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How to Keep HR Departments from Undermining Your Company’s Culture of Engagement



HR Departments

Building a culture of engagement in any company means placing trust in your employees. But too often the opposite occurs. From my 20-plus years as an HR professional, working at companies of different sizes, geographic locations, and industries, I can cite example after example of HR policies and procedures that send the message that management distrusts employees. Instead of building trust, they’d build resentment among employees.

Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix and author of the book, Powerful, said, “Many of us in HR go to work every day thinking all of our staff are out to sue us all the time. So we invent all these rules and policies. Maybe our people wouldn’t sue us so much if we didn’t piss them off with the lies?”

Many HR policies and procedures, created years ago in a very different time, should have disappeared. They completely undermine what companies are trying to achieve in the work they’re doing around employee engagement.

Not sure you agree? Let me share with you some real-life examples, and you decide for yourself. Starting with job advertisements and job descriptions — often the first things a candidate and ultimately your employee sees — what do they say to the people considering joining your company? Do they say they’re going to have an interesting, engaging and rewarding experience at your company, or that they’re going to have a boring, confusing and dissatisfying experience?

Let’s move onto the next stage of employee interaction, the offer letter. These can be the most confusing and jargon-laden documents you’ll ever receive, again with disengagement written all over them. Instead of conveying a sense of welcome and eliciting excitement in new employees, the offer letters often comprise accusatory language that can leave them thinking, “Oh no, what am I getting myself into?”

Should they decide to join your company, what do they get next but the dreaded employee handbook? Where do I begin with this document, which is more often than not hidden away in a drawer and never looked at by employees at all? If by chance it is read, employee handbooks often communicate to them that they’re not trusted or respected, and instead need to be treated as a child. They’re told in Draconian fashion exactly what they can and cannot do. After pages and pages of our stringent HR policies, they feel an increased sense of dread and disengagement.

Consider these four examples of some common, and I believe, most ridiculous and demoralizing policies that companies have in place:

  • Bathroom breaks– Employees must comply with strict rules, including how they need to ask permission to take a break and for how long they can be taken.
  • Attendance policies– Employees’ wages are deducted should they be a few minutes late, even when it’s due to something beyond their control, such as stuck in traffic or having to arrange for care of a sick child — you get the idea.
  • Time off policies– Employees are required to submit proof that they’ve actually been to a funeral of a loved one.
  • Grooming and dress code policies– They’re told the appropriate length that they can wear their hair, a beard or a skirt.

Are these rules really necessary? In some situations, due to health and safety, they are, but in most situations, they’re absolutely the wrong messages to send and tact to take with employees.

I invite you to be a “rebel” and to challenge the status quo around your HR policies. Adopt these four rebellious behaviors to foster employee engagement:

  1. Write HR policies and practices for the many, not the few. Rebels accept that most people are good and trustworthy, and develop their HR policies and practices that are respectful of them and honor their good intentions.
  2. Align HR practice with mission, purpose, and values. Rebels review HR policies and practices ruthlessly to ensure that they live up to the company values and cultural statements. This shows that the organization is serious about, and committed to, following through on its culture of engagement.
  3. Ignore established HR best practices. Rebels are unafraid to be different and say goodbye to established “best practices” if they don’t fit their goals.
  4. Love your lawyers, but manage them carefully. Rebels form great relationships with their legal teams to make sure they comply with local laws and protect the company against real threats. They also constantly weigh against how often something might happen, how much it will cost and the method of protection to assess. Rebels assess how employees may interpret the policy and whether it’s worthwhile.


Debra Corey is group reward director of Reward Gateway, a world leader in integrated employee engagement technology with more than 1,800 clients worldwide. Corey is co-author of the new book, Build it: The Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement (Wiley, Feb. 27, 2018) with Glenn Elliott, which highlights practical improvements that organizations can make to build a highly engaged company culture. Learn more at