HR Pros – Changing Human Behavior is Hard

This post is for HR professionals who value an inclusive, respectful workplace in which employees are asked to participate in decision making. If you’re trying to manipulate or force employees into a more difficult work situation to increase profits, you can stop reading, this approach won’t help with that.

Whose job is it anyway?

HR’s role is generally seen as balancing  sustained company success; supporting the improvement of the people side of performance throughout the company and finally, supporting employee wellbeing using their knowledge of people and systems. Managers role is to guide their staff’s performance to company goals, make sure they have what they need to perform well, and discuss successes and shortfalls with coaching to improve. HR should not be functioning as supervisory surrogates though they may coach supervisors on occasion.

If I had a nickel for every time a CEO said to me, “You need to talk with the team and get them to do ________ differently!”  As an HR professional, how many times have you been pulled into this assignment only to find you get no traction because the team members don’t report to you? In reality, it isn’t really your job to step in when a senior leader or manager isn’t doing their job, and provide supervisory guidance to fill the gap.

A Fool’s Errand

“Senior leadership’s job is to hold their managers (who supervise others) accountable to do their important staff development work. When they don’t, HR is often drawn into this dilemma as the ’employee whisperer’ without direct authority over employees. While at the same time Senior leadership is rewarding the opposite by inaction.”


How drastic would the change be?

Are you asking for a minor behavioral change in one or two employees or are you trying to reverse a significant disrespectful atmosphere. For minor changes, a simple but effective supervisory intervention will do. Reversing a pervasive negative dynamic however, takes more planning and must be done over time. In addition, it’s not HR’s job. It has to come from company leadership. HR can identify the problem for leadership, craft the overall process; and together with leaders, conduct trainings and support the process. It is a leadership activity.

Big change

Let’s assume that there is an overall problem of disrespect among employees or something of that nature. Here is an outline of what that process might entail.

First, the CEO and leadership must accept that it’s a problem and believe in the change enough to live it and promote it. If the senior team is being disrespectful to each other and to their direct reports, it’s doubtful you’ll have agreement on the problem. If the CEO is determined and prepared to both hold their senior team accountable and to convince them a change is needed, this work should be complete before asking the rest of the organization to change.

Purpose of the change

When you’re asking for people to change their behavior, it must be in service of the good of the company that benefits employees overall, in the long run. It will be helpful to be transparent about the nature of the negative behavior or environment you are trying to reverse. Speak about the negative dynamic that could be harming employees. Both leaders would have to be in relative agreement with the goal of the change. For example, the company is losing money due to something employees are doing. You can frame this as a “positive” of lessening the loss or adding profit. Then follow up by speaking about how this will increase employee rewards in some time. Sometimes the best way to convey the urgency is to describe the bad thing that will happen if changes aren’t made.

Are employees winning or losing?

If you are expecting employees to agree with the change, make the change and remain satisfied in their work, you’ll need to understand how they fair with the planned change. Know the positive and negative effects of the change on company results; customer loyalty and employee experience. This is the beginning of a marketing strategy – knowing how folks will perceive this change and its effect on them.

  • Let’s say employees are abusing a liberal paid time off policy – this is the behavior change you seek. Generally employees will see this as a take away. You could sell this with an explanation of how this is being handled inconsistently (therefore unfair) or how this is negatively affecting the bottom line which connects to bonus or raises.
  • What if we are trying to extinguish disrespectful treatment and raise the standard of more considerate treatment or communication. This is an easier sell to employees being victimized and perhaps a harder sell to those whose behavior is disrespectful and who don’t want changes.

Employees ready and receptive to a change?

How much social capital have you built with your employee group? We know the goal we want, now we have to think about the current state of your employee relations overall. What’s the current state of affairs with employee engagement and view of the company. Are employee relations in a good place or are things are not going smoothly.  You might have to fix current employee relations problems before layering a change on top of them. It’s important to consider the atmosphere within which your change will be implemented.

  • If employee relations are in a bad place – you may have little or no social capital here
  • If employee relations are in a bad place –  make repairing it the first phase of the project, switching to a more positive place IS the positive change
  • If employee relations are in a modest place – this is a good time for a positive change to enhance employee relations
  • If employee relations are in a good place – with good communication, a controversial change could work

You’re ready to go

Championship comes from the top – Obtain full leadership buy in and insist that the CEO lead the change with communication and direct action. If you can, involve employees at this planning stage. Note the example above on the CEO convincing the senior team of the necessity of change and being prepared to hold folks accountable. This will win the senior team over fully before trying to convince others to change.

Transparency – Tell employees what you want to change and why. If it’s to make more money and employee’s jobs are harder, you should probably plan and communicate some additional reward going to employees through salaries or bonus. Keeping them whole.

Evaluate pre-project HR materials for potential tweaks or changes based upon the behavior change you’re considering.

  • New employee orientation materials
  • Employee training program
  • Supervisor training materials
  • Performance evaluation materials which guide supervisors in assessing their staff

Write up the new expectations (Principles) as a code of conduct and communicate it fully to all levels. Involve managers in making this case. Employees are more likely to agree with changes they see multiple levels of management promoting with transparency and consistency.

Write up the operational procedures (Instructions) that have to change and communicate them to affected employees – Employees may be able to create these materials based on their knowledge of operational duties.

Monitor whether senior leadership is modeling the change you’re asking from employees. The minute employees see managers doing the thing you said you wanted to stop, with no consequence, you have lost your opportunity.



Performance standards should be fair and consistent across departments. Front line supervisors are typically better at holding rank and file employees accountable for operations. The tasks are more concrete; easier to measure; and mistakes and problems are visible through basic reports, etc. Holding leaders accountable for the more abstract notion of whether THEY are holding their supervisors accountable takes a higher level skill. You can measure this but its a more intuitive process. Senior leaders may need training on how to observe and evaluate the desired changes in their direct reports. They may need coaching on communicating performance shortfalls with compassion and empathy while getting the desired change. If the issue is their fears about confronting their direct reports, you can work through the fears by listing them out and planning the conversation ahead of time. Once this is overcome, they can help their direct reports work through their own fears.

  • Praise people who make the change
  • Guide the folks who aren’t making the improvement, and when necessary, consequence them

Progress report

Set a time to review progress with the whole team – how are we doing? Be transparent and frank. Course correct as necessary bringing employees on the journey with you.

Celebrate success as a full team

Praise the actions and leaders and teams who are improving and note areas where you should improve your coaching/training.

This is by no means a road map for all changes but I hope it provides a conceptual overview that might help you plan a significant employee behavior change initiative. Let me know if I can help with your specific project.

Contact me  here  and let me know how your project went. I’d love to hear your challenges and wins. Good luck!

(C) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2023 all rights reserved.

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