when a team member has exhibited a company value.  
    • Ulta Beauty also creates internal monthly campaigns that hone-in on topics like workplace violence, domestic violence, or mental health awareness. 

How Ulta Beauty Utilizes Employee Care Hotlines As An Employee Relations Best Practice

  • “The whole point of that is that if we care for our associates, and we fix whatever issue or resolve whatever concern they're having, they will turn around then and be able to better serve our guests.”
  • Internally, Ms. Byrne’s team changed its name to the Associate Care and Support Group to reflect this level of care, offering two distinct hotlines associates can contact about their issue. 
  • This team is split between two divisions: specialists who handle HR investigations and a human resources service center, which focuses on gathering and working on associate concerns. 
    • Ulta Beauty’s shared services center takes thousands of calls from associates. 
    • Those who are a part of the shared service center utilize the mantra “once and done,” meaning an associate should have a resolution to their employee-relations issue within the span of that phone call. 
      • Ulta uses the data and trends from these calls to get a pulse on the employee experience. 
      • After COVID, these call centers reported an increase in assistance provided to associates for mental health issues, as well as for workplace violence issues. 
        • Using this internal data with data from guest services, social media, annual employee opinion surveys, and loss prevention can offer a complete picture of the associate experience, yielding powerful action planning for the next year. 

How DE&I Efforts Relate to Employee Relations Best Practices

  • Another way Ulta Beauty empowers employees to show up as their best selves is by having a significant intentional push towards DE&I. 
    • The Ulta Beauty  DE&I team provides deep training regarding cultural competencies that aims to provide nuance and insight into how people behave and why they do what they do. 
    • Additionally, the DE&I team is staffed by a diverse group of employee relations advisors. This allows for an individual to be able to speak to someone similar in race, culture, or background, giving the associate an outlet who can more empathetically understand what they are going through.
  • Additionally, the company understands diversity not just to mean the diversity of its employees but also the diversity of work environments and employee groups. 
    • Each employment location can offer different challenges and opportunities. 
      • The types of challenges associates face in the over 1,300 store locations can be different than those challenges hair stylists may face in the same locations, which may greatly differ from those of the company’s the distribution employees, as those centers run 24/7 - and all of those experiences also differ from those officing in the corporate headquarters. 
    • Employer relations best practices at Ulta Beauty mean deploying a personalized strategy in dealing with diverse challenges. 
      • While all employees receive similar resolutions in terms of consistency, timeliness, and equity, managing a situation may look very different depending on where the individual works. 
    • Ulta Beauty faces this type of diversity head-on by equipping employer relations personnel with specialized training and assigning a division of specialists to one specific employee group. 
      • This allows a specialist to focus on one internal market, and employees, in turn, feel more comfortable and more heard in their concerns. 

Devon Byrne’s Advice To Other Organizations Defining Their Employee Relations Best Practices

  • Ms. Byrne is no stranger to working in human relations at large retail establishments, having worked for Gap, Inc. from 1996 until 2006.
  • After a brief stint at Ulta in 2006, she returned to Gap and stayed until she rejoined the Ulta Beauty team in 2016. 
  • So she first recommends always continuing being a student of the business. You have to know an organization well to support that business effectively and the people who work for you.
  • Second, use your corporate culture as a guide for employee relations. Since Ulta’s culture prioritizes the associate experience so much, that is used extensively when guiding employee relations best practices.
  • Third, she recommends becoming a lifelong learner and enjoy your craft enough that you want to keep investing in it and learning how best to do it.
    • “HR’s job is sometimes the hardest job in the company because not only do you have to be a subject matter expert in HR, you also have to be an expert in the business.”

Devon Byrne Background 

  • Doctorate in Business Management from Argosy University
  • Certificate in Systems and Processes of Human Resources from Cornell University
  • Masters of Science, Human Resource Management from Loyola University
  • Bachelor of Arts, Business, Accounting & Art History from Lake Forest College
  • Began her career as Faculty in the Fashion Merchandising Department of the Illinois Institute of Art; She’d go on to serve as Faculty with Loyola University, Chicago, and Southern New Hampshire University, as well.
  • Ms. Byrne was the Director of Global Employee Relations for Gap, Inc.
  • Currently, she is the Vice President of People Enablement at Ulta Beauty.


Modern Approaches to Connecting with Younger Retail Workers blog by Devon Byrne


Devon Byrne email:

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