In Defense of Awareness: Changing Employee Behavior Takes Time

If you have checked Facebook in the last couple of days, you may have noticed that some people’s avatars were changed to cartoon characters or stars from their childhood. The focus of this campaign is on raising awareness about child abuse.

A worthy cause of concern for sure, but as some have mentioned, is anyone really unaware of child abuse? Does anyone not think it is wrong? What’s the point? We need to take action!

I’ve heard these same comments about some of the awareness campaigns I ran in HR. After all, does anyone not know about health screenings or vaccinations? Do we really need to have a poster about eating habits in the lunch room? Why are we bringing in someone to talk about our culture and why it’s important? Everyone knows these things. Awareness isn’t going to make them do anything!

Yes, people know about these things, but do they really know enough to do something?

Activism explicitly implies action

Malcolm Gladwell derided activism on social media, saying in The New Yorker:

It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

And the Facebook avatar switch made Kerry Scott of Clue Wagon want to poke her eyes out:

It makes their horrible circumstance into a cutesy Internet meme, where we all reminisce about our great childhood memories of cartoons to raise “awareness” of people who have horrible childhood memories.”

Both are smart folks and have rightly pointed out that action is ultimately what counts. It’s only activism if you do something. And this Facebook change is one of a dozen or so trends I’ve seen pop up in the last few years that follow this theme (Gladwell cites the Iran elections as an example). Awareness run amok and without action is ultimately useless.

Awareness isn’t action

It is a busy world out there with many worthy causes, though. While I may be aware that child abuse is a problem, it’s not on the front of my mind. I don’t have kids and I haven’t dealt with it myself.

The same goes for many of the things we do in HR. I’ve done a total compensation statement that ate up a week of my life all for the sake of awareness. Similarly, we’ve done various awareness drives for benefits we offer that were being underutilized (like a volunteerism benefit).

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Do any of these things lead to immediate action? Generally, no. And if our goal was immediate action, we’d probably do something different. For example, we’d give a bonus or pay raise instead of a total compensation statement. Or if we wanted to increase volunteerism today, we’d ask in our office who wanted to go work at the soup kitchen for a few hours.

That’s thinking about today. That’s taking action and doing it. And if you expect an awareness program to simply make immediate action (or take the place of it), think again.

Awareness is about impacting long term action

But we all know that behavior change takes time. While recruiting volunteers to go work in a soup kitchen may make an immediate impact, I would argue that it doesn’t impact long term actions. The idea behind doing a total compensation statement isn’t that you’re going to stop the person who is leaving tomorrow, it is that you’re going to have someone think about all of the benefits they receive when they work from you. Then when they are offered a new job in the future, they’ll compare offers apple to apples rather than just considering the baseline salary.

Awareness works if it is sustained or presented consistently. Assuming you were exposed to the child abuse awareness campaigns every year around the same time five years in a row, in one of those years, you may look up the warning signs of child abuse and later down the line be able to identify it in a situation. That’s how people know to not throw water on a kitchen fire, that cigarettes cause lung cancer, or to not drive over down power lines. People are constantly exposed to these messages through awareness campaigns. It is because of these awareness campaigns that people ultimately make the right decision.

And it should give every HR person pause before they start embarking on an awareness campaign to change employee actions (think wellness programs or retirement investment). Are you ready to invest in a long term program that creates new norms over time, or are you gunning for specific, realizable action right now? If your goal is both, then you should be looking at sustained awareness (including both fun and serious activities) and campaigns that push for immediate action.

But please, no changing the avatar.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.