Exploring Some Causes of Toxic Workplace Cultures

Describing a workplace as “toxic” has become almost cliché in recent years; although all offices have a negative element or two, there are some that are truly toxic, meaning the culture is so negative that it has negative impacts on the business. These impacts can range from poor morale and lowered productivity to employee disengagement and high turnover.

Toxic Cultures and the Turnover Tsunami

In an article for BBC Worklife, Katie Bishop tells us that about 20% of U.S. workers have left their jobs because of toxic environments and that 64% of employees in the United Kingdom “said that experiencing problematic behaviors at work had negatively impacted their mental health.”

Of course, no one would argue that toxic workplaces are desirable, but they exist nonetheless. So what are some of the factors that contribute to toxic cultures, and how can those factors be mitigated?

Factors Contributing to Toxic Workplace

A toxic culture isn’t necessarily about the size or structure of the organization. “A common conception is that toxic behaviors are often found in large corporations where competition is fierce and accountability is low – and yet some workers report that the same damaging culture can just as easily be found in smaller, less hierarchical organizations,” says Bishop.

Instead, toxic cultures often thrive when one or both factors are present: resource constraints and weak leadership and culture. Looking first at resource constraints, it makes sense that employees in companies with less money to spend on staff or other resources will be stressed and struggle to keep up with their workload, and stress is always a potential source for negative attitudes, hostility, and general toxicity.

When Toxicity Is Pervasive and Ongoing

Negativity and unhealthy behavior can crop up in any organization. What sets truly toxic cultures apart, though, is that they take root and stick around. That’s where the second factor comes into play. Organizations that lack strong leaders to stamp out toxic behavior or strong cultures that make such behaviors unacceptable become fertile ground for toxicity to grow and thrive.

While some workers might casually throw around the term “toxic workplace,” there are some organizations that truly deserve the label. Companies that are resource-strapped and lack strong leaders and robust cultures are often ripe for toxicity to spread. Addressing these underlying factors may not only help address existing toxicity but also prevent it in the future.

How Leadership’s Understanding of “Psychological Safety” is More Important than Ever

Whether you’ve been leading a remote workforce for decades, recently ventured into this space, are dabbling with hybrid models or fully returning your staff to in-house status, one thing is certain: The concept of “workplace” has changed forever. The pandemic effectively recast it. And the hard, sacred work of nurturing company culture has gotten even more dynamic in the process.

psychological safety

Plus, we all have a front row seat to “The Great Resignation” as the country and the job market has opened back up and the perception of boundless options prevails (all while making this workplace and cultural undertaking even more fraught for leadership). The talented and the hopeful are not wrong – There is an opportunity boom as we emerge from this period, but what remains is more important than ever: the need to get a few things right, and these all play into the primal need of feeling psychologically safe. Offer or no offer, no one’s coming back to your office, live, virtual or otherwise, if they don’t feel safe and included within the culture.

Therefore, inclusion and belonging have taken on a heightened level of importance within the workplace. Once buzzwords in the workplace, and often used only for PR purposes, these traits are now business imperatives. Talent is more intentional now than ever about interviewing the company they will lend their skills to, rather than simply being interviewed by a potential employer. Value and career alignment, community, allyship and trust are dominating interview conversations more and more.

This war on talent is opening the eyes of global companies and leaders to rethink their strategy for attracting and retaining the world’s top talent. When employees leave an organization to take on other opportunities or resign without another offer in hand, there may be a true disconnect in value, career alignment or trust. Here are some immediate questions to consider:

  • Did the employee speak up about concerns prior to resigning? If no, why not? If yes, were there follow-up conversations and realignment on actions?
  • Did the manager have regular conversations with the employee on career goals and timing?
  • Did the organization make inclusion and belonging visible priorities and central business strategy?
  • How safe do your employees feel to share their frustrations or misalignments? On a scale of 1 to 10 (1= not safe at all, 10=extremely safe).
  • How inclusive is your leadership?

As I share often with other Diversity & Inclusion executive leaders, the role of psychological safety and trust continues to be the solution for regrettable attrition. Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, defines psychological safety as “an environment of rewarded vulnerability”. If we take this definition and use it to assess our current culture in many organizations we see the missing ingredient. It is imperative that executive leaders, managers, and supervisors all rethink what workplace inclusion and trust look like. It means we sometimes have the uncomfortable conversations with staff, and ask questions like,“What are you hoping to get from your time in this role?” or “How do you see this opportunity playing into your overall career goals?” These basic questions create opportunities for alignment and realignment throughout their time in the organization.

We hear the statement all the time that people don’t quit companies, they quit bosses. And often when talent quits a boss, it is because somewhere along the journey, that talent lost trust in the boss’s ability to place the employee’s interest in mind.

“Do you have me and my career and my ability to excel in this role, in mind, when you’re leading? If you don’t, then I’ll go somewhere where I am celebrated and recognized for my value add.”

So, take a moment. Step back. Reflect and ask yourself those questions.

Psychological safety is not simply something to “achieve” or a box to check. It’s something to embody. And it takes continuous work and improvement.

It’s also not something that any one person can achieve alone for an organization. It’s on each of us – from CEOs and tenured leaders to new hires experiencing their first day – to consistently work towards… Together.

With that, I encourage you to consider #rethinking psychological safety in corporate culture.

Preparing the Workplace for Another Challenging Year

As we enter the new year, the risks of COVID-19 may recede, but the trauma, pain, and disruptions of these past two years will still be with us, affecting our lives and our work. We’ve all struggled, sometimes in ways we can’t pinpoint. 

In her book Bearing the Unbearable, Joanne Cacciatore describes grief as “a process of expansion and contraction.” Cacciatore explains that in a moment of contraction, we may feel unsteady and unsafe, and we “feel the call to self-protect.” In a moment of expansion, we “become more willing to venture out and explore” and “take risks.” This process isn’t exclusive to grief, of course. Whatever the cause, many of us right now are experiencing one or the other, or both. 

A recent guest on the HR Social Hour Half Hour Podcast, Julie Turney, founder and CEO of HR@Heart Consulting, observed that people today recognize that they deserve better, and they are demanding better. They are less willing to settle, less comfortable with the way things are. People are fleeing jobs that are physically or psychologically unsafe. Others are chasing their dreams with a newfound passion. 

For the foreseeable future, people will seek environments that are both flexible and strong enough to support a process of contraction and expansion. They will desire work that gives them a safe place to be and a fulfilling place to go. They will crave a future they can own and a course they can chart, and their jobs will either help or hinder them. Jobs that help them will be in high demand.

Fortunately, such sought-after work environments can be achieved with some basic practices. Let’s look at some.

Talk About the Future
Ask your managers to talk regularly with their direct reports about how they’re feeling today and what they’d like to be doing in the future. Due to the circumstances, you can expect the answers they hear to vary and to change. On a given day, an employee may feel optimistic and ambitious, eager to take on a new project or a new role. But a week later, that same employee may feel hesitant or anxious about taking on any new responsibilities.

Don’t assume an employee expressing conflicting feelings isn’t up for the task at hand. In normal times, it’s natural to second guess big decisions, and these are not normal times. Some employees may need a little extra encouragement. Others may truly be happier continuing to do what they’ve been doing.

Through these conversations, managers can help their people make informed decisions about their future that make sense for them and for the company.

Don’t Be Afraid to Set Deadlines
Giving employees time to decide what future makes the most sense for them can go a long way to building trust and gratitude. There will come a time, however, when a decision needs to be made. A manager who has been talking with a member of their team about a new career opportunity in another part of the company, for example, will need a definitive answer eventually, probably sooner rather than later.

When a manager has a conversation with a team member about opportunities for growth that require significant change, they should, as soon as possible, make it clear to the employee when a final decision needs to be made. That way the employee has a set timeframe to work through their feelings, and a deadline isn’t unexpectedly thrust upon them.

Provide Grief Support
A lot of people are grieving, and grief takes work. People grieving need the time, space, and freedom to do that work. The option to take bereavement leave after a loss can be invaluable to them, but so too is the liberty to take days off down the road when they’re needed. The grieving process isn’t linear, and the unbearable pain of grief can resurface unexpectedly, months and years later. The life of grief is long. Whatever you can do to enable employees to safely take the time they need to process a loss and heal, do it. 

Take Care of Yourself and Your HR Leaders
Lars Schmidt, the founder of Amplify, points out that, while the “market for HR roles has never been hotter,” the work of HR has taken a “sustained toll” on those doing that work. They’re “carrying the emotional burdens of their employees (and their own).” Burnout is common.

Be sure to give yourself and anyone else caring for your people time to rest, recharge, grieve, or whatever else each of you needs to do to stay healthy. “Resilience is not an infinite resource,” executive coach Sarah Noll Wilson reminds us. Take time off. You need it, too.  

Don’t Take Departures Personally or Draw the Wrong Conclusions
When an employee leaves an organization, it’s always a good idea to understand why and consider what changes you could have made to keep them. What you learn may not persuade that employee to reconsider their departure, but it may assist you in keeping others. That said, sometimes employees quit and there’s nothing you could have done to convince them to stay. The best possible workplace in the world will still see people go elsewhere simply because those people want a change or because of circumstances beyond their control.

When your employees tell you they’re leaving, do your due diligence to find out why, but don’t overthink their departures or take them personally. If everything was good and they still left, that just means everything was good and they still left. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do enough or should have done something differently. Believe in the work you’re doing. Be kind to yourself. As Lars Schmidt says in his book Redefining HR, “we’re on the front lines of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of all our employees.”    

Inspire Hope
Whether we feel the strong urge to self-protect or we’re jumping out of our seat to pursue a risky venture, we could all use a little hope. The philosopher David Utsler writes, “Hope offers no guarantees. Hope does not promise that life or the world will get better. Hope only insists on the possibility.”

You can inspire hope by expanding the scope of what is possible for your employees. Talk with them about their dreams and ambitions so they can imagine what possibilities lie before them. Talk about where your company is going and what you’ll need from your employees. Help them envision a place where they can explore, take risks, and be supported.

Then work together to get there. 

Strategy, Mission, and Vision: How Do They All Fit Together?

A lot of buzzwords get thrown around in business today. Some of them are productive, some of them are trendy, and some are confusing. What can be especially confusing is when multiple words are used to convey related but separate themes. Employees and managers alike are often confused by the difference between their company’s vision, mission, and strategy. While striving for consistency across each area, it’s easy for these ideas to overlap significantly. Let’s take a look at each of the three: what they are, what are the key differences, and how they all fit together.

What is a Company Vision?

A company vision seeks to outline where the company is headed and what values are guiding that journey. It tells us the company’s purpose by focusing on the future and what the organization exists to achieve.

The vision statement should not need revising often; it is the foundation of the company and is based on the company’s core beliefs. These core beliefs or values are those that remain constant—regardless of business climate, profit level, or sales cycle.

Many organizations choose to specifically outline or list their core values as part of their vision statement. When taking this route, remember the list should be short—typically no more than about 5 items. These values should not be dependent on current profits, current trends, or current economic circumstances. They’re more constant than that and represent the deep-seated core values that remain at the heart of the organization.

Because it tells the organizational purpose and values, the vision statement often influences the company culture and expectations, thereby giving direction for employees. It should be very short and easy to communicate.


What is a Company Mission?

Like the vision, the mission also tells everyone the organization’s purpose—what does the organization exist to do? What are the objectives? It goes beyond the vision, however, by making a clearer delineation of company goals and how the vision will be accomplished.

In other words, the mission statement is a way to express the vision in practical terms. It should be concrete and include goal-oriented language. It should include measurable objectives. Every person within the organization can evaluate whether his or her own activities will serve to help the company achieve its mission.

A mission statement is usually disseminated internally. It is used by employees, stockholders, and by leaders throughout the organization. Like the mission, it should also be short. It could even be a single sentence in some cases.

While the company vision is future-focused, the mission combines forward-thinking with present goals. It may be modified over time, but it should always stay true to the company’s vision and values.


What is a Company Strategy?

Creating a company strategy is the final step in this process. Defining the vision and mission are critical before starting on strategic elements. After all, what is the strategy trying to achieve if not the company mission? And what is the mission if not an embodiment of the vision?

Some organizations put additional steps between forming the vision/mission and creating the strategy. For example, many choose to create an overall list of objectives or goals first, and then to use those as the basis for their company strategy.

A company strategy should include short- and long-term goals and should explain how those goals will be achieved. It is focused on present actions and outcomes needed to move closer to achieving the mission. Company strategies evolve and are updated over time to adjust for current factors such as local economic conditions and company needs.

Does your organization have a well-crafted and easy-to-communicate vision? Does it guide employee behavior? Does your mission reflect your core values? Is it easy to link the company strategy back to the vision and mission?

How to Design a Powerhouse Team

Many Americans get their first job working at a fast-food chain. You may have been one of them. If so, you probably remember your first day. Maybe you started at a register. Or perhaps you began in the kitchen. Either way, you had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Everyone was counting on you to help keep the lines moving. Patience isn’t a virtue in this business, after all.

Fast-food restaurants make for good first jobs because the tasks are fairly easy to learn and don’t require any specialized knowledge going in. But they’re also good first jobs for another reason. When you get a job in fast food, chances are you’re joining a well-designed and effective team that works smoothly under pressure. Fast food lines might not always be as fast as we’d like, but they’re reliably quick, and it’s the team design that makes it so.

It’s extra impressive what fast-food teams regularly accomplish given that the team can only move as fast as the slowest person on it, turnover tends to be high, and a lot of the crew has little other job experience. And yet these teams move with a purpose. You may have read that when a COVID-19 vaccination clinic needed to get its backed-up drive-thru moving, it brought in a Chick-fil-A manager. 

If you’re creating a new team or restructuring one you already have, you could do worse than look at fast-food teams for inspiration. You probably won’t be mimicking the particular functions, roles, or processes of those teams, but there’s nevertheless a lot to learn from how these teams are designed and how they operate.

What’s their secret? These teams succeed because they’re clear about the value they provide and because their functions, roles, and processes are all designed to provide that value. Let’s look more closely at their design and what it can teach us.

Clarifying Value

Like all restaurants, fast-food chains serve food, but the food isn’t the value they provide. The value is the speed with which you get your food. It’s the convenience of a quick meal. It’s also the uniformity of the experience. Whether you purchase a Whopper and fries at a Burger King in Eugene, Oregon or in Ankeny, Iowa, you expect the meal to look and taste the same, and you expect to get it fast. In most instances, you do.

Businesses like this are set up to deliver a fast and uniform customer experience. Get in line, get your food, and go about your day. No delays. No surprises. This is what you expect when buying fast food, and every decision made at a fast-food joint is designed to satisfy this expectation. The measure of success for every function, process, and performance is whether this value is delivered.

Before you determine or reconsider team functions, processes, and roles, clarify the value your team is meant to deliver. That value, remember, isn’t a product or a service or an internal “deliverable.” It’s the need or want satisfied by whatever your team provides. It’s the why behind what your team does.

If you’re not sure what value your team is meant to have, ask yourself what success looks like. What are the one or two or three big signs that your team is or would be doing a good job? What makes relevant parties happy when your team has done its job well? Those should clue you into your team’s specific value.

Considering Functions

The functions of a team are those things that need to happen for the value to be delivered. When a customer orders a hamburger at McDonald’s, they expect to get it quickly and for it to taste like every other McDonald’s hamburger they’ve eaten. A series of tasks makes that happen. The order is taken and communicated to the kitchen. A bun is prepared. Condiments are added to it. A beef patty is cooked and placed on the bun. The finished burger is wrapped, handed off, and bagged. Money is taken. Food is delivered.

When you’re considering what functions your team performs or will perform, don’t think about roles just yet. Think first about what value your team is expected to deliver and what functions make that happen. Write down all of the work that gets done or needs to get done. Account for every task.

Next, ask yourself how each function contributes to the value that your team provides. Consider also whether that work actually needs to happen. Fast-food restaurants, for example, found that indoor lines move faster when customers fill and refill their own drinks. The task of filling drinks, when done by employees, slows things down. Removing this task from the team sped things up, i.e., increased the value they provided.

Assigning Roles

Don’t confuse functions and roles. If you pop into a McDonald’s during a lunch rush, you’ll likely see five or so people in the kitchen each assigned to a separate task . But arrive during an afternoon lull, and you may just see one or two people doing all this work. In places like McDonald’s, managers typically determine roles with each shift. Today an employee may be scooping French fries into containers. The next day, they may be taking drive-thru orders. This flexibility enables employees to learn all of the team functions over time, builds speed and familiarity with each one, and it keeps the work from quickly becoming monotonous. Because everyone can do everything, sudden reassignments, say when an employee calls in sick last minute, are easier to accommodate. Speed doesn’t suffer (too much).

Day-to-day role assignments may not work for your businesses, but it’s still a good idea to keep functions and roles separate in your mind and in your future team planning. Conflating the two risks locking people into roles that don’t develop (or enable them to develop). Aligning roles with functions too rigidly can also isolate your people, limiting the number of people with whom they interact and the places where they can add value. But dividing up functions more liberally can bring more variety to each role and expand the areas where people in those roles are able to collaborate with others on their team.

Implementing Processes

The process of getting a burger made and in the hands of a customer is fairly simple and straightforward, but the demand for speed and the volume of orders both make it easy for mistakes to happen. During a rush, the kitchen crew has a continual stream of orders on the table, each with a different destination.

To manage the flow of ordered items and keep multiple lines of people moving, fast-food teams must communicate quickly and clearly. When an assembled and wrapped burger moves from the kitchen to the frontline crew, there can’t be any question about which bag or tray it should go to. Any uncertainty wastes time and decreases value.

Clear communication is valuable everywhere, of course, but speed may not be the value your processes should be designed around. People tend to like it, for example, when their doctor takes extra time to listen to them and understand their needs. Medical offices that get patients in and out as fast as possible aren’t delivering the value those patients typically want. They soon get a bad reputation. That reputation fairs even worse if doctors take ample time with patients, but the staff scheduling appointments have been told to schedule as many appointments as possible.

When you’re figuring out how your team should communicate and collaborate, let the value your team provides be your guide, and make sure every member of your team is guided by the same value.

Deciding Who Decides

Fast-food chain managers decide who to hire and fire, what to pay, and whom to schedule, but they have no say in the decisions about the products they make and sell. They don’t decide what temperatures to cook the meat or how much mustard or ketchup to use or how large the fry containers should be. Those decisions are made outside the restaurant. This makes perfect sense. Customers expect uniformity, so you don’t want the kitchen staff experimenting with the secret sauce or patty sizes or seasonings that go in a taco. Not even a franchise owner has the liberty to make those decisions.

But if uniformity isn’t what interested parties expect from your team, you probably don’t need as many decisions dictated from on high. The members of a team tasked with coding a video game with never-before-seen features would probably do well having the freedom to experiment, take risks, fail, and try again.

Deciding who makes decisions and in what circumstances can be daunting for managers. A lot can go wrong. Some people enjoy having autonomy and authority over their work, and they’d choose other employment if they had no say over their work and how it gets done. Others don’t want the stress of making decisions that could help or harm the company. More people making decisions invites more bad decisions and workplace drama, but fewer decision-makers can restrict a team’s ability to be creative and innovative.

Whatever you decide about your team’s decision-making authority, make sure it aligns with and supports the value your team delivers, especially long term. Next, explain to your team how decision-making on the team works. No one should be uncertain about who makes decisions and when. Finally, hold people accountable to their decisions. Reward decisions that add value, and address issues with decisions that detract from it. That also means holding yourself accountable for how decision-making is done in your organization.

Developing the Team

You may have noticed that we haven’t covered the essential step of hiring and retaining the right people for the roles you need. That was deliberate. The steps above—clarifying value, considering functions, assigning roles, implementing processes, and deciding who decides—form the design of your team. Think of this design as the team architecture that your team members operate in, whoever they may be.

That said, don’t be afraid to allow your particular employees to help shape the overarching team design. For a team to be effective, it must be a source of value to the people on it. People don’t stay engaged with a team or remain on it when that team doesn’t meet their own wants and needs. Team input can make a good team design even better.

What is HR Compliance?

Running a business comes with no shortage of perks: the freedom to be your own boss, invest in an idea, steer its trajectory, and, with a little luck, create wealth. It has its challenges, too. Competition may be fierce. Demand for what you offer may be low. Costs may not be sustainable. But even if everything else is going your way, there’s one challenge that’s ever-present. We’re talking, of course, about HR compliance.

Defining HR Compliance

HR compliance is the work of ensuring that your employment practices conform to federal, state, and local laws. This work requires learning which laws apply to your organization and understanding what they require you to do. That’s easier said than done.

HR compliance is truly an art. It requires knowledge, skill, and cooperation. You have to be able to decipher legalese, know where to go to ask the right questions, and create policies and procedures that minimize business risk. You have to ensure that everyone from the executive team to newly minted managers know what they can and cannot do. You have to conduct investigations and enforce your rules consistently. And all this is just the bare minimum—necessary, but not enough to create a truly successful culture.

The work of compliance is never entirely done. Not only do new legal requirements appear on the regular, but, as you’ll read below, compliance obligations are often unclear. While some compliance obligations are definitive, others are unresolved, and a good number of laws require you to make a judgment call. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Why HR Compliance Can’t Always Be Assured

Some employment laws take the form of “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” The requirements may be simple, like minimum wage, or complex, like FMLA, but either way there’s usually no real question about what you need to do or not do. Compliance with these laws is pretty straightforward. Don’t pay less than the minimum wage. Provide leave to eligible employees for the reasons that qualify, continue their health benefits (if applicable), and return them to their position when their leave ends. As long as you’re clear on the details, you’re not likely to lose sleep wondering if your policies and procedures are compliant.

Sometimes, however, those details are unsettled. Lawmakers don’t always specify everything a law requires before it passes or takes effect. Even when laws seem clear, trying to put them into practice often raises a lot of questions. And the legislature isn’t the only source of law: regulatory agencies demand their say, and courts get involved, too. To complicate matters, these branches of government don’t always agree with each other, and what they say today may not be what they say tomorrow. Keeping up with the latest official guidance takes time and persistence. It can feel like a marathon, when what you want is a quick sprint to the answer. You have other demands on your time, after all. 

Finally, a lot of employment laws have standards you have to follow, but they don’t tell you how. Neither the IRS nor the DOL, for example, tells you whether your workers are employees or independent contractors—unless there’s an audit or complaint. Instead, these agencies publish tests with general criteria that you use to make case-by-case determinations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) works this way, too. Under the ADA, an employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, with a few exceptions. One of the exceptions is that the accommodation doesn’t create an undue hardship on the employer’s business. The basic definition of an undue hardship is an action that creates a significant difficulty or expense. Although the law provides factors to consider in making this determination, the onus is on you to decide whether an expense or difficulty from an accommodation is significant. And, ultimately, your conclusion could be challenged in court.

Why HR Compliance Looks Like This

If HR compliance seems convoluted, that’s because it is. Our current legal landscape is the result of three competing philosophies about how the workplace should be governed, who should govern it, and whose rights in the workplace should be prioritized in the law.

Owner Control
According to the first view, business owners should have control over their workplaces and the work that takes place for the simple reason that they own the business. It’s their property, and as owners they should have the legal right to govern it. Employees have no right to control aspects of the workplace because the workplace isn’t theirs. They don’t own it. It’s not their property. If their desires don’t align with the owners, or if they don’t like the terms and conditions of their employment, they can and should go elsewhere.

Of course, an owner might employ managers or an executive team to make decisions about who to hire and fire, what to pay, how to assign work, and other such matters, but in principle the owner is still in charge. Advocates of this view include the economist Milton Friedman who, in 1970, famously wrote that corporate executives have a direct responsibility to conduct business according to the desires of the owners. The will of the owners reigns supreme. 

Worker Control
According to the second view, workers should have a say in the decisions that get made simply because those decisions affect them and their livelihoods. In this line of thinking, the governance of the workplace should adhere to the principles of democracy, although proponents for this view differ on how democracy in the workplace should be practiced.

In the 1930s, Senator Robert F. Wagner introduced the National Labor Relations Act to guarantee the “freedom of action of the worker” and ensure that workers were “free in the economic as well as the political field.” And, today, talk of democratizing the workplace usually refers to bolstering unions. But there are other proposals to note. Some champions of workplace democracy, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, have pushed for employee representation on corporate boards. Others favor cooperative models in which the division between employers and employees doesn’t exist.   

Full-fledged workplace democracy is still a fringe view, though. The very definition of an employee remains a worker who does not have the right to control what the work is, how it’s done, or how it’s compensated. However much authority employees are given to make decisions, however much influence they have over their superiors, they are not legally in charge. 

Societal Control
Advocates of the third view argue that the government has an interest in exercising some measure of control over the work and the workplace. In the employer-employee relationship, employers typically have significantly more power than employees—especially an employee acting as an individual. Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor and was a key architect of the New Deal, believed that government “should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.” She saw a role for legislatures in countering long hours, low wages, and other conditions unfavorable to employees. 

How These Philosophies Have Played Out

In the United States, HR compliance is the result of these three competing and arguably incompatible philosophies. Government action with respect to employment has tried to empower workers and afford them certain rights, protections, and freedoms in the workplace, all while preserving the employer’s control over their business.

We can see this balancing act in the differences among state laws. Some states prioritize the right of owners to control their workforces and are loath to restrict that right through legislation. Other states act out of what they see as a duty to secure the rights of workers. Imposing obligations on employers doesn’t bother them.

We also see this balancing act in the way that employment laws tend to set parameters rather than dictate exactly what employers must do. You can pay employees whatever you want, so long as you pay at least the minimum, offer an overtime premium when applicable, and meet equal pay requirements. You can theoretically terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all (though we don’t recommend it); but you can’t fire someone for an illegal reason. Even laws that require a new practice, such as paid leave, allow flexibility provided the minimum conditions are met.

Takeaways

First, when you’re assessing your compliance obligations, understand that not all compliance obligations are clearly delineated or settled law. Unsettling as that may be, it’s how our system has been set up. In those cases, you’ll have to weigh your options and the risks involved, and then make a decision. Sometimes you may need legal advice in addition to HR guidance. Remember, though, that despite all the many employment laws on the books and in the imaginations of legislators, the system is designed to keep employers in charge of their work and workplaces. You can’t eliminate all risk, but by understanding the nuances and open questions, you can significantly minimize it.

Second, document your actions and decisions. It only takes an employee filing a complaint for enforcement agencies to get involved, but you are better protected if you can quickly and clearly explain to them the reason for your actions.

Third, evaluate whether your policies, procedures, and practices are satisfactory to employees. No employment law gets written in a vacuum, and no law is truly inevitable. The Fair Labor Standards Act came to be because workers and the general public felt that labor standards were unfair. Today we wouldn’t have people pushing for predictive scheduling laws if they felt that work schedules were already sufficiently predictable. Harassment prevention training wouldn’t be mandatory (where it is) if sexual harassment weren’t widespread.

Fourth, lead by example. Make good employee relations a key part of your brand and competitive advantage. Employees have higher expectations today than they used to. Meet those expectations and motivate other employers to do the same, and you may find that the compliance landscape of the future is less winding and boggy than it could have been.

Finally, we have an online portal (HR Support Center) that is available to our clients where you can learn about your compliance obligations. Our laws section breaks down federal and state employment laws in a way that people can understand, and the News Desk keeps you up to speed on the latest compliance obligations and contingencies you should consider. HR compliance is an art, and the first step to mastering it is learning what it entails and how it works.

Take a 30 day trial of our HR Support Center for FREE! Simply email linda@azhrhub.com today.

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