“OK Boomer!” Is it Harassment?

For the last few years, we’ve been inundated by articles and conference speakers talking about “Generational Differences in the workplace”. A minority of the HR profession (me included, for example in this post I wrote over 6 years ago) pointed out that this was meaningless stereotyping and used the hashtag #GenerationBlah to mock those who persisted in promoting themselves and their products on the back of ‘why Millennials need different recruitment solutions’.

Just so we are all clear, there is no reliable evidence of ‘generational differences’, as this piece of research shows.

It did seem that this fad was dying away, overtaken by other flavours of the month. But it’s burst back into life with the current prevalence of the phrase “OK Boomer” as a generalised insult for older people – so much so that it’s now even entered political debate.

Why’s this an issue for employers? Well, depending on the context, it could constitute harassment under the Equality Act.

Harassment is defined as one person (say a young employee) engaging in unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic of an another person (say an older employee) which has the effect of violating the second person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

While most employers would be aware that race, sex, disability or religious belief are protected characteristics, it’s worth remembering that age is too.

Whether someone is harassed depends on their perception, not the intention of the person making the comment (so “I only meant it as a joke” is not a defence). If an employee complains, you as an employer need to investigate it and consider what has been said, the context it was being said and any other circumstances. Failure to do so leaves your organisation potentially liable.

Remember too that it works both ways – so an older worker calling a younger one a “snowflake” could equally be harassment in similar circumstances.

With a bit of luck, the “OK Boomer” trend could soon become as dated as 1960s hippies calling older people “squares”. But until then, watch out for it in the workplace!

This piece was inspired by a US article called “Okay, Boomer, in the workplace could get you fired” by Suzanne Lucas who tweets as @RealEvilHRLady. It’s an interesting read especially if you want to compare UK and US employment laws!

Bart

The Magic of a Kind Word?

 

Recent reports have suggested that the Government is considering proposals to make it a legal requirement for an employer to provide a reference for a current or past employee. The rationale appears to be that some employers have used the threat of not providing a reference to ‘silence’ complaints of harassment, especially by women. The proposal has been welcomed by some and criticised in other quarters.

But the question that we should really be asking is why on earth we still, in 2019, expect references anyway?

References were historically designed to allow upper class Victorians to assess the honesty of potential servants. Many a Victorian novel features the ultimate threat of dismissing a servant without a reference – meaning that they would be unemployable in the future. They date back to a world in which employers could operate a closed shop and exclude those who were undesirable – not necessarily dishonest. Given that diversity and inclusion are something the HR profession is supposedly promoting, is persisting with an outdated nineteenth century domestic service practice really a good idea?

And even if you don’t accept that argument, what do references tell us anyway? If I write a glowing reference for Employee X, who worked in my small, flexible organisation, how does that help a new employer  – which is far larger, with a much more bureaucratic and ‘command and control’ culture, assess whether she can do a different job in that company? How does knowing that Employee Y had 10 days off sick in the last year help you manage their attendance in a new company?

The problem is that too many employers use references as an easy get out for their own poor recruitment decisions. “Why did we take him on?” is a frequent question after an employee has left or been dismissed. “Well, his references were good” is an equally frequent reply (usually from HR). It’s as if a reference conveys some sort of magic guarantee of good performance, in the same way that some ancient peoples believed that the hooting of an owl before sowing seeds would guarantee a good crop.

I’m aware that there are some sectors where legally a reference is required (schools, financial organisations etc). But for everyone else, surely the time would be better spent on a more thorough recruitment process, rather than simply generating meaningless paperwork to justify our own decision-making inadequacies. (And as an additional benefit, it couldn’t be used as a threat against employees who do make legitimate complaints)

Image result for victorian servant image copyright free

 

The 12 things HR can do for your business

Last year, I published a post which outlined the 15 things that HR should do – at a minimum – for the people who work within a business. Although I’d argue that doing these things for workers has a positive impact on employers as well, a more sceptical businessperson might wonder if and how their company would benefit from HR. After all, why would you pay for something if you aren’t getting something in return? So here are my 12 reasons why a business would want HR:

1. We’ll make sure that not only do you comply with employment laws, but that we implement them in a way that fits the business strategy and culture

2. We’ll make sure that the business is able to get the right people, in the right number, at the right time.

3. We’ll advise you on the ‘people consequences’ of any business proposals, so that you are taking decisions on the future with full knowledge of all the issues (not just the financial ones)

4. When problems occur with individuals, or groups of employees, we’ll look to find sensible, legal and effective solutions to minimise the damage to the organisation

5. We’ll be your experts in the labour market, knowing what outside factors will have an impact on helping us to deliver – or which need to be overcome to deliver – point 2 above.

6. When changes happen, we’ll understand the best way to minimise disruption and achieve what you want to set out.

7. HR isn’t your business conscience – but we will remind you that you have ethical responsibilities (and normal human emotions) that need to be factored in

8. We’re not your police either – so if we need to put in policies, systems, or procedures,  we’ll make sure they are there for a clear and understandable reason and that everyone understands the consequences of not complying

9. We’ll manage training and development, so that people in the business get the skills they need to do their jobs in a way that’s cost-effective.

10. We’ll use our specialist knowledge to support managers to manage people more effectively

11. If a problem needs a long-term solution, we won’t just offer you a quick fix

12. If there’s a new idea floating around, we’ll look for evidence that it will actually improve things before recommending you implement it

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Human Resources by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Overeducated and Underskilled – is it Recruiters’ fault?

Yesterday’s report by the Office for National Statistics that “31% of graduates are ‘over-educated’ for their job” has attracted a lot of attention, especially given the apparent conundrum that businesses are constantly complaining that people lack the right skills for the jobs.

There are a lot of issues here – including the question of whether the education system’s purpose is simply to provide trained labour for business; the consequences of the expansion of the university system; and even the philosophical question of whether it’s possible to be ‘over-educated’.

However, I want to concentrate on one factor which business has direct control over: recruitment. It seems to me that part of the problem is either laziness or ignorance on the part of those who manage recruitment.

The ONS report makes what I consider the same error as many businesses – to confuse education levels with skills. And as a result, we get what the CIPD’s David D’Souza describes as ‘weak signals’ in the labour market.

Too many recruiters will simply add in the phrase “degree-level educated” as an easy way to sift candidates, without even thinking about whether the skills or knowledge a degree brings are relevant to the job being advertised.

Take for example a recent job I saw advertised, for a Project Manager. It was in a very specialist sector and yet the first requirement in the person specification was to hold a degree. Not a specific, job related degree, but any degree. Given that many companies use automated sifting systems as part of their recruitment process, they would presumably reject someone without a degree but who had very relevant experience, but someone with a degree in a totally unrelated subject (let’s say Mediaeval History) would make it through to the next stage.  When they came to review the shortlist, hiring managers would no doubt tut about the shortage of good candidates.

Degrees are important in certain situations – particularly when we want people to demonstrate a certain level of independently verified knowledge of a subject. But in most cases we need to be understand what skills and knowledge a degree demonstrates; whether our job role actually requires these; and if there are other ways candidates can demonstrate that they possess these skills and knowledge.

Of course, this takes more time than the simple “just put out the advert on the job board” approach. But as I’ve argued repeatedly, recruitment is a major investment decision (especially in small businesses) and it’s worth taking a little more time to get the right person rather than making lazy assumptions.

College graduate students

You scratch my back…

You scratch my back…

Much has been made of the deal between courier firm Hermes and the GMB union which gives self-employed ‘gig economy’ workers various benefits, such as holiday pay, provided they sign up to follow delivery routes laid down by the company rather than simply set their own delivery route.

One interesting side debate that has occurred among some HR professionals is whether this deal is indicative of the lack of trust that businesses have in employees, and the underlying assumption that employees are inherently less productive than the self-employed unless they are controlled.

It’s an opinion, but one which I think is incorrect. It seems to ignore that work is a complex relationship, with economic, psychological and sociological aspects, which has at its heart a ‘bargain’ – I (the worker) will give you (the business) my time and skill in return for pay, a safe environment and fair treatment by the employer. The power in the relationship usually lies with the employer although there can be times when the employee has the upper hand.

The nature of any bargain is that if I give something up, I expect something in return – otherwise it’s not ‘fair’. So in this situation, the employer giving extra money to individuals wants something back for it – in this case a higher degree of control over the working arrangements. It doesn’t necessarily suggest a lack of trust (the existing system of drivers setting their own routes seems to have worked well enough for both sides) but a recognition that the relationship has subtly changed – and crucially still feels fair to both sides.

Think about it this way. When you are dating someone it’s a fairly loose arrangement, a little like true self-employment. When you’re not with your boy/girlfriend, there’s a certain element of trust (you assume that they are not dating others when you’re not around) but generally you don’t bother too much about what they are doing. When you move in together, the relationship changes –  you give up certain things (the ‘right’ to come and go as you please, watch what you like on TV, decorate your room in a particular way) in return for other benefits. No-one is suggesting that loss of control over the TV remote or letting your partner know where you are implies a lack of trust or an inherent belief that single people have more freedom than the cohabiting. You each make a bargain to give certain things up in return for other things, in order to preserve fairness and balance.

So rather than examine the specifics of the GMB-Hermes deal, look at it in the round – it’s about maintaining equilibrium in the relationship.

(If this all sounds a bit theoretical and airy-fairy, there  are some real practical implications in the world of work –  find out more here)

people walking on street between concrete buildings

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com