Unum’s Rick McKenney Talks Talent, Remote Work


Rick McKenney, CEO of Chattanooga’s only Fortune 500 company, Unum, sat down with Trend to talk about finding big talent in a mid-size market, how Unum is adapting amidst COVID-19 concerns and more. 

TREND: Most Chattanoogans are familiar with Unum and your presence in the community, but can you tell us exactly what your company does?

Unum is the world’s largest provider of disability insurance and a leading provider of workplace benefits that fall outside traditional health insurance or retirement benefits. 

We have expanded our offerings over the years to include life, disability, accident, dental and vision, hospital and critical illness insurance — types of insurance offered through the workplace that help provide financial security for millions of workers and their families. Unum also manages leave for other companies, such as the Family Medical Leave Act or paid family leave. 

TREND: We know Unum is a big company, but just how big is it?

Worldwide, Unum has more than 10,000 employees, with around 2,800 working from our global headquarters in Chattanooga. 

We define our size more through the many people and companies that we protect. Last year alone we provided benefits to more than 182,000 companies and 40 million people and families. Through those protections, we paid $7.5 billion in benefits and helped 343,000 people return to work. 

TREND: Unum has a deep history in Chattanooga. How does that shape your global company?

Unum has a long history of excellence and innovation in the employee benefits industry, and our Chattanooga connection is a key part of that story. Our local roots date back to 1887 when Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company was founded. The company found a niche in the railroad insurance business protecting workers if they got injured and could no longer work and earn an income. This specialty morphed into modern day disability insurance, which protects workers’ income if they get sick or injured and can’t work for a period of time.  

Today, Chattanooga is Unum’s global headquarters, and we couldn’t be prouder to live and work here. Our local employees bring that Chattanooga spirit to helping people across the globe through difficult times in their lives, and that’s a big impact.

TREND: Chattanooga businesses are adapting to new ways of working in response to the coronavirus crisis. What advice do you have for companies working remotely for the first time?

We have experience with remote working over the last several years and more so now with the shift to home due to the pandemic. We have found it’s critical for leaders and managers to stay connected with their teams and customers. Acknowledge that working virtually can be a big change and may take time for teams to adjust. In many cases, you’ll need to take a more involved leadership style as you help your team transition.

Having the right technology to connect is clearly important but it is also important to offer additional ways to connect. An old-fashioned phone call is still a great way to do that.

Create space for everyone to contribute. Make sure all meeting participants have access to shared documents or communications, and a way to contribute to the meeting (phone, computer mic, video or chat). We use Microsoft Teams which uses all of these. Keep in mind this way of working is new for a lot of people, and some may need a nudge from you to engage in the conversation.  

This is a great time to be consciously inclusive. Appreciate that the best ideas can come from anyone, no matter their function, level or location. This also means not relying on the same “go-to” individuals out of familiarity and comfort. Take extra care to make sure your team members feel included.

TREND: Is Unum actively hiring right now? If so, what types of jobs are available?

As a global company, we’re constantly hiring and investing in different areas to grow our business and expand our reach. Last year, we created 400 new jobs here in Chattanooga. We’re looking for a wide range of professionals from customer service to underwriting, information technology and human resources. Our investment in technology has enabled us to continue hiring and embrace virtual onboarding over the last few months. We update our website regularly with new postings at unum.com/careers and encourage people interested in working at Unum to check it frequently.

TREND: Do you work closely with local schools to recruit talent?  

Students from local schools are the future leaders of our company. We partner with UTC and Chattanooga State to find candidates for our internship and Unum Scholars programs, which helps us get talent in the door and gives students real-world job experience. We’re also a major investor in Hamilton County’s Future Ready Institutes, which prepare students for the workforce. Finding quality local and regional talent are essential for our business.

TREND: Last fall, you had a grand opening — or reopening — of your downtown space. Can you tell me about the changes?

We’ve invested more than $40 million in our workspace as one piece of a larger strategy to put the customer experience at the center of our thinking and create a world-class workplace. 

We knocked down walls, eliminated offices and moved to an open, bright and colorful workspace. The changes enable creativity, flexibility and collaboration — but there are still plenty of areas for heads-down work when needed. 

In our new space, we also have expanded healthy food options in our cafeteria, a modern fitness center with the latest equipment and group classes, a health clinic, mothers’ rooms for new moms, meditation rooms and even a new coffee shop.

One of the most valuable investments we made during this process was in technology and ensuring employees have flexibility in when and how they work. This early investment enabled us to quickly shift our operations remotely in response to COVID-19. 

TREND: We recently announced our Small Business Award finalists. What advice do you have for local small businesses?

Take care of your employees and make sure you’re creating a work environment that’s inclusive and respectful to all. Your employees need to feel supported, included and empowered to bring their whole selves to work and deliver their best for your business. 

Create a culture that celebrates differences. Diversity of thought, backgrounds and perspectives in an inclusive environment will enable your team to innovate and better serve your customers. Check your policies and practices to make sure they’re inclusive. This includes everything from your dress code to parity in the benefits you offer employees with different lifestyles. Ensure people of every background have the tools to grow and reach their full potential and that no one feels limited or excluded from the opportunity to contribute and learn. 

Your business will be stronger if your company culture is receptive to novel ideas and new ways of thinking. We all have the power to advocate for inclusion in our broader organizations, but we also have the ability as individuals to take small steps that add up to big change in our communities.