If you have not read the blog article “Words matter, but…”, I recommend you stop and read it first. You might also be interested in the “Because I’m the…” blog article. This article on HR and Company Culture is a companion piece to that article.
Leaders frequently express their opinions about the relevance and effectiveness of Human Resources (HR) departments. Whether filling open positions, onboarding new employees, coordinating and providing information on employee benefits, or monitoring company policies, HR plays a vital role for many companies. These activities are central to the success and growth of any company. That is not a debate as part of today’s article. Today, we will discuss the growing debate about the efficacy of HR in supporting employees and company culture.
Crucial Learning published the results of a study they conducted in April 2022. Amongst its many finding, the study discovered that when employees have concerns, they prefer to turn to anyone else rather than talk with the HR department. Only 9 percent of respondents believed their HR leader would proactively advocate on their behalf, while another 37 percent believed HR is more concerned with advocating for the organization. These respondents stated they were hesitant to speak with HR about sensitive issues. If HR departments are effective, why are employees not using them entirely? We are seeing more significant shifts in how employees need support. These shifts are widening the chasm of change required in the HR model. HR no longer meets employee needs and is a disservice to company culture. HR departments fail to define, manage, and cultivate company culture. In fact, the current HR model is where culture dies.
Each company pays for HR employees to manage HR activities, protect the company from employees, and protect the company's written values and culture, not employees' wishes. When push comes to shove, HR is paid to always side with the company. When enough employees feel the weight of HR, they feel the isolation and defeat by the company. They learn that HR provides information, but lacks employee advocacy and support. This is when employees consider leaving the company.
If HR does not represent the employee, why does a company’s culture need a gatekeeper? Company culture is more than just the role of HR staff. It is everyone's role to define it, keep it alive, and grow it. Hopefully, we can agree to that! Company culture should be defined by all employees, not just those at the top. Why is the current model failing? Let’s understand the history of HR.
The HR concept started in the mid-1700s. HR is the strategic approach to effective and efficient people management in a company. Its purpose is to help a company gain a competitive advantage over its competitors. In service of an employer's strategic objectives, it strives to improve job efficiency. Nothing in the definition above says that it was designed to make employees safe, protected, feel like they belong, or are financially successful. The model of HR was built on a company-centric model. It was designed to expand its influence over employees and maximize employee performance, making the company more profitable.
Workplaces can be employee friendly, but can rarely be employee-centric. One lasting example of the HR department's ineffectiveness is the ongoing struggle against discrimination in the workplace. From age, gender, and racial disparities in hiring and pay to sexual discrimination in the workplace, company-sponsored HR departments protect their brand reputation, not employees. The concept of HR was designed to help companies maximize profits. Companies will never make employees feel like a family or make work a fun and productive environment. As the HR concept gained traction, the earliest authenticated and recorded labor strike in the United States happened in Philadelphia in 1786. Philadelphia printers went on strike and achieved a minimum wage increase to $6 weekly. Not long after, in 1792, the first local craft union was formed for collective bargaining by Philadelphia shoemakers. This started the labor union movement.
A labor union is an organization of workers to empower employees to ensure a fair and equal return for provided labor. Although the first union was formed in 1792, it was not until 1935 that unions were officially established into law. The National Labor Relations Act was passed by the 74th United States Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. It still is the foundation of United States labor laws today. These laws guarantee the right of private sector employees to organize into labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action such as strikes.
Unions protect employers against an employer. They have historically been responsible for attaining better wages and benefits, improving working conditions, improving safety standards, establishing complaint procedures, developing rules governing the status of employees, and protecting and increasing workers' bargaining power. Employees safeguard their interests against retaliation by employers. In September 2011, an archeological investigation found evidence of a shipyard constructed during the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 AD), indicating the existence of a shipbuilders guild.
Similar to the discussion about HR departments, there is a debate for either side of the labor union argument. Labor unions are pro-employee, while HR is pro-business. If you believe neither is the solution, what is the evolution of employee support?
Neither HR departments nor labor unions can establish or control company culture. Culture is created organically. Like a myth, culture has to be believed in and supported to be effective. Creating unity and compromise between words and actions that are inclusive of all parties is hard work. What can your company do when the culture is misaligned?
- Create a Safe Space - Set the stage by creating a safe space to move the company culture in a healthier and more supportive direction. Allow all voices to sing without retaliation. Learn more about creating workspaces that protect psychological safety.
- Allow for Honest Discussion - Engage your employees in an open and honest discussion about the perceptions and contradictions of your company culture. Listen openly, be available to all issues put forward, take notes, show gratitude to issues raised during the discussion, and do not make any promises.
- Collaborative Internal Research - Deep dive into employee perceptions of your culture. Continue the conversations - have a series of healthy discourses to understand better the conflicts encountered. Create a written and anonymous survey of employees, board, and volunteers. Make sure you are getting different perspectives to understand everyone's impact better. Take all comments as the truth, then find opportunities for change.
- Gather Your Data - Gather all the results from the discussion and the written survey into one report. Where changes have the results highlighted? Do you need more data? Repeat these steps above if you need more clarity.
- Analyze the results - What are the survey results (data) saying about what employees see as a misalignment? From this feedback, how do you see misalignment between your culture, values, and mission? Your values may need a refresh. Employees should be more involved in crafting your company values and cultural norms and with less input from your board or c-suite. Employees breathe life into culture daily – not your board of directors.
- Develop a plan - Focus on finding more alignment between your written documents and your daily actions. What do you do that is healthy and not part of your values or policies? You should include them in your next update. What are you doing that is the opposite of your written policies? Change your written policies. The draft and final plans should include a timeline and budget. This is not a one-time plan, but a living document.
- Get More Feedback - Discuss your draft action plan with employees, the board, and volunteers. Ensure all misalignment opportunities have been identified and addressed before implementing your final plan.
- Foster Buy-In - Once the plan is finalized and approved by your board of directors, get buy-in from your employees before implementation. Dialogue on collectively moving the plan forward in a healthy direction where everyone is involved.
- Train to Your New Model - Train all staff on your collective decisions and how to foster healthy dialogue to keep each connected and other accountable.
What about accountability? Culture and accountability are everyone’s responsibility. Healthy accountability is a growing experience for everyone. Accountability, for the sake of accountability, is unhealthy. HR is not solely responsible for accountability or culture. Both should have their independence. Consider establishing an independent commission or committee of elected employees, board members, and volunteers who will monitor the final plan's implementation quarterly, evaluate its progress, and identify new misalignments to improve future plans. I would consider not including the CEO or HR in this group, but maybe it should be led by the Board of Directors or an impartial consultant.
There is much to consider when deciding how to shape your company’s culture. The most significant consideration in creating employee safety and support is redefining your company culture. Companies like Google, Apple, and META have done the work to develop and maintain a healthy culture. Still, in this changing climate, they are struggling significantly to keep up with the changing needs of employees. Culture is a long-term impact project and does not have many short-term gains. A company can lower attrition, attract future employees, and grow its business if cultural changes are done correctly.
Contact Pensivetastic today to discuss a path forward for your company. We’ll help you get there.