Workplace behaviour training too legalistic?

At the relatively young age of 26 I landed my first role as a Human Resources Manager. I knew some managers were skeptical that I could be effective in this important role, given my youth. I was determined to prove them wrong.

At this time our company policies about sexual harassment, harassment and bullying policies were not taken seriously. Calendars of half-naked women hung proudly on the walls. Casual jokes about sex and women’s appearance were normal in conversations. There was also a culture of repeatedly teasing specific people.

I had a chance to make my mark and help to clean up these undesirable behaviours. There was enough case law to prove that poor workplace behaviour could result in heavy financial penalties. This and the threat of damage to our company reputation was enough to gain the support of the executive team to enforce our workplace behaviour policies.

I also ran extensive training programs, with a heavy law component, to educate leaders on the potential legal and financial risks if the policies were not adhered to. In short, I scared our people into taking their posters of half-naked women down and to behave in accordance with our appropriate workplace behaviour policy.

Victory! The posters came down (after strong objections). The comments and bullying behaviours lessened and I had enough runs on the board to show that this 26 year old HR manager was a force to be reckoned with!

What I didn’t realise at the time was that the change in behaviour was just that – a change in behaviour. Managers and staff changed their behaviours but didn’t change their beliefs about inappropriate behaviour. Their change in behaviour was motivated by the fear of external forces such as the risk of legal action and dismissal. In other words, they didn’t understand why displaying half-naked pictures of females on the walls or how teasing people created poor work environments. Poor work environments are less productive. Poor work environments have high turnover and sick leave. Poor work environments create disloyalty.

Was I really a victor? With hindsight, I think not. Thankfully I’ve had plenty of time to learn about real and sustainable workplace behaviour change and how it must always begin from the inside out and not as effectively from the outside in. Behaviour change without a change in attitude is more likely to create even more negativity as people feel stifled by what they see as an over emphasis on ‘political correctness’.

These days when our clients request the inclusion of workplace behaviour training in our leadership programs we know how to connect the topic with our participants’ intrinsic values and motivations. We begin with the question …. “Who in the room has been involved in an incident relating to poor workplace behaviour?” We find so many people have stories to share about how they or their family members or friends have been negatively affected by poor workplace behaviour. One of the participants that I shall call ‘Rob’ told the group of a time when his close colleague was harassed by their boss. More specifically, how his repeated sexual innuendo about her clothes had not only affected her but also him in the long term as well. The fact that Rob did not stand up for her at the time, played him over and over the years. People connected on a deeply emotional level with his story.

These days I feel humbly victorious. Although my consultants and I still cover the basics of Australian workplace law and company policies, our focus is in deeply connecting workplace behaviour to our participants’ ‘core values’ through facilitating honest discussions, sharing meaningful stories and encouraging personal responsibility.

Now, this is sustainable learning!

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