The Curse of Compliance

"What do I have to do to be legally compliant?"

This is a question I’ve heard often over the years and it's becoming clear to me that it isn't simple. It seems easy to post a cookie cutter policy on the wall, tick a couple checklists and feel the job is done. But compliance as the ultimate goal seems like a low bar. And we're starting to see the results of this compliance focused approach as the headlines and social media feeds uncover deeply rooted workplace stories, secrets and shame.


There are vital principles behind all legislation and this is truly important. But, while complying with legislation should certainly be an outcome of policies and practices in your workplace, a compliance mindset is limiting and potentially damaging to your long-term business goals and workplace well-being.

Workplace connections, employment relationships, trust, behavior change and legal commitments are still at risk if we don’t anticipate and challenge these 5 curses that come with a culture of compliance:

Curse # 1: Compliance treats humans as RISKS

In many organizations, HR Management has become synonymous with “Human Risk” Management. We are in an era of litigation and our governments are compelled to intervene and become the brokers of our employment relationships. Businesses continuously scan for threats and focus on minimum standards hoping to avoid lawsuits, costs and disruptions. The employment relationship starts off with doubt, with repetitive sign-offs on a laundry list of policies, and we need lawyers to craft and understand what should be standard conditions of employment.  This obligation to start a vital relationship with threats (sign or else) and mistrust (we assume you don’t know how to behave), sets an ominous tone which takes significant effort to alter.

Curse #2: Compliance stifles collaboration and dialogue

Being told what to do – with top down, standardized policies – and to comply “or else” ends all discussion before it begins. If discussion does take place, it's limited to training focused on how to avoid repercussions or meet the checklist, rather than changing beliefs and habits to eliminate the need for the policy in the first place. And instead of turning to the people affected by policy decisions to generate shared accountability, dialogue and awareness, we rely on lawyers and legislators to tell us what is fair and reasonable (a.k.a defensible), which is unlikely to address or respond  to our unique businesses, employee and workplace needs.

Curse #3: Compliance abdicates accountability

We've all head it, or used it: "HR is making us do this" or "it's policy." because it's required "by law".  Or when questioned on a decision, we say "we are meeting the legal standard", or worse when organizations fail, we demand "where was HR?". What message does this send to employees? To leaders? Would we rather let legislators or the courts direct critical leadership relationships? Is it really up to only ONE department to be responsible for how grown, educated, professional people behave? (check out Jane Watson's @JsarahwatsHR fabulous video on this). With a compliance mindset, leaders, and even HR,  risk sending the message that they don’t really care about people.  We keep trying to patronize and police instead of engaging in deeper dialogue and we rely on outside forces rather than holding each other accountable to vital principles and behaviours in our work relationships.

Curse #4: Compliance focuses on policy management vs. people leadership

Even the most robust policies can be disconnected from what happens in real life. No document will capture every possibility and yet we want to rely on static documents to make decisions and solve complex issues.  HR teams and business owners end up playing a disheartening game of whack-a-mole trying to keep policies up to date with the next nuance from the latest case law or news story. We rely on paper policies as a cop-out or cure-all when we are afraid to have hard conversations directly with individuals, and we can spend more time and effort on formatting documents than on actions that will integrate our principles into our organization habits, decisions and performance measures. 

 Curse #5: Compliance creates complacency.  

I’ll be first to admit this is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. We assume that once we’ve ticked the checklist, done the training or filed the report, we have done our “due diligence.”  Perhaps we go through the motions of annual policy review, we rubber stamp and carry on.  We often fail to think critically or to challenge ourselves with the difficult questions about actual practices, measures, how successful a policy is at actually addressing the issues it targets, or if it has solved actual business or people concerns at all. We strive to be great rule followers, while failing to ask and understand why we have the rules in the first place. 

This is an ongoing challenge in our workplaces today and for the #futureofwork. In Ontario, we have several legislated Acts, Codes, and Standards that dictate policies for safety, employment, sex/gender, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace, and yet, the headlines are clear that our compliance cultures have failed to address systemic issues and entrenched beliefs. And when we identify these failures, the most common response is unanimously: "More policies." Huh.

Even with all the legislation and corporate compliance,  H&S fatality rates have not fallen in Canada or the U.S in last 20 years, 43% of women in Canada still experience sexual harassment at work and some estimates indicate that every three and a half minutes an unfair dismissal claim is made against an employer.


There is nothing compelling about a compliance mind-set. Changing our focus to human-centered principles (vs. policies) requires us to commit to more vibrant conversations and collaboration, where power is shared and success is built with fairness, equity, diversity and inclusion as part of the process instead of a rule to follow.  Clear commitment, authentic conversations and daily habits will beat compliance mindset every time. It's driven by a connection to people instead of policy and if we start to view our workplace and people through the lens of connection and compassion, we create greater opportunity for better root cause analysis, creative problem solving and broader strategies that build relationships and trust (which incidentally is more likely to reduce risk).

So, my current answer to the question “What do I have to do to be legally compliant?”

Build a culture of conversation instead.

How do you challenge the curse of compliance and embrace a vibrant work mindset? Feel free to share below! Looking for ways to build a culture of conversation? Reach out to us to start a conversation together.