3 of This Past Year's Worst HR Mistakes and How to Do Better

What embarrassing things did Urban Outfitters, Walmart and the U.N. do that you should not?

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By Andre Lavoie

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HR mistakes can have serious implications for a company. They can create distrust between employees and employers, reduce engagement and negatively affect an employer brand.

Related: Why You Don't Need an HR Manager. Really.

In fact, in the 2015 SHRM Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement survey, the 600 responding employees ranked "respectful treatment of employees at all levels" and "trust between employees and senior management" as the top two factors affecting their job satisfaction. Remarkably, "respect" and "trust" topped even benefits and compensation.

It's the difficult job of human resource professionals to create consistency in the organization's core vision and its relationship with employees, to foster a positive and engaging workplace. And when HR mistakes happen, it's their job to pick up the pieces.

Companies never intend to upset their employees, of course, but when that does happen, it's important to learn from others' shortcomings. Here are three of the worst HR mistakes from 2015 and what each company could have done differently:

1. Urban Outfitters asked employees to "volunteer" during the holidays.

What happened: URBN, the parent company of Urban Outfitters, sent out an email asking for employees to volunteer their weekend time at its fulfillment centers in order to prepare for the holiday season.

Despite the fact that URBN's career site boasts that the company "value[s] both individual and group achievements," the leaked internal email made it clear that employees would receive only lunch and transportation for their hard work in this instance.

Why this was an HR no-no: Aside from the issue of asking employees to work six-hour shifts without pay, the main big mistake here was not acknowledging the value of employees' time and efforts.

And underappreciating employees can lead to poor employee retention. In a 2015 LinkedIn survey of more than 10,500 employees who had recently changed jobs, 32 percent said they did so because of dissatisfaction with how employers recognized their contributions.

How to do better: It's understandable that URBN was asking its employees to band together as a team in order to better serve its customers during a busy time of year. But who wants to be part of a team that doesn't appreciate your hard work?

When communicating with employees, consider how that communication will be received. Does the message align with your core values as a company? Is it transparent in both meaning and intent? After digesting the communication, will employees feel valued and respected? Even the simplest request can seem unreasonable, if it doesn't recognize the important part the employee plays in the success of the company.

2. Walmart fired an employee over $5 worth of discarded recyclables.

What happened: A Walmart cart collector found $5.10 worth of cans and bottles and redeemed them for cash via a machine inside the store where he worked. The employee had found $3.10 worth of recyclables abandoned in a cart next to a trash can in the parking lot and another $2 worth in a cart located just inside the store's entrance.

His employers determined that the cans and bottles turned in from the cart inside the store were Walmart property and that therefore taking them constituted theft. The man was asked to sign a statement about the incident, even though he did not have his glasses with him and could not read the document. He was also denied a copy of the statement after he was fired.

Why this was an HR no-no: There was a complete lack of clarity in the communication between the employee and his employers.

Whether or not it's reasonable to release an employee over $2.00 of garbage is not the real issue at hand. No matter what the cause of the disciplinary action, Walmart did not take the time to ensure that its employee understood what he had done wrong or what signing the document meant for this employment.

How to do better: When it comes to the codes of conduct employees are held to, it's important for organizations to be transparent on what is and isn't acceptable behavior. When infractions occur, especially in gray areas, employers should take the time to fully discuss why employees are facing consequences and what those consequences are.

Related: 3 Keys to Hiring for Growth

3. An unpaid U.N. intern lived in a tent because he couldn't afford housing.

What happened: Twenty-two-year old David Hyde accepted a prestigious unpaid internship with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, even though he knew he'd couldn't afford the cost of living in that expensive city. After being denied other internships because he lacked the means to live while working without pay, Hyde lied during the application process and lived out of a tent while working for the U.N.

Once his story broke, Hyde quit the internship and admitted he was trying to draw attention to the fact that unpaid internships inherently exclude young people with less wealthy backgrounds from valuable career experience.

Why this was an HR no-no: As controversial as the motives behind Hyde's decision might have been, the big HR mistake in this situation was a lack of alignment between the organization's mission and values and how it was treating its employees.

Article 23 of the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights states that, "Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work." How can employees be expected to be engaged in their work to promote this belief when the interns they work beside are not paid? By choosing to not pay its interns, the U.N. created a disconnect between what the organization says it believes and how it acts.

How to do better: An organization's mission statement should be a part of everything it does, from the work to the company culture to how the organization engages employees with that mission. Alignment must be clear, at every level, so that the company is living up to its own core values.

What other HR mistakes occurred in 2015, and what lessons can be learned from them?

Related: 4 Simple Ways to Make a New Hire Feel Welcome

Andre Lavoie

Entrepreneur; CEO and Co-Founder, ClearCompany

Andre Lavoie is the CEO of ClearCompany, the talent-management solution that helps companies identify, hire and retain more A players. You can connect with him and the ClearCompany team on Facebook LinkedIn and Twitter.


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