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Mark Seemann


Founder and CEO

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The good, the bad and the ugly: three lessons from pandemic HR faux pas

The good, the bad and the ugly of people-focused decision making during the pandemic.

Company faux pas seem to be very much the fashion of this spring/summer (HR) season. The pandemic has put businesses to the test, and much has been said on how HR can implement processes to help them thrive. As preparations are instigated for the hybrid working model of the future, however, we’re seeing just how effective (or not) these processes have been.

What these HR faux pas highlight are the differences between inclusive cultures that connect employees, and those that have showcased values over substance. 

The last few months alone have seen an array of HR shortfalls make the headlines. From bumbling gaffs and performative performance management, to high-end and effective initiatives, we’ve witnessed what happens when HR really works, and what transpires when the glitzy façade of workplace wellbeing is just for show.

As businesses start to establish their own unique approaches to post pandemic working, there are still plenty of lessons to be learnt. So, in fitting with the style of the season, here’s three lessons from the HR good, the bad and the ugly.

The HR good: Timpsons

Timpsons is a company that has long been a stalwart of top tier employee wellbeing and the belle of the ball. The retail service provider’s tagline reads ‘great service by great people’, and that rings true here. The pandemic has only seen further initiatives rolled out, such as the Timpson UniverCity, ‘The Nest’, a new state-of-the-art training space soon to open.

A brilliantly creative initiative, the company has formed its own ‘UniverCity’, with a degree in ‘upside down management’ awaiting inducted employees. Forget tests and written papers – this is all about culture and how to make a difference to the business.

Lesson: cultivate a strong culture

Fostering a collaborative, engaging and inspiring culture in businesses is paramount to employee wellbeing, productivity, and mental health. It needs to come from the top, but have tangible benefits, be adopted throughout the company and give everyone a voice – innovative initiatives like this are a great way to help this. Of course, this doesn’t have to involve an expensive new facility; simple training days, wellbeing programmes and instilling company values can achieve this.

The HR bad: BrewDog

BrewDog has been the ‘in’ brand for beer lovers seeking crafty IPAs in recent years. This was joined by the growing craft beer company’s proud assertion that it became the first carbon negative brewery in the world. Its surging popularity has since been blighted, however, as BrewDog was forced to issue an apology recently after the disgruntled workforce accused both the company and its co-founder of fostering a toxic ‘culture of fear’ and bullying.

Lesson: invest in inclusivity and connectivity

For all its manifestations of progress and portraying a shining public image, a toxic culture lying beneath the surface and widely affecting its employees has emerged. This is a textbook example of breaking one of the most important contracts between an employer and its employees – the psychological contract. This contract is a fundamental part of HR, a rationale for employers to pay attention to the ‘human’ side of the employment relationship and based on employees’ sense of fairness and trust.

At its core, BrewDog must now rebuild this sense of trust and strive for inclusivity. Whether in the physical office or working remotely, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of connectivity, communications, and checking in regularly with your people. If this fiasco has taught us anything, it’s that the wellbeing of people and the collaborative nature of a business says everything about a brand.

The HR ugly: Bumble

Bumble made headlines recently as all 700 of its global staff were told to take a break, as the offices were shut down after the founder “correctly intuited our collective burnout”. Bumble is a champion of workplace wellbeing, with perks such as flexible working and fortnightly manicures – but is this just form over substance?

The word ‘bumble’ means to move or act in an awkward manner; while this has taken the form of supposedly decisive and confident action, is it the result of a bumbling policy and culture that workers reached such a point? Or has 2020/21 been a year of such changes to our working lives that this was inevitable, and so the action should be applauded?

Lesson: match leadership style with company values

Businesses with a healthy wellbeing culture shouldn’t get to a point that requires a complete circuit breaker lockdown of operations for workers to have an effective break. You can’t help but feel this could be a performative PR move to mask over the working lifestyles and culture that have allowed it to reach this point.

At the same time, it’s a very positive move by Bumble. After the toll of the last year, around 70% of employees now think their company needs to do more to prevent, or lessen, burnout within their workforce. While this solution may not be the ideal one for all businesses, there is a lesson to be learned here for all organisations as we navigate our transition out of the pandemic. This decision is a strong display of company values aligning with an organisation’s leadership style (especially when considering the US’ approach to annual leave).

Empowering employees to switch off and focus on themselves shows a strong investment in their team, and it will be imperative for all leaders to consider how to do this for their own teams. Over the long-term, it will contribute to a vision of building a purposeful culture that will continue to attract future talent and be a driver for productivity.

A unified approach

What these HR faux pas highlight are the differences between inclusive cultures that connect employees, and those that have showcased values over substance. They key to creating a culture that enhances employee wellbeing is ensuring that there is communication across the board that allows employees to feel heard, engaged and a key component of the business’ ethos.

Of course, HR processes need to be flexible and adaptable to every organisation’s unique needs and style – there are always going to be certain policies that don’t work. What’s imperative, however, is a holistic and unified approach. Matching leadership values to company culture to employee wellbeing – and including all in the process – will combine to create a look that will be the trend for years to come.

Interested in this topic? Read Employee experience is driven by empathetic leaders in the new world of work.

Author Profile Picture
Mark Seemann

Founder and CEO

Read more from Mark Seemann

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