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HR Matters: How Culture Creates Compliance

Even in a hard-fought election year, this is a campaign we support!

Sometimes perceived as “support” or an “administrative” department that doesn’t generate revenue, Human Resources (HR) can be encumbered with some negative connotations leaving employees wincing at the idea of formal meetings, mandatory (and often painfully outdated) training sessions, and of course, their role in separations. Over the years, HR has occasionally been diminished in its organizational impact as some departments have focused on compliance with little bandwidth to devote to the underlying purpose of those important concepts – building vibrant, diverse, inclusive and respectful organizations. As our nation is in the midst of political and economic change, organizational leaders have the opportunity and the privilege to make HR matter again.

Human Resources staff often are trusted as an impartial third-party and a source of factual internal communication.The origin of the discipline dates back to those who advocated for the safety of women and children who faced dreadful working conditions during the industrial revolution.1 Unions began to organize and became a driving force in improving working conditions and generally protecting workers’ rights. In non-union businesses, HR managers developed policies to eliminate behavior and practices that unfairly impacted a specific group of people. These early HR leaders in the mid-20th century were dedicated to correcting the behavior and systems that left workers in dangerous conditions or facing discriminatory practices - often without recourse to pursue realistic change. Later, legislation passed protecting the rights of employees belonging to various classes, which became the focus of Human Resources departments.

Among those landmark legislative decisions were Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. Considered a form of sex discrimination, sexual harassment claims, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, have made Title VII an unavoidable and critical topic of importance for today’s HR leaders. Most recently, the question of whether Title VII extends to gender identity and sexual orientation have left a patchwork of uncertainty across federal agencies.2 While the Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling this summer, HR leaders should evaluate their existing policies and practices to not only stay ahead of the curve, but to also build on the foundational principles of respect within their organizations.

Given the cultural shift in the wake of #MeToo combined with the politics of the moment, leaders today have the opportunity to usher HR into a new era. There is no doubt that compliance is critical, but the overarching goal of these types of laws is not to simply “check the box” through the use of off-the-shelf training. The term “mandatory training” does not resonate or engage a large part of today’s workforce. The rationale that something is required by law does little to motivate employees to care about the subject matter. Among a generation that often sees government and many institutions with cynicism, it can even hinder the intent at the heart of the training.

Today’s employees demand more than bare-minimum compliance; they demand mindfulness and continual growth; they hold leaders to higher standards. They are passionate about making an impact on society as a whole, not just within their own organizations. The same people who are shaking up the status quo in our societal culture demand the same forward-thinking in their workplaces.3 It is important to not just protect the most basic rights protected by the law, but to promote a culture based on respect, diversity, inclusion - not simple tolerance or lip service.

More than ever, HR is challenged to build an inclusive culture that holds everyone to a higher standard and we must be deliberate about it. This may mean more frequent or specialized training – understanding the critical role of the bystander or understanding unconscious bias for example - than what is mandated by federal or state law4 to promote a culture of respect and to set expectations for behavior across the entire company. HR leaders can further empower employees to respectfully make efforts to understand one another more deeply, to encourage contributions from multiple perspectives, and value the richness that a diverse and inclusive employee base adds to the organization and its bottom line.5 These efforts create an environment that fosters collaboration and enhances engagement. When these themes become part of the on-going conversation, they eventually become an integral part of the organization’s make up.

In order for diversity and inclusion to become a non-negotiable part of organizational culture, employees must see a commitment from HR leadership as well as executives. They won’t buy into a program they feel isn’t backed by integrity and a level of transparency from the top down. Additionally, if employees see managers, or worse, HR, turn a blind eye to behaviors that aren’t respectful or reflective of organizational values, those actions will seriously undermine any progress made through training or of other efforts to nurture a culture of respect. It is imperative that HR conduct prompt, unbiased investigations of workplace complaints to stop misconduct in its tracks before it infiltrates and undermines organizational culture, breeding more misconduct and, worse, tolerance of that misconduct. Failing to address misconduct can have a tangible effect on productivity and consequently, profitability. Culture is a key element of workplace satisfaction and a reputation for a negative culture can keep companies from attracting and retaining top talent.6

As politicians campaign on the promise of policy change, HR leaders must keep abreast of the impact such changes could have on compliance requirements. A more proactive approach is to stay ahead of the trends and focus on creating a respectful workplace, exceeding the status quo and baseline requirements. As an HR professional, the work you do matters. You are often the first line of defense in ensuring fair treatment, preventing harassment and discrimination, mitigating risk to your organization, and fostering a climate of respect. Laws such as Title VII were put in place to protect the rights of employees and protecting those rights goes hand in glove with building a respectful and inclusive culture. HR professionals, especially during these times of societal shifts, can look to early activists that championed equality for inspiration. While it is important to comply with these laws to avoid costly litigation and fines, encouraging mere compliance trivializes the tenacious struggle these activists endured. By exceeding these standards and making a culture of respect fundamental to your organization, you may not only manage to avoid liability, but be rewarded with a diverse, respectful, and profitable workplace.

1 What Is the History of Human Resources?,
2 Jill Rorschach, Federal Protections for LGBT Individuals – Uncertainty Prevails, June 12, 2019,;
3 Kathy Miller Perkins, 2019: The Year Millennials Lost Patience With Large Corporations, Dec. 28, 2019,,
4 Sheila McAndrew, #MeToo, #timesUp, and the Changing Legal Landscape, Feb. 20, 2019,,
5 Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali, The Other Diversity Dividend, July-August 2018 Issue,,
6 Jonathan Richards, Why a Positive Company Culture Is the Key to Employee Retention, May 16, 2019,,