Rethinking HR: From Chief Compliance Officer to Chief Culture Coach

December 1, 2017

Rethinking HR

Several years ago, I interviewed a senior executive for a magazine article on how executives perceive the human resources function, and vice versa. He started the interview by saying, “I hate HR!”

“Why?” I asked.

He said, “With HR, it’s never about what I need. It’s either ‘You can’t’ or ‘You must.’”

He added, “I’m an engineer. I get engineering, manufacturing, IT, accounting, and so on. The only thing I don’t get is human behavior in the workplace. Thus, the very thing I need the most help on, I get the least.

“That’s why I hate HR.”

Since then, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by many executives, managers, and supervisors. For them, at best, HR is a (barely) tolerated cost.

Why the antipathy toward the HR function?

I have an answer: HR typically focuses on legal compliance and claim prevention, not on creating great workplace cultures. Its focus, priority, and approach are not on helping employees perform, which is why many managers and executives perceive HR as a roadblock to success.

I recommend that HR replace its current compliance paradigm with one centered on creating cultures where employees learn, grow, and perform successfully.

It may strike you as strange to receive this suggestion from an attorney who spent 25 years practicing labor and employment law—someone who made a living from compliance issues and workplace litigation.

And yet, from my experience, the best way to avoid claims is to focus on the people and culture, not on compliance. Although the lawsuit may center on the compliance issue, what drove it in the first place was related to culture—how employees were treated.

I started my career as a plaintiffs’ attorney. What brought employees to my door? Anger! It wasn’t the company’s failure, whether big or small, to comply with some rule or regulation, but the individual’s feeling of being disrespected, abused, or dehumanized.

HR’s role in an engaged culture

If HR puts culture first, working to create one focused on learning and performance, companies will have more loyal, productive employees and their compliance claim risk will be reduced dramatically.

In addition to protecting employers from claims, a culture-based approach speaks directly to what keeps executives up at night, which is not staying out of court. It’s achieving the organization’s goals, which is far more likely to occur when employees share an enthusiastic commitment to success.

In fact, a compliance culture is antithetical to an engaged culture. Compliance cultures are transactional: “Follow the rules and you’ll keep your job and continue to get paid.”

Engaged cultures are other-centered: “How can we as leaders help you succeed?” And, “How can I as an employee help my customers/coworkers/boss/company succeed?”

In a compliance culture, I contribute what I must but nothing more, and I stick around only until I find something better. In an engaged culture, you get my discretionary energy that you can’t command or control. Instead of thinking about finding a better job, I think about how I can maximize my contribution to my current employer.

By shifting focus to creating great workplace cultures, HR moves from being a cost of doing business to a valued strategic partner.

“Compliance is obviously important,” Daniel Pink, author of Drive, told me. “But talent is also important. Today, talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people. So if there isn’t some part of the company manically focused on talent, then the organization will suffer.”

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About The Author

As an organization development (OD) consultant and executive coach, Jathan Janove, principal of Janove Organization Solutions, works with employers to create cultural conditions where both employees and employers thrive. His most recent book is Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (AMACOM, 2016). Janove was recently named in Inc. magazine’s “Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018.”


  1. avatar

    Excellent points all the way around! A compliance culture won’t get you very far — it’s not about risk avoidance, it’s about risk management, and companies have to find a balance that accepts a certain amount of risk while allowing employees to feel engaged and have fun. The “HR sheriff” metaphor has to give way to the executive coach and mentor. Once it starts in HR, it can find its way to the entire senior leadership team. HR’s got it make it safe to do so.

  2. avatar

    The culture you want…
    “I think about how I can maximize my contribution to my current employer.”
    AMEN! Great post.

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