People Over Process: Moving from Compliance to Gratitude

May 3, 2019 Lauren Brown

6-minute read

Meeting Room

What words come to mind when you think about HR compliance? That it’s complex? Rigid? Serious? Ever-changing? Navigating the myriad of workplace regulations has never been easy, but in this new era of HR, what we should be thinking about jointly with HR compliance is gratitude.

Yesterday at the NEHRA 2019 Legal Summit held at the Forefront Conference Center in Waltham, Mass., Workhuman’s Lauren Zajac, chief legal counsel and data protection officer, delivered a keynote about how creating a culture of gratitude in the workplace is the only real way to make progress on some of the main HR and HR compliance concerns we face today.

At Workhuman, we bring our whole selves to everything we do. It’s no surprise, then, that Lauren peppered her keynote with personal stories from her own journey. Having worked as in-house legal counsel for tech companies for the past 20 years, many times she found herself the only female executive at the table. Success in this world was about aggression, self-promotion, using expletives – and that’s the part she played.

At 33, while starting a family, she ran her own consulting business, but still felt like she had to put on the same “tough guy” act as she had her son and then twin daughters.

Once she came to Workhuman – then called Globoforce – her first thoughts, admittedly, were, “Employee recognition is a thing? And companies pay money for it?” Fast-forward more than a decade, the length of her tenure here, and you will get an emphatic “yes” from her. Here are the highlights from her keynote:

What is a culture of gratitude?

Lauren led with a quote by Workhuman® Live speaker Dr. Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis: “Gratitude is, first and foremost, a way of seeing – that alters our gaze.”

Gratitude is good for the soul. For every recognition moment, there is a corresponding moment of gratitude. And that is just as powerful, if not more so.

“Gratitude is just bigger,” she explained. “It’s a personal reflection. It affects how you think. When you give gratitude, you have to take a step back. You have to think about how an activity or performance affected you, and that puts you in a different mindset. It’s much bigger than just having someone say, ‘thank you.’ ”

With gratitude comes a strengthened connection – a solidarity, a bond – between two humans. Continuing to give gratitude over and over again changes the giver. “In those recognition moments, you are not cynical, you are not bitter, you are not negative. You are purely positive. Authentic. A little bit vulnerable. It puts everything in a new light. It changes your view.​”

Continuing to give gratitude over and over again changes the giver.

After being exposed to a culture of gratitude in the workplace, Lauren brought it home and started a daily practice with her children during dinner where she would ask them to say what they were grateful for that day. “There was much grumbling in the beginning, but then I started to see a shift in my children – the way they talked about their days and understood the motivation of their teachers and friends. They’d become more empathetic. I encouraged them to try to take a moment each day to express their appreciation for someone and I continued to see the change in them for the better.”

Even more than this, Lauren saw a change in herself at work. She’d found her authentic voice and a balance in her tone; she became a better listener to her team and colleagues; and she started to embrace being both a woman and an executive. “With a true culture and practice of appreciation and gratitude, I was able to be more empathetic toward my co-workers.”

Why was this? “Creating a peer-to-peer gratitude practice allowed me to witness different voices being heard, different perspectives being appreciated … It's about adding the voice of the employee into the process, and when you do that it's transformative. It elevates the great work that everyone in the organization is doing and builds connection across boundaries.”

And the employee experience drives results – there’s proof in the data. Research from the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute and the Workhuman Analytics & Research Institute (WARI) shows that organizations which score in the top 25% on employee experience – companies that have a culture of gratitude driven by social recognition – report nearly 3x the return on assets and 2x the return on sales.

Why compliance alone doesn’t work alone (without gratitude).

​Things like legal-department-mandated training, forced hiring metrics, required execution of lengthy codes of conduct, and similar policies – while good at mitigating certain kinds of risk – are ineffective when it comes to staying in people’s minds and changing behavior. They can even activate bias if people feel like it’s a check-the-box exercise and end up resenting it. Younger employees, especially, have expectations of a people-led approach instead of a compliance approach.

The other problem with this type of training is it’s often a moment in time and not an everyday practice. When an attendee asked how a recognition program can help with this, Lauren answered, “We’ve done away with handbooks and codes of conduct, and we’ve rolled them into our platform and culture. We tie things back to our business values and mission. You can give people recognition for attending trainings, for taking the test and passing. That’s how you can incorporate these mandatory aspects of the work into your culture.”

How can a culture of gratitude help mitigate compliance issues?

In order to do the best work of our lives, we need to build psychological safety across our organizations.

When people offer their thoughts, their questions, their concerns, they need to be recognized in a positive way. Recognizing these behaviors reinforces the culture. People need to feel seen, heard, and valued.

“There are better results when you create a culture that takes all of the voices with equal weight. When we bring the power of peer-to-peer or crowdsourced initiatives to things like employee recognition or performance reviews, we are automatically encouraging social accountability to support change.”

"There are better results when you create a culture that takes all of the voices with equal weight."

Gratitude and recognition can create a more inclusive environment. The connections created by giving and receiving recognition to co-workers leads to a greater feeling of inclusion. In fact, not only does it build a more inclusive culture, but it improves turnover. ​For example, according to WARI, after one year in a recognition program, Asian, Black, and Hispanic employee turnover drops 20% and female turnover drops 17%.  

Building a culture of gratitude

Start building a culture of gratitude by celebrating milestones​. This doesn’t just mean service anniversaries, but other career milestones, including onboarding, promotions, transfers – all the way through to retirement. WARI data shows workers are 3x more likely to feel valued when peers are included in the milestone experience.

Lauren shared another personal anecdote here. “When I took the time to read through my own 10-year service milestone, it took me about three hours. And by the end of it, I was a mess. I came back to work the next day with a different energy, a renewed sense of purpose, and a greater appreciation for my colleagues who’d become my friends.”

Think of small ways you can create this kind of emotional impact in the workplace. “We all have this ability to bestow recognition and goodness onto others,” said Lauren. “Bestowing a moment of recognition is saying ‘I see you. I see what you do. Your contributions are valuable. You are valuable. I celebrate you.’ ’’

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About the Author

Lauren Brown

Lauren Brown is the senior copywriter at Workhuman, writing everything from emails and landing pages to all the signage at Workhuman Live. In her free time, she writes novels, shops vintage, and throws epic dinner parties.

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