Human Resources more often than not has reflected an ideology that employees are liabilities instead of assets. From the way the subject is typically taught, implemented, and understood, HR is handled with the assumption that employees' intentions are bad rather than good. It may sound trivial, but this one shift in perception can have a huge impact on a company's culture all the way through its bottomline.
Guidelines vs Policies
Most HR policies are done reactively, either due to something that happened at the company directly or as an attempt to learn from other companies' mistakes. Regardless, these policies are in place to protect the company and not its employees. EEOC regulations and employment laws are there to protect employees, but by the time those come into play, it's usually too late for the company to fix the problem without penalty. The conundrum ends up cycling with the company trying to cover its tracks and employees filing claims after leaving in some cases. So, what if both the company and its employees respected each other equally? In my experience, this is absolutely possible and even necessary to maintaining a happy, productive work environment.
HR can either be a catalyst of a positive work culture, or the perpetuator of mistrust within an organization. It really depends a lot on the leadership, as well as how things get rolled out and implemented. Great leaders hire teams that they trust. They also provide them with the means and support in which to succeed. A culture that's genuinely supportive of its employees supports them in taking educated risks and helps them recover from failures. This creates a safe environment for innovation, which is key to any business' success. If employees are punished for failing, they will play it safe and not bother trying new things that could lead to incredible advances to products, profits, and efficiencies. It also widens the gap between the leadership team and the employee population, leaving a lot of room for speculation, rumors, and skepticism amongst employees. This typically results in problems within the culture and can even become very toxic in many cases.
From the leadership level, it takes HR to promote and react in a way that's in-line with a trust mentality. This is where the difference between policies and guidelines becomes clear. Approaching things with guard rails rather than a narrow path lined with red tape allows employees some flexibility and ownership in their work and puts the responsibility on them and each other more than on others to micromanage.
Trust your employees and you'll be amazed by the results.
An environment built on trust needs to act that way on a daily basis. The way guidelines are developed and implemented make a huge difference in the way people perceive the reality of trust within an organization. Trust is a two-way street. An important place to start is with a fair and consistent compensation strategy. This is vital to building trust within a company and should be a first priority for any organization. It's also important for employees to be in a position to hold themselves and each other accountable. Implementing rules, policies, and punishments is much more likely to hold the organization back than it is to help move things forward. One way to help develop an accountable landscape is to really trust the team. This approach requires the leadership team to take a risk and allow itself to become vulnerable in many cases, which can be a huge struggle for many people. Letting go of control and trusting others to do the right thing can be scary. But ultimately, people have good intentions and when given the opportunity, will do the right thing for their teams and companies.
One opportunity to test the waters on the trust factor is through a bonus structure. There are various ways to go about it, but some organizations allocate a specific dollar amount per team and leave it up to the manager to decide who receives what portion of the total allotment. This leaves a lot of room for error, bias, favoritism, and complacency. It's easy for a manager to divide out the funds equally across the team, regardless of performance or output because they think it's more fair. It's also easy for a manager to unfairly compensate some employees higher than others based on the visibility they have into their work, or because they simply like some of them more than others. But if we remove the individual bonus potential and instead offer a percentage of each person's salary - let's say 5-percent - as their bonus and tie it to their team's ability to achieve its goals as a unified group, and then offer an additional opportunity of 5-percent that's tied to the company achieving its overall goals, we can more fairly compensate employees and reallocate the responsibility to do great work back onto the employees.
What ends up happening is employees taking more responsibility and ownership of their success and their team's success. If someone on a team is not pulling their weight and the team is unable to achieve its goals as a result, that person will likely feel guilty or the team will take the initiate to discuss the issues with the employee directly and escalate the situation to HR to handle if necessary. It also encourages teammates to be more open and honest with each other if they have too much on their plates and either ask or offer to help each other out to achieve their goals as a team. This approach removes the competition and resentment between teammates and gets everyone to work together toward the greater good of the company. More often than not, employees just want to know they're being treated fairly - not better and not worse than anyone else. They also want to feel valued and appreciated. This redistribution of responsibility encourages teammates to help one another and celebrate each other's wins. When this approach is implemented effectively, the ripple effect of productivity, loyalty, and ownership that stems from a truly trusting organization is incredibly powerful.
Putting the "Human" back in HR.
The assumption of good can be a difficult mind shift to make. It's also hard to fully trust one another to do the right thing, especially when that concept is challenged. Terminations happen. It's a part of life in the corporate world. For as much as we try, sometimes the role, company, team just isn't the best fit. And sometimes downsizing has to happen. The difference is in the details. We're all human and we're all in this together. At the point of departure from an organization, leaders and the HR team need to remember the intense emotions that accompany major life changes, especially when an employee or the team doesn't see the termination coming. The feelings of loss and survivor's guilt can linger in the remaining employee base for weeks or months. If they aren't given the right platform to voice concerns, fears, and grief it can build up and turn into animosity. Thinking as if the person being let go is ourselves and understanding what kind of effect that would have on us mentally, emotionally, and financially can help us figure out the best course of action to take. It's important to treat the departing person with respect and empathy. Provide them with four weeks of pay or more, depending on tenure and circumstances. Finding a job can be difficult and is nearly always stressful. Help to alleviate some of the burden by providing them with a more generous severance package than is required. Also, acknowledge the fact that this is a loss for the team and it's understood that the person was a friend and colleague to many people. Reassure the remaining employees that compensation and resources have been offered and encourage them to also reach out to offer support and help them network. The way we treat people in their times of need is how we're remembered and it makes a significant difference in whether or not the trust is broken with the team in the process. It's important to be as humane as possible and think about how we would want to be treated in that situation.
Communication should be clear, concise, and consistent.
Much of how people react to things is in how news is communicated. The three Cs are a good starting point: clear, concise, consistent. Make sure the point is clear. Try not to use any unnecessary jargon, legal terms, or fancy wording. Just get to the point and make it easy to understand. This makes it much easier to be consistent. Once something is communicated, it will need to be passed on many times, as well as implemented in many instances. Without clear and concise insight, consistency will be extremely difficult. Rolling out a new way of handling things needs alignment at the top of the organization with visible and noticeable living-of-the-values from the leadership team in order to trust that it's real. If values are talked about, but not fully believed or lived by the leaders, it can never be expected to work at the individual level. Changing to a trust model takes time and many people are uncomfortable with changes, even good ones. Consistency builds trust, but trust also adds a level of vulnerability which requires leaders to demonstrate by example in order to gain true believers and followers of the intended practices.
What it really all comes down to is trusting one another and having each other's backs, from the leadership level through the HR function, into the employee population and all the way from candidacy to exiting the company. It's important to assume best intentions and approach conversations with empathy, directness, and honesty to avoid misunderstandings. By placing responsibility and accountability on employees wherever possible and allowing them to help drive their own success, they're empowered to make decisions, work together, and help one another. Collaboration starts with the leaders. If the values aren't consistent with their actions, and the guidelines being put into place aren't conducive to a collaborative environment, developing and nurturing a culture that's reflective of those ideas will always be an uphill battle.