7 hacks to disrupt HR

Everywhere you look, people want to disrupt HR. Books have been written, conferences held, hashtags created. Many in the HR profession look at the way that Uber, Airbnb, Ryanair and others have disrupted their industry and wonder how we can do the same.  Now I can exclusively reveal that the seven hacks below will ensure that you can disrupt HR whatever your business or sector.

1.       Remove all pencils from the HR office (or in a tech company, hide all the iPad chargers). All HR work will soon grind to a halt.

2.       Respond with “Yes, let’s be just like Enron” whenever the phrase “war for talent” is mentioned. Most HR people won’t actually have read the book to be aware that Enron was one of the key case studies.

3.       If anyone in HR refers to the above concept as the “war on talent”, smile pityingly at them. This will disconcert if not completely disrupt.

4.       Replace all ergonomically designed office chairs with three legged stools. Defend any subsequent health and safety claims with “we were only implementing the Ulrich model

5.       Suggest ignoring employment law if it doesn’t fit in with the preferred solution to a problem (I saw this genuinely proposed by a qualified HR person on a LinkedIn discussion topic, so this disruptive tactic has clearly gone mainstream).

6.       Ask “have you any evidence this will work?” next time they propose a new initiative.  Repeatedly doing this will either a) make them leave you alone or b) find some evidence to support their argument.

7.       For maximum effect, switch on the sprinkler system during the CIPD conference this week. This will disrupt more HR people in one fell swoop than points 1-6 put together.

I completely understand that many in the HR world think things we do could be done differently and better, or even not done at all (I am one of them). And perhaps I’m being too literal by taking the dictionary definition of ‘disrupt’. But the word conveys the snotty-nosed punk rock attitude of ‘let’s smash everything whether it’s good or not’ (fine if you’re 17 and in a band, perhaps not so in a world of work). Moreover, with the disruptive chickens coming home to roost for many of the companies above, should this be a bandwagon that we just watch as it goes hurtling by?

“Just one in ten Brits is engaged at work” – Who Cares?

Last week I attended Prof Rob Briner’s entertaining talk on Evidence Based HR, in Liverpool. His concluding section was on how to spot a management fad, and only a few days later I had a perfect example.

“Just one in 10 Brits feel engaged at work, says Gallup” shouted a People Management article. According to the report, that lagged well behind the US where the figure is apparently one third, and it was suggested that US management practices were one of the principal causes.

I thought it would be quite interesting to explore this in more detail. However, the full report is not available until the end of November – and will cost me £37.50! I wasn’t that interested so I thought that the Executive Summary would do. However, to get this, I need to give Gallup all manner of contact details and information about my organisation, and before I could get the download information there was the threat that “someone from Gallup may contact you to discuss your interest further”.

So essentially, Gallup have issued some marketing information disguised as “news”, with data that they are only prepared to reveal at a price and which can’t currently be challenged. It’s the sort of approach that ought to sound warning bells for anyone (such as a prospective customer) looking for evidence to support their claims.

And even if we take their facts as true, there are a number of questionable elements. Why does it matter that only 11% (which is actually one in nine, but what’s a percentage point between friends?) of Brits are engaged? Does it affect organisational performance – if so how? Profitability, turnover, productivity? And if it’s a more direct people impact, what is it? Turnover, absence rates, recruitment difficulties, industrial disputes?

And what about these management practices that result in higher US scores? What exactly are they? How do they affect engagement? And are they suggesting that US businesses are 23% better in organisational performance? We’re not told, which makes me wonder why low engagement is a problem at all? Could it be that Gallup have some magic product or consultancy service that they wish to sell?

Now, you may think that it’s easier to debunk someone else’s idea rather than come up with a possible solution myself – a question the CIPD’s David D’Souza raised on Twitter last week as a result of this article in the New York Times about psychologist Amy Cuddy and her “power pose” research. However, I think that’s missing the point. We should critically evaluate other people’s findings and scrutinise whether things that are claimed actually do work. The example of Amy Cuddy suggests that the debate moved from her actual research into a battle of egos and ad-hominem attacks, accompanied by online trolling by academics that seems to have made Twitter seem like a bastion of civilised discussion in comparison.   

HR and “Fake News”

Last Friday (15 Sept) the tweet below appeared regularly in my timeline.

Screenshot (5)
Given that unpaid internships – along with zero-hour contracts and ‘disguised’ employment (Uber/Deliveroo etc) – are the big ethical no-nos in HR currently, it will not surprise you that the response to the tweet was much collective tutting on behalf of those in the profession (including me initially)
But something nagged at me. Whether it was the fact that the original tweet was not from one of the usual HR sources; or the fact that there was no link to the offending advert, merely a picture; or that I’m currently studying the “Calling Bullshit” online module; or as an HR person I’m used to carrying out disciplinary and grievance investigations and digging beneath the surface of issues. But mostly it was the fact that the story seemed too good to be true.
So, in my lunchbreak I did a little research. And in around 10 minutes – significantly less time than this post has taken to write – I discovered the following:
1. There is no such charity as “Fight Against Slavery”. No organisation of that name is currently registered or has been registered in the recent past with the Charity Commission (an essential requirement to describe yourself as a charity in the UK). Nor is any such organisation listed on the publicly available Police list of Anti-Slavery organisations.
2. There was a Crowdfunding page set up around a year ago with the aim of starting a charity under this name. It seems to have raised precisely no money at all.
3. The Daily Mail appears to have run a story on this in January this year. Given that newspaper’s reputation for playing fast and loose with facts, and its ability to twist any story to one of its political narratives (in this case “The HYPOCRISY of LEFTIES who tell US what to do while THEY do the opposite”), it’s possibly not a reliable source.
4. A quick bit of fact-checking on the Mail story reveals that the advert was allegedly placed on the Gumtree website, a general classified ads site that does include job adverts. At this distance of time there is no way of checking whether the advert was ever posted there.
5. The alleged spokesperson for the charity is one Chiara Chiavaroli. The only person listed on LinkedIn with this name is a Bologna University student, and while there are around 10 women with this name on Facebook, all also appear to live in Italy (Disclaimer – I didn’t check individual profiles). The crowdfunding page above lists a different organiser.
So, was this a prank to fool the Daily Mail, or an invented story to raise an issue of concern? Or is there some other explanation? What it certainly isn’t is a charity abusing its role or an example of an organisation exploiting people (since real charities can and do operate with volunteers, a situation which is both legally and ethically accepted). And it shows that even HR is not immune to the concept of fake news, something that we should all be aware of when commenting or retweeting stories related to the profession.

BBC Pay – what does it really tell us?

“A little learning is a dangerous thing” said poet Alexander Pope. A little bit of data can be dangerous, as today’s release of the BBC’s top salary information shows. Making assumptions about gender pay gaps and equal pay in an organisation on figures solely of well-known personalities is always likely to be fraught with problems, although that hasn’t stopped plenty of people offering their viewpoint.

First of all (something HR people should know, but other readers may not). Equal Pay is not the same as a Gender Pay Gap.

Equal Pay is paying the same wage for the same job – or a job of equal value –  to an individual regardless of sex. Not to do so is illegal in the UK. So, paying a male production line worker £300 per week and paying a female one doing exactly the same job £250 per week is not allowed. Where it becomes difficult is trying to judge if two different jobs are of equal value. There is no simple way to do this and trying to compare roles often ends up in long and complex employment tribunal cases.

A gender pay gap, in contrast, is not illegal. It is simply a snapshot of average salaries between men and women. It may for example show that men earn 10% more than women in an organisation – the important thing is to identify why this is the case (more men than women in the organisation overall; more men in senior positions; or a small group of highly paid men skewing the figures are among possible reasons).  Without knowing the cause, it is impossible to address the problem . Companies with more than 250 employees must report their gender pay gap figure (actually 6 different figures) on an annual basis, starting no later than April 2018.

So, do the BBC figures reveal a Gender Pay Gap in the Corporation? We simply don’t know. What we have are the salaries of the 96 most highly paid “names” – TV and Radio presenters, journalists and actors. That’s a drop in the ocean – the BBC has many thousands of employees. The fact that a male Casualty actor earns more than a female journalist tells us nothing in itself.

What about Equal Pay? Actually the data at face value does suggest some potential claims. Why is Strictly judge Darcy Bussell paid less than fellow Strictly judge Bruno Tonolli? Why does Today presenter Nick Robinson earn more than colleague Mishal Husein? But I’m pretty sure that on investigation there will be valid reasons (appearing on other shows, for example), as I can’t believe a major national organisation with extensive HR and legal resources would expose itself to such a reputational and financial risk.

Of course, a lot of this is nothing to do with pay equality, but a chance for some to make political points about the BBC and for others to express incredulity at presenter salaries (usually ones we don’t like – “Nick Knowles gets paid how much?”). Let’s see what transpires when the BBC does actually publish its gender pay figures before jumping to conclusions.

The failure of HR

Well, after much speculation, and a weekend of leaks, yesterday saw the publication of the Taylor Review into employment, entitled “Good Work”. Much of the focus has understandably been on the Employment Law implications (excellently summarised by Darren Newman) and there has been a mixed reaction to the proposals.

But one of the key things that struck me from the report was the implicit failure of HR Management over the last 20-30 years, in allowing this situation to develop. Taylor’s concept of ‘good work’ would not look out of place in any CIPD document (and isn’t radically different to the ideas of a Victorian-era Pope). But the fact that Taylor feels it necessary to state that:

·         Flexible working is currently one-sided, in favour of the employer

·         A culture has grown up of insecure work and unpaid overtime

·         Employees and other workers are not listened to and often have no way to put forward their views

·         Not enough time or money is invested in training and development

·         The over-control of workers leads to problems with individual wellbeing

Suggests the reality – of what HR are doing – doesn’t match the theory.

So why is this? There seem to me to be five main reasons for HR’s failure.

·         Clinging on to outdated ideas – like “Best Practice” – a set of theories that derive from a discredited 1980s management study

·         A mistaken perspective, that sees businesses as some kind of corporate North Korea where dissidents (anyone disagreeing with the management viewpoint) are trouble makers to be removed, or re-educated via ‘employee engagement’ programmes.

·         Alternating between scaredy-cat approaches where we hide behind “policy says no” and “we might set a precedent”, and macho ‘business partnering’ where we try to act like the corporate equivalent of mafia hitmen.

·         Dehumanising people by referring to them as “human capital” (an oxymoronic term that reduces people to data on spreadsheets)

·         Becoming obsessed with the process rather than the outcome. I don’t care which “Applicant Tracker System” is best or about the relative merits of an ‘e-learning portal’ v ‘online facilitation’.  

I’m glad to see that the CIPD are having a review and consultation around our professional standards. But it’s how HRM is put into practice that worries me, and it seems we are way off the game in a lot of areas.

 

Virgin on the Ridiculous

This tweet – and the responses to it – has been bouncing around my Twitter timeline over the last day or so. 

It’s been used as an example of the incompetence of management of railways in the UK; as a case for the renationalisation of the rail industry where profit isn’t the motive; and as a warning against privatisation in the NHS (where apparently Virgin are keen to become involved). Even a national newspaper weighed in

Sadly however, the real reasons why this problem occurred is more complex and mundane, and comes back to the Cinderella of HR, Employee Relations.

There are three factors at work here: Firstly, being a train driver is not an unskilled task that anyone off the street can do. So Virgin can’t just simply recruit to fill its staffing gaps without planning for the extensive training period required (nor, as a passenger, would I want any old individual sitting in the cab of a 140mph Pendolino as it hurtles along busy train routes). Nor are there vast numbers of qualified drivers sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the hope that someone from Virgin Trains will give them a call.

Secondly, train drivers hours are – again as a passenger, quite rightly – restricted, originally by the wonderfully named Hidden Regulations, with maximum length of shift and minimum rest periods, and now by agreement between management and unions in accordance with the Working Time Regulations.  So even if someone wanted to work overtime they might not be allowed to.

And finally, it’s because management and unions have – for many years, certainly back to the days of nationalised British Rail – have had agreements in place to allow drivers to supplement their income by working overtime on their rest days. Staffing rosters have been designed so that there is always overtime available. (I believe it dates back to the 1970s where people got around the Government-imposed pay restraint policies during a time of high inflation by ensuring that overtime would make up the difference – but if you know differently please let me know).

And most of the time, the system works well. Drivers are generally willing and able to work overtime and the train operators are happy to maintain good employee relations by ensuring it is available. Occasionally, as happened at the weekend, the system fails, but the industrial strife that would be caused by trying to ensure it never happened would be far more disruptive.

I know what I want & I know how to get it?

A common cry among HR people is that they are ignored or dismissed within their business. It’s something that in my 30 years in HR has never gone away, and forms a staple of many an HR conference. The “how do we get a seat at the table” discussion has outlasted almost every topic or fad that the profession has debated.

For me, one of the problems is that, while HR people moan to each other about not being taken ‘seriously’, we rarely ask our colleagues, who are after all our customers, what it is they want. But, after 18 years, working with a wide variety of organisations in widely diverging industries and sectors, I’ve come to the conclusion that what most want from HR is

·         To keep them legal – that means having a good knowledge of Employment Law and related regulation.

·         An understanding the business and its objectives, and the ability to devise solutions to problems that achieve this.

·         Good professional skills that no-one else in the business can provide – whether this is recruitment, employee development, handling a complex union negotiation, or an individual issue.

·         Someone who will remind them that they are dealing with other people. It’s very easy for managers to become focused on the task and forget that other human beings are involved. Pointing out the human consequences of a business decision isn’t being a “bleeding heart” – it allows better long-term decision making and planning.

·         Looking at ways things can be done, not reasons why they can’t

·         Someone who brings in expertise and knowledge from outside that can ‘add value’ to the business they are working for.

Now, I’ve never conducted a formal survey among the 125+ organisations I’ve worked with, and this view is purely based on my perceptions. So I’d welcome comments from businesses – and other HR people. Perhaps if we better understood what business wants, we might finally know how to earn the mythical seat at the table.