The importance of HR compliance is evolving at an exponential rate, particularly as it pertains to culture. How do we respond when new compliance hits the headlines? How do we bring our teams and company on board? The answer is through storytelling.
The importance of HR compliance for humanity
Another way to look at compliance: It is the one way to scale humanely. It’s the only way to grow a community—whether it be a small business, town, city, or enterprise. According to Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist from Oxford, humans are capable of a maximum of 150 friendships at a time—and this 150 is not even representative of close friendships. Per Dunbar’s research, we can only maintain a maximum of 50 good relationships at any given point in our lives; and best friendships are closer to 15. Truly close relationships are limited to around five. Dunbar calls these different levels “circles of friendship.” Anything beyond these numbers—especially the 150 mark—and we start to lose our capacity to effectively care for and support our relationships.
So, let’s apply this principle to building a thriving company. Consider a new company that starts with five people, and they treat each other with integrity, respect, and enthusiasm. They are diligent about fostering trust and keeping one another safe. Then the time comes that they need to scale to build their business. But as they scale, and hire more and more employees, there is less connection. This is when healthy interactions can diminish, accidents happen, and tragedies occur.
As businesses grow, connections and conscientiousness toward one another begin to deteriorate. This is why compliance is crucial.
How big can community become before you start to lose true connection? Extrapolate out from Dunbar’s concentric circles of friends theory: As you get beyond that 15-person circle, and definitely the 50-person circle, connections and conscientiousness toward one another begin to deteriorate. This is why compliance is crucial as businesses grow. Not just to ensure safety and integrity for everyone, but to be able to grow at scale: “Those who recognize the extent to which a dynamic and scalable compliance function can streamline product innovation are able to grow with confidence and absent the regulatory snags that stall or kill new initiatives,” says Mark Alcaide in his article for Wealth Management.
Compliance has always been driven by story
What we think of as the modern era of compliance begins in the late 19th century and, especially, the early 20th century. What drove the creation of those early compliance laws—particularly regarding workers’ rights and safety—were stories that appealed to our collective humanity.
- In 1913, Teddy Roosevelt was crusading for Worker’s Rights. He used, as his rallying cry, the story of a young woman named Sarah, who had lost her arm to improperly maintained machinery in a factory accident. Roosevelt’s efforts lead to the passage of Federal Workers’ Compensation rights in 1916, and their implementation at the state level over the next decade.
- Many of us have heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. It resulted in 146 deaths, 70 of which were caused when young women jumped to their death to escape the heat of the flames. The impact of this tragedy, in particular the stories of the women who leaped to their deaths, had an immediate and lasting impact on the American psyche. The New York State Assembly Factory Investigation Committee was created in the wake of the fire, and the findings of this committee led to reforms in safety and workers’ rights in the state, and ultimately around the country.
New compliance in the light of culture
Much of the new compliance is being created in the light of culture—creating a business environment that supports the wellbeing, freedoms, and inclusion of all employees. The stories that helped to drive safety reform were visceral and universal, easily understood by society at large. New compliance is often narrower, only directly affecting portions of the workforce. This can be a harder sell. The first step is, again, engaging our humanity, and connecting to our empathy, through storytelling. And understanding that legislation and compliance that improves the wellbeing of any of our workforce ultimately benefits us all. Think—pay equity, non-disclosure agreements, data and privacy, protections against harassment and discrimination, and more.
New compliance is often narrower, only directly affecting portions of the workforce. This can be a harder sell.
Just a few examples of currently evolving legislation in the light of culture are:
- Crown Act: This act protects people of color—particularly black women and girls—from the historic discrimination against natural hairstyles in the workplace and schools.
- Pay Equity and Transparency: Expanding legislation to make pay range disclosure to new and current employees mandatory; protection for employees to discuss salary; salary ranges in job postings; and other regulations to help promote pay equity.
- Speak Out Act: This legislation prohibits the use of NDAs (disclosure and disparagements) in cases of sexual harassment and similar violations in the workplace.
These examples of compliance affect larger groups than some other pieces of legislation slowly making their way across the nation, state by state. But they have also been years in the making, and their passage was ultimately achieved with the help of stories. Stories of individuals who have suffered in the absence of compliance.
The components of your compliance story
When new compliance hits the headlines, it can be daunting. You may feel it’s on your shoulders to rally your team or bring the entire company on board. This is where our collective humanity needs to be engaged. This is where storytelling is so crucial. It is in the nature of storytelling—the science of storytelling—that empathy and connection are forged. And because it also engages memory, using storytelling ensures we are reminded of the importance of HR compliance.
Before you can create your story, you first need to identify and collect information and data that supports the benefits of this new compliance. When choosing, you need to consider your audience(s): team, workforce, c-suite, stockholders, and any other stakeholders that may need to be brought on board. Most importantly, always be looking for the humanity and human connection in the information you collect.
Let me tell you a story
Now you are ready to start crafting your story. I believe firmly in keeping structure simple. The more complicated the structure the easier it can be to lose your audience.
The basic construct of any story has three elements: character, conflict, and resolution. There are other elements but let’s start with the basics. Start with your character. Give them as much personal detail and backstory as possible, especially, facts that pertain to the conflict, and the resolution you are seeking (aka new, necessary compliance). And of course, give them details that evoke humanity and connection.
I’m going to break down a story to help explain: a “how-to” roadmap for creating your own story. The story I’m using is a simple example of why companies need to support ADA and EEOC compliance. It also happens to be my story …
I am dyslexic. I was diagnosed as a young girl and sent for remedial support. At that time, I had no idea that there was a stigma attached to my learning processes.
As I grew older that changed. During an oral report in high school, standing in front of the class, I turned a few words around in a sentence structure. Some cute boy (who I had a crush on) asked me if I was “LESS-dys-xic.”
Ashamed but determined, in college I decided to become a professional storyteller and filmmaker—to prove those bullies and that past crush WRONG. Being neurodivergent, when I entered the workforce, I had to push harder than other colleagues to complete my assignments. I learned to think outside of the box. I learned to lead my way, to be creative, and ensure I could collaborate with allies.
However, up until recently, I was embarrassed to share my story. I would get nervous asking for my basic needs—like a quiet workspace when writing. Over the years, I did not advocate for myself, and it was exhausting. While I persevered and had a good career, it often deteriorated my health and well-being. I burnt myself out on a few occasions.
At this point, the character is established with some detail: I am dyslexic; I am determined; I am a little stubborn; I am self-conscious about sharing my neurodiversity in the workplace due to fear; I also tend to burn out if I don’t get the support I need.
Now, on to the conflict (or the issue you are trying to resolve through compliance). In this case: my reluctance to reveal my disability due to the fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against.
When I arrived at UKG, three months into the pandemic, the need to safeguard my health and wellbeing was pushing me to consider disclosing my dyslexia. But since I was hired during COVID as a remote employee, I already had the quiet space that I needed, I didn’t need to explain using the dictation tool or reading via larger fonts. So, I did what I always do—I remained quiet … for the first year.
I knew that ADA regulations protected my right to not disclose my neurodivergence. And that, if I did, ADA and EEOC compliance both protected my dyslexia as a disability, meaning I couldn’t be stigmatized or discriminated against. But I also knew that the existence of compliance regulations doesn’t always mean adherence.
So, you now understand the character and conflict. Next is the resolution (how compliance is the answer). I needed to overcome my fear of stigmatization and discrimination in my new job’s corporate culture.
Slowly I came to trust that my company and manager were both committed to supporting their employees. I had the psychological safety I needed and decided to take a risk and share about my dyslexia. Immediately my manager asked how he could help me. It was a game changer; an overwhelming sense of relief.
Because UKG is compliant, my needs as a neurodivergent employee were immediately accepted and met, without question or stigmatization. I am a loyal, dedicated, and better-performing employee as a result. By practicing compliance, UKG has leaned into their humanity, helping to improve my well-being. However, they have also scaled their business through an increased talent pool fostering loyal, productive, and engaged employees.
So, to review, identify the character and conflict to create a story that engages our humanity. This will help drive the implementation of compliance as the resolution. Be audience specific, contextualize the story, humanize the story, make the story action-oriented, and keep it humble.
Compliance is about more than avoiding legal repercussions and improving the company brand. From an enlightened business standpoint, it is about scaling a company’s growth— now and for the future. It is about living in the light of transparency, which is a much easier lift for all than what is required to hide and obfuscate the lack of compliance.
And when we use storytelling to implement compliance, we do so not out of fear of negative consequences; but by scaling our humanity—as individuals, as a culture, and as a company. It fosters our empathy with and connection to our fellow coworkers. It creates a better culture and a better company for all. This results in a more productive, innovative, and successful business in the long run.