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Striking the Right Balance to Reduce HR Problems

It’s been said that some organizations have forgotten the human in human resources. HR problems –including engagement, retention, talent development, and succession management – abound when people don’t feel that an organization cares about them. 

At the same time, many organizations earnestly endeavor to demonstrate their dedication to employees. HR problems abound here, too, when policies and practices are backburnered in an effort to “show the love.”

In both cases, the problem is an imbalance.    

HR Problems When There’s Too Much Focus on Compliance 

Graphic Showing Balancing in a Rope While Holding a StickA lack of formal, written policies and practices is absolutely essential in any       size organization. Many of the most            costly HR problems are the direct result      of having no policies or policies that are vague and confusing. It’s also imperative that HR regularly update those policies as regulations change and that HR keep all managers informed about policies. Ideally, policies are also shared with all employees in the form of a handbook. 

The US Department of Labor provides a free toolkit to help organizations set up policies for basic compliance. This website includes an overview, information, FAQs, and posters you can use as a starting point. 

HR compliance and risk management serve three critical purposes

  • ensuring adherence to federal, state and local regulations related to employment

  • protecting employees by keeping them safe from harm

  • providing an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination, and unfair practices  

Keeping employees happy, engaged, productive, and motivated is also important. But you can’t achieve that with compliance measures alone. In fact, “by the book” overreach ignores the human factors that dignify and engage employees. 

Well-intended managers and HR practitioners may overreach or over-compensate when issues have previously occurred. For example, one organization banned all fraternization in response to an inappropriate relationship between a VP and his executive assistant. When two co-workers, friends since childhood, were seen together at a baseball game, a policy-driven manager wrote them both up and docked points in their performance reviews. 

Technically, the manager did the “right” thing (according to policy). But the manager and organization failed to do what was right for employees. By attempting to create a fair and clear policy of no fraternization, the organization overlooked important human needs like friendship and creating a sense of belonging in the workplace. The manager’s extreme interpretation spurred a charge of unfairness because other managers did not take these actions in similar situations (incidentally, the employees who were punished were also in a protected class). 

The practices and policies you establish should be used to guide managers and employees. All managers should be educated on what policies mean and what they don’t mean. Exceptions to what’s established should be made only after conferring with HR to ensure uniformity across the organization. 

In all cases, the impact of polices on people must be weighed. Striking a balance between policies and employee impacts is extremely important.

HR Problems When There’s Too Much Focus on Keeping People Happy  

Here at People First Productivity Solutions, we’ve occasionally been challenged (by employees and customers) about whether or not our practices are truly “people first.” These challenges have each been founded in a gross misunderstanding of what it actually means to be “people first.” Many HR personnel and managers make mistakes because they misunderstand this principle, too.

People is plural. The overreaching interpretations are usually related to an individual or a person first perspective. Doing what one person would prefer when it adversely affects others is not people first. Here are two examples of this misguided interpretation. 

An employee asks to change her work schedule. She wants to start 90 minutes later to save money on daycare. However, her production crew cannot function well unless all six stations are staffed for the full shift. No one on the earlier shift can adjust their schedule to work 90 minutes later. The impact on the other five crew members would be unfair because they are paid, in part, for hitting production quotas. The employee believes the manager is not exhibiting the people first values of the organization. But, taking all employees into consideration, the manager is putting people first (vs putting a single individual first). Though sympathetic, the manager made a people first decision by holding the employee to the agreed-upon schedule. 

A long-term employee refuses to adapt to changing business practices. He complains often and loudly, sometimes within earshot of customers. He mocks other employees who have embraced the new practices, calling them “brown nosers” and other offensive terms. His deliberate subversion of the new practices has wreaked havoc on recordkeeping and He has been written up, and HR has conducted an investigation. This has been going on for over six months. The HR stance is that this long-term, high-performing employee needs time to adjust. The manager has been instructed to show more empathy to the employee. When other employees complain, they are encouraged to be more understanding and to stay positive. In an effort to avoid taking more disciplinary measures with the negative employee, HR is inadvertently signaling to others that bad behavior is acceptable. This is not a people first response. Person first responses almost always cause more problems than they solve.   

When there’s too much focus on keeping employees happy, HR is often forced to overlook practices and policies that comply with laws. Bending or ignoring the rules invites more violations and sets the company up for charges of unfairness and worse. 

Hyper-focusing on keeping employees happy also results in dysfunction. It’s common to see supervisors doing the work of frontline employees rather than overseeing the work. The more supervisors and managers do, the less employees do. Expectations for work are set by what people are held accountable for doing. Though counter-intuitive, taking work away from employees doesn’t make them happy in the long run. It diminishes their contributions, limits their development, and signals that they aren’t trusted with the work. Here again, good intentions can backfire. 

Thanks to the Great Resignation, managers and HR professionals in many organizations have resorted to coddling employees. They’re so afraid of losing employees that they’ll do almost anything to retain them. Relaxed attendance policies, quick forgiveness for offenses, pay increases, withholding of feedback, and kowtowing to arbitrary requests is not necessary. These non-sustainable efforts don’t improve employee happiness or reduce burnout. Instead, they sow doubts and cause employees to wonder why people aren’t held accountable or aren’t treated fairly.   

Remember the Aesop’s Fable about the father, son, and donkey? The moral of the story is that if you try to please everyone you’ll end up pleasing no one.  

Focus on Employee Well-Being to Strike the Right Balance 

To support employees and adhere to best practices and laws pertaining to employee safety and protections, shift your focus. You’ll do a better job striking the balance and reducing HR problems if you focus on employee well-being. 

Employee well-being is the state of an employee’s total health – mental, physical, and emotional. What happens in the workplace impacts an employee’s health. Stress, burnout, poor management practices, a lack of task clarity, and more factor into well-being. Ultimately, it’s about the employee’s overall quality of life. 

Gallup has identified five universal elements of well-being (see illustration below). Each element represents a part of life that every individual can deliberately focus on to improve their own well-being. Each element can also be supported, in part, by employers. But the main responsibility of employers, obviously, lies within the element called “Career.”
from gallup

The Career element can impact all the other elements. Employers who wish to improve employee well-being will take steps to increase the likelihood for employees “liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.”

Using policies and people practices together, employers can impact the Career element of employee well-being by:

  • Helping employees discover their strengths and potential.

  • Training managers to set expectations, give feedback that is helpful, and create clarity.

  • Removing managers who create stress, mistreat employees, or exhibit unfairness.

  • Coaching employees for continual development.

  • Providing opportunities for employees to be challenged and continually growing.

  • Having meaningful discussions about career goals and development. 

  • Creating cultures based on shared values, inclusivity, and two-way trust.

  • Boosting employee engagement by creating a sense of belonging and emotional connection.

  • Offering employee programs or resources to address the other four elements of well-being.

  • Establishing and sharing clear policies that are consistently administered without going overboard or ignoring the human variables.

With a focus on employee well-being, you’ll have a north star that guides policies and people practices. You’ll have an aim that is proactive rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion to fears about turnover or other short-term issues. And you’ll emerge as an employer-of-choice – a place where people enjoy working, want to stay, and clamor to join.

Looking for more on getting buy-in? Check out this presentation from our BrightTalk channel - click the image below to watch on-demand!

brighttalk preview