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Jan 21, 2021

I can’t remember a time in recent HR history that policies and procedures have made more of a difference than in 2020. As the pandemic took hold in the U.S. earlier this year, many organizations learned quickly of their strengths and weaknesses when it came to policy, and felt them more keenly. 

Fostering a culture of compliance is always critical, but as we head into a new year and recover from such a heightened time of uncertainty, I’m willing to bet it will be on the minds of many HR leaders as they continue to navigate both longstanding and newly minted policies and procedures.

As HR professionals, we are constantly navigating policies and procedures that will best serve our employees and our organizations. The push and pull between what is best for both is a fine balance to strike. But when done right, it can make the difference between creating a safe, productive organization and one that is at risk. 

Compliance: A “Dirty” Word

“Any manager can get people to do what she wants by standing next to them. But what happens when the manager turns away? The workers must feel an internal need to comply with what they know is right. They have to know what they’re supposed to do, and they have to do it without the manager standing over them.” — Eric Chester, renowned speaker, author, and expert on finding and keeping great employees

Over the past several years, the term “compliance” has become a dirty word in HR. “Commitment” and other words have become the more pleasing replacements; yet, there is likely no word quite as critical in our business as compliance.

The purpose of compliance is to protect your employees and your business. It’s as simple as that. 

As Chester aptly suggests, non-compliance in the workplace can be a major issue, jeopardizing professionalism and putting organizations of all types at risk. It can lead to health and safety issues and can serve as grounds for employee termination in some cases. In certain industries, lack of compliance can even result in external consequences such as regulatory fines, erosion of reputation, and loss of accreditation for the organization. 

Still, the notion of creating a “culture of compliance” can launch a fully charged debate. Compliance brings visions of HR teams that are so focused on bureaucracy and have so much red tape that they lack the ability to think strategically and create a more robust, well-rounded work environment.

But this notion can also serve as the basis for changing how we view compliance in the first place. 

A Culture of Compliance

Creating a unique and positive culture is a major selling point to employees and candidates — and rightly so. Perks like unlimited vacation, giving back to the community, free and catered lunches, and more have become a major focus of creating a competitive and alluring environment to attract and retain new talent. 

While compliance doesn’t seem to have an obvious stake in this type of culture creation, HR teams that view it through this strategic lens will have a distinct advantage. In doing so, they can create a culture of compliance without the negative implications of authoritarianism. 

For starters, HR departments can employ third-party audits, which can help uncover any blind spots or potential problems before they happen. This can further result in employee and customer confidence that your business practices are sound. By focusing on positive impacts on the employee and customer experience, people are more apt to view compliance steps as actions they want to take, not just have to take.]

Additionally, it’s important to understand what to — and not to — document. As HR professionals, this is the first thing on which we should train leaders because it’s one of the best ways to protect them and the organization. When coaching leaders on what to document, I like something I heard recently: “You document when something turns your head.” Good or bad. Again, helping leaders and managers recognize the benefits of proper documentation isn’t just about compliance — it’s about building their skills to engage people more effectively.

Consistency is also important. Consistency makes policies and procedures defensible, but it may not always be possible to be consistent across an entire organization. When you have team members with different responsibilities and different outcomes, you may have separate policies and expectations for each group.

For example, imagine that one employee reports into a call center while another reports into a marketing team. The call center employee may be held to a different set of policies — perhaps pertaining to punctuality, attendance, active call time, and call completion — than the marketing employee. As long as those policies are applied consistently and are fairly within teams, they are defensible. Additionally, such consistency will ensure that workers feel they are being treated fairly, a key component of a great employee experience.

Commitment to Compliance

Communication is especially important to ensure a culture of compliance. At our organization, we use Slack to communicate internally. However, so many conflicting messages were being sent between employees and leaders that HR’s urgent messages were drowned out. 

So we took a step back and pointed our employees toward a software solution we were already using (one we happen to build), and re-established it as the single source of truth where employees should go for updated information, memos, and policies, procedures, training, and other important communications. As new information was shared, we were able to review and update policies quickly, as well as leverage advanced analytics to see who had viewed, who had signed, and who had taken tests. 

Ultimately, reframing the way we view compliance as HR professionals can go a long way toward fostering a positive, productive and safe work environment. Rather than placing a burden on the HR team and workers, compliance can improve culture by laying out clearly established boundaries and improving communications across the board. A win all around.