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For the past five to 10 years, incorporating the idea of being a “people-first” culture spread like a wild fire throughout company mission statements and values.

Do any of these sound familiar?

We put our people first.

We care about our employees.

We are committed to providing a good company culture.

With that commitment came the now infamous (and likely unhelpful) employee engagement survey. Measuring what our employees think and feel about our company “culture” based on standard off-the-shelf questions that are likely not very relevant to the feedback your employees actually want to share.

There have been some exciting and meaningful shifts towards creating better work environments, retaining employees by providing different benefits/perks/freedoms, and helping HR become “more human.” (I have an entire rant about this phrase, but I digress).

But we’ve stalled out.

Most HR departments are now realizing that the results from employee engagement surveys are no longer moving the needle, being actioned upon, or honestly, have any value. But it’s a thing we do each year, because a) it’s how we’ve been doing HR for the past 10+ years; b) it’s in our budget and we absolutely cannot lose our budget dollars; and c) what else is there?

Instead of focusing solely on employee engagement, here are four steps you can take to create a truly people-first culture.

1: BE People-First

In order to be a people-first culture, you need to actually care about your employees. Truly care about who they are as individuals, why they choose to spend a big part of their day working at your company, why you trust them to represent you to the external world, and their uniqueness.

How do you take this idea and apply it in real terms?

You start with your strategy – from the very top. Now you may not be in a role within HR that allows you to influence the CEO or Board of Directors, but you can still apply this for your HR organization (or within your own role – in the culture you create).

At the core of your strategy, are your people/employees, critical to your overall success? Not just any person, or people you can hire if your current talent leaves, but are you invested in how successful your current employee population is in their role – for the success of your company?

This is a HUGE question – often not easily answered. And frankly, the answer may be no.

At the core of your strategy, are your people critical to your overall success? Not just any person, but are you invested in how successful your current employee population is in their role – for the success of your company?… Click To Tweet

Your current employees may not be that critical in the success of your company – as a whole. Yes, key talent stands out and a few other people and players may be critically important, but if your company’s strategy does not value each “cog in the wheel” – each and every employee who works there in the same regard, then this isn’t a core value for your company.

And while most people will go down the rabbit hole of shaming you/your company for this, that’s not something to be shameful about. Why? Because most U.S.-based/owned companies of 5,000+ employees fit into this space.

Sure, they may want their employees to be at the core of their success, but in truth, it’s hard to start from there – when you have to deliver certain bottom-line dollars (and any person on the front-line will do to produce your product). It sounds callous – but it’s truthful.

Don’t fret though – if you work at such a company and know that your employees aren’t ever going to be the first consideration for success, ask yourself: how can you put people-first in the sphere of influence you control?

Do your decisions start with how it would impact/affect/influence your employees? If yes, then you are being “people-first.”

After strategy and decision, consider your hiring tactics, the HR investments you make (technology, projects, solutions, compensation), and round it out with the people you partner with (vendors, consultants, partners). Do each one of these things support YOUR stance on putting people first?

I’ve talked about this before, but there is usually a disconnect when we partner externally – creating a discrepancy between what our company believes, and what our partners believe.

For example, I once worked for a company who partnered with external clients to deliver something. The external client was obsessed (in the best way!), with being recognized on the Human Right’s Campaign Corporate Equity Index. To do so, they were very proactive in providing equal pay, had several employee groups supporting these efforts, provided a safe work environment with zero tolerance, and provided best-in-class benefits to support their entire employee population. Their partner (the company I worked for), had the complete opposite approach to their workforce. They didn’t care at all about being on the index – and their actions reinforced that. Their employee groups never got off the ground and had zero senior leader support; the benefits they provided were very unbalanced and un-supportive for many of their more marginalized employee population.

The client didn’t know the vendor’s stance on those things. By their mere association with a company that had such a different “first” strategy – and was so far away from the values and people-first approach of the client, they offended many employees and their true commitment was questioned.

This is an extreme example to point out that if you are truly being people-first, it’s a shift in thought, consideration and attitude. It’s not just something you put in your mission statement or core values and call it a day. It’s hard work, and you have to re-evaluate many of your actions.

2: Invest in Communication with Your Employees

I have yet to see an employee engagement survey that doesn’t point out that communication (lack thereof and/or lack of transparency), isn’t a top complaint. This is true regardless of your company size.

Most organizations operate on the under-share (we only tell you things in vague terms or corporate speak) or over-share (we tell you everything under the sun so you can figure out what’s important).

Neither approach wins – and your employees will always lose.


If we leave too much space with a lack of communication – where most companies fall – then employees start creating their own stories. And they are usually a lot worse than what’s actually going on. And once they feel as though they are left out of the loop, and they have a bad story loop in their head, they are going to lash out or check out. WHY would they want to be engaged and tapped in to the company’s outcomes?In HR in particular, we stand behind the shroud of needing to be secret, in a constant state of CYA (covering your a$$), defending possible one-day lawsuits, and sharing as little as possible just in case. And I’m not saying that’s not always the best stance – but it’s not an investment in being people-first.

In #HR, we stand behind the shroud of needing to be secret, in a constant state of CYA (covering your a$$), defending possible one-day lawsuits, and sharing as little as possible just in case. Not effective #communication. Click To Tweet

Instead, you need to invest in the right communications to your employees.

Do the platforms that you use along your employees’ experience, reinforce your commitment to them?

Are you being extremely clear in what you communicate and what action/info they need to take away from it? Do your messages say what you mean?

Are you communicating through channels and locations that make sense to your employee… and are you saying it a few times in a few ways, so they understand?

This type of commitment is an investment. Not just in communication plans/consulting, but also with your time, focus, being vulnerable to feedback, and open to changing what has always been done in the past.

Your communications – your strategy, approach, messaging, channels, tactics, etc. – need to be people-first. Not coming from a place of fear (we’re gonna get sued!) or a place of corporate standards (AP style does NOT resonate, I promise).

3: Provide Real Feedback Opportunities

An employee engagement survey can provide some insight and feedback with certain caveats, but it’s not a true open and honest feedback forum.

The hard truth is this: feedback hurts. It’s hard to hear it, it’s hard not to be defensive about it. It’s hard to change behavior to ensure the feedback is heard and actioned upon.

That’s why our annual performance review process is, for many of our employees, a complete and utter joke.

But if you want to be a people-first culture, or even just want to really know what your employees think and feel, they want to tell you. But we have to change how we’re capturing it.

It has to be real and accessible. And likely, anonymous.

It’s a big ask. And you’re going to have to pass along bad news and be on the bad-end of the message stick, but it CAN change your organization dramatically.

What does real feedback look like? How do we get it?

Providing several different ways for people to submit/share feedback is critical – but what’s most important, is the transparency around it and the ultimate action/response. To ask for feedback and never close the loop, will be the biggest killer in being able to successfully obtain feedback.

Here are some ideas on how to ask for real feedback:

  • Have an anonymous survey link for employees to submit their feedback or questions. THEN (this is the important part), post/share the feedback received in a weekly/monthly basis with any notes you and your leaders want to include as a response.
  • Do an interactive Q&A session live. You can do this several ways, but using the right platform, do live question and answer session with one of your senior leaders managing the questions. Think of this like a twitter chat or an AMA on reddit. The important part here is that you answer the questions that are asked, truthfully and as transparently as you can.
  • Ask for open-ended sentences for feedback in your survey (or as a standalone survey). You can have them select from a list of categories to help manage the reporting out, but provide space for employees to share their thoughts in long-form – instead of a pre-dictated sentence/question.

4: Consider the Employee Experience in Total

The emerging concept of the employee experience replacing employee engagement (and several other HR concepts), is enticing because it innately creates a people-first culture. Because when you focus on your employees interact and walk through your various HR touchpoints, you find the critical friction points along the way.

These friction points are the ways you can instantly improve the employee experience – therefore, increase engagement and putting your employees first.

Most of us haven’t done an in-depth employee experience roadmap or evaluation – so we don’t know where these gaps are, or how easy it may be to close them. Unfortunately, this leads to our employees having the same bad experience, over and over again – which internally, helps shape the story that you don’t care about them.

The old saying that actions speak louder than words, is reinforced often when it comes to your employee’s daily life or interaction with HR (including our tools, resources, programs, rules, etc.). If you truly want your employees to experience the best that your company has to offer, and understand the why’s behind HR does things, your employee experience speaks the loudest on this front.

If you listen to your employees, if you communicate with them, if you want to be people-first – none of those things changes will matter, if your employee still feels ignored, forgotten, unheard, unimportant, or unloved. If they roll their eyes at having to click eight times to get to the name of their benefits plan, or need to scroll for a minute to get to the link in your email – they aren’t going to feel like YOU are an employee too.

The employee experience – when not intentional, easily creates factions and differences in our employee population. The “us versus them” or “us versus corporate” mentality.

The employee experience – when not intentional, easily creates factions and differences in our employee population. The “us versus them” or “us versus corporate” mentality. #HR #engagement Click To Tweet

Even if your company does not have a true difference between the “us” and “them” – if your employee has an experience that they know would be handled or approached differently by a “them,” they create their own story (in the absence of one).

For example, if your executives get a white-glove onboarding process, or heck – even get their computer in the first week, and your managers have to wait six weeks – that is a terrible employee experience. And it creates an uneven playing field that greatly damages your hopes for a people-first culture.


Creating a truly people-first culture takes some time – as you need to evaluate the applicable items to implement and then shift the culture. But what’s important, is these are the four places to start doing the work.

Before you dive deep into changing everything or pulling various levers, it’s important to know where you’re starting from and if being a people-first culture is truly a good fit for your company. It’s ok if it’s not the right focus for your company – but you can still review these four steps to see how you’re fairing.

Putting your employees, as a whole, at the center of your HR-thinking and implementation, will never steer you wrong. Creating engaged employees is important, but having them be your company’s biggest ambassadors has an even bigger payoff.