Burying our head in the sand

There’s been a lot of reaction to the concept of ‘best practice’ in HR over the last few years –  the idea being rejected primarily because no-one can identify what these best practices are, nor is there much (if any) evidence that they work. As a result, the alternative ‘best fit’ model has gained in popularity.

Superficially, best fit has much to commend it. Our HR practices are adapted to the size, sector and most importantly the strategy of our organisation. The approach that might be taken in a large corporate services business is not the same as an SME in a manufacturing sector. But we need to take care.

One of the most well-known best-fit theories  (Schuler and Jackson 1987) suggests that when a business is cost-sensitive, HR’s approach should be to control and reduce costs. This means not just keeping wages at the lowest level to attract qualified staff, but also using very tightly defined job roles (so there is no scope for ambiguity or employee discretion), using ‘precarious’ labour (what we now tend to refer to as the gig economy), little or no training and development, and short-term performance goals. Ryanair is often cited as the ‘classic’ example of this approach in the UK.

The dangers of this approach should be obvious – and if they aren’t then yesterday’s article in the Financial Times, which exposed the working practices in the garment industry in Leicester should be top of your reading list. Taken to its extreme, it leads to unsafe working conditions, below minimum wage levels and exploitation on a large scale.

“But what can we do?” I can hear many HR professionals saying. After all these businesses won’t have HR.  But our ‘just legal but arguably unethical’ HR practices do lead to other companies taking the next step across that line. And with little current enforcement of regulations it’s all too easy to get away with ignoring basic employment law.

It is, as Canadian HR writer Jane Watson describes it, a “Wicked Problem” – and demands the same approach she suggests to tackling it. HR can’t solve the issue on its own, but neither can we pretend that we are not partly responsible for this state of affairs.

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.

Want to make your company look stupid? Here’s How!

What is it about recruitment that allows managers to do stupid things that would probably get them fired if they tried it in any other part of the business?

A recruitment website has recently been touting the “Top 10 toughest interview questions” it has come across, suggesting that “job candidates … should be ready to answer any question” in an interview.

Really? Such as How many people born in 2013 were named Gary? (No. 8 on the list). Which of course might be a relevant question if a knowledge of useless trivia is a key requirement of the job. (Anyone who works for BT, who used the question, may be able to confirm if it is essential to know this to work there)

Or how about How many hours would it take to clean every single window in London? (No.4) I suppose this is possibly relevant if you’re running a commercial window cleaning business with the objective of creating a monopoly in the capital. Less so, I would suggest, for tech people in IBM.

Or this one If you were a fruit, what kind would you be and why? (No.2) I can’t even begin to suggest how this might be relevant to any job, let alone a Trip Leader with a Travel company.

Recruitment is a two-way process. Not only are you assessing whether a candidate is right for you but they are deciding whether your business is the right one for them. Idiotic questions like this tell candidates one of three things:

  • Your managers don’t know what they are doing
  • Your managers enjoy humiliating and tricking their staff (and your company culture condones this)
  • The decision making processes within your company are fundamentally flawed if you have appointed such people to positions of authority

(Oh, and  similar “clever” recruitment tricks like this one are just as bad for your reputation)

By all means ask tough and challenging questions that are relevant to the job. But unless you want your managers and your organisation to look completely ridiculous and laughable, drop the smart-alec questions, tricks and tests from your recruitment process.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Apart from working with small businesses, I’m also a CIPD Tutor with one of the UK’s leading HR training providers. Quite often when doing some of the more “theoretical” stuff, I can see learners’ eyes glaze over with a “what has this got to do with the real world and my job as an HR business partner” expression.

But the practical application of some of these theories and models is frequently key to many HR and business decisions.  For example, what we rather grandly like to call “environmental scanning” – with models such as STEEPLE, Five Forces and Blue Ocean – is essential to anticipating likely changes that may affect our organisations.

Take for instance George Osborne’s “National Living Wage”.  Judging by some of the reactions from some business organisations, this is the greatest disaster to hit business for years. Yet businesses have worked within the minimum wage rules for nearly 20 years and the “shock” of this new policy was that – for many – it was an unexpectedly large increase. But any business which had done any kind of serious forward planning would have been aware that all the parties at the last election were committed to significant increases in minimum wage levels – not necessarily for altruistic reasons but as part of the strategy to reduce the deficit. (I’m happy to say that a client I work with in a low pay sector had factored in big increases to their wage costs into their business plans as a result of doing some of this planning, so it hasn’t proved as much of an issue for them).

HR professionals continue to agonise about how they “add value” to businesses. Being aware of what’s going on in the wider world, and anticipating how this might affect the companies we work for, is one easy way in which we can demonstrate that HR is actually a vital part of modern business.

The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Last week I needed a taxi to Lime Street station in Liverpool at 530am, so I tapped an app on my tablet and within 5 minutes a car was outside my front door. Chatting to the driver he told me that he chose the hours he worked and he tended to work 5 in the morning till around 230pm as it allowed him to pick up his children from school. As we pulled up at the station he pressed a smartphone screen on the dashboard to accept his next job from the taxi firm.

Was I using Uber, the “disruptive” firm that is now apparently the world’s largest taxi company? No, simply the same local firm I’ve used for the last 20 years. Their drivers are all self-employed, use their own cars and pay a weekly “settle” to the firm for the work that is pushed their way. Probably the only difference is that the company still operates a small office so that if you are not smartphone savvy you can ring for a taxi.

Which is why when I saw this graphic being tweeted it brought a wry smile to my face.

Graphic

I think we’re meant to think “wow, aren’t these companies radical and different?” But in truth, they aren’t. What they have done is to use technology successfully to minimise costs and to trade more easily across international boundaries, but otherwise they are little different to traditional models.

Let’s look at some of the others. Facebook – “creates no content”. Neither do most cable/satellite TV channels – they are simply media platforms which generate income by selling advertising. Where does Facebook get most of its income? Advertising.

Alibaba – well here’s how it works: you pay them a fee to have a presence on their site and then sell your goods. Sound like a giant fleamarket or car-boot sale? That’s because that’s what it is. Markets don’t hold inventory either.

Airbnb – back in the 90s I used to get a brochure for “Rural Holiday Cottages”. Some were people’s homes they’d let out for a couple of weeks, some were renovated farm buildings, but they were all available to rent for a week or fortnight. Rural Holiday Cottages charged a fee to advertise them but didn’t own a single one. Again, the Airbnb model – they just operate on a global scale

And what’s this to do with HR? Well, if business isn’t really changing – merely incorporating new technology – then the skills, knowledge and practices that HR people should use probably haven’t really changed either. We may need to react faster and jettison some cumbersome procedures (and perhaps even use new technology) but the fundamentals of good people management remain the same.

Just how hard is it to treat people decently?

Every so often the internet throws up some serendipitous issues. A discussion on Twitter about the recent case of the Vicar unable to make an unfair dismissal claim since he was deemed to be employed by God caused me to look at Rerum Novarum, the 1891 Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, which said among other things that

  • Employees should be paid a “living wage”and receive stable working conditions
  • They should have proper rest breaks
  • Trade unions were on the whole a good thing
  • Even if they had the economic power to do so, employers shouldn’t exploit or treat their staff badly

At the same time, the latest post from blogger Maid in London, which details life as a hotel housekeeper, popped up in my timeline. I think it’s fair to say that her employer takes the opposite view to Pope Leo.

Some people do pretty awful jobs in unpleasant conditions. They clean hotel rooms, collect bins, make or assemble things in hot and noisy environments, work with dangerous equipment, or deal with people in difficult or crisis situations. Although it’s true that you can get job satisfaction from even the most mundane or demanding task, most in those roles don’t do it for the love of the job. And despite what some in social media suggest, these jobs aren’t all going to disappear in the next 5-10 years.

So why do we think that just because someone does a manual job, for low pay, that it’s somehow okay to treat them like dirt? While some HR people might get slightly orgasmic at the thought that the world of work is full of “cool” organisations like Google, where employees drink lattes while sliding down pool tables, others boast of their commercial prowess by looking at new and innovative ways to cut employee terms and conditions in pursuit of the “bottom line”, and a third group wander around ineffectually bemoaning the fact that line managers don’t listen to them or follow their carefully constructed processes. None of these groups seem to consider that just treating people with a little common decency might pay dividends both in terms of staff morale and productivity.

Let’s face it, if a celibate theologian from the Victorian era can “get it”, then twenty first century HR professionals should be able to.

Talking to Ourselves

As should be clear from my previous posts (like this), I’m not only a fan of social media and the benefits it can bring, but believe it has informed and improved my own HR practice. And there’s a great group of HR professionals – specifically but not exclusively on Twitter – who are not only challenging and stimulating thinking but in many cases successfully implementing these new ideas. (They’re a fun bunch of people too!)

But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?) there is an element of preaching to the converted. I don’t need to convince them that there’s a better way to do HR, nor they me. Where we are still not engaging effectively enough is with the CEOs and Finance Directors, let alone the people who fund and invest in companies. There are too few entrepreneurs like Daniel Tenner or voluntary sector leaders like Pamela Ball who “get” the importance of doing good people stuff.

That’s why I was disappointed at the negative reaction on social media to the report published today by the CIPD and various partners on Valuing Your Talent (and I was guilty of some of the initial negativity). Yes, it does include the appalling phrase “Human Capital Metrics” – which I hope disappears without trace in the immediate future – but it was a chance to influence the broader debate and push people issues to the forefront of business.

And its proposals were hardly radical – the key recommendations were that companies should:

  • Quantify their labour and turnover costs
  • Analyse their recruitment costs
  • Analyse their training and development investment
  • Measure Employee Engagement

The first three are what HR departments should be doing anyway and while the fourth is contentious (in that no-one can agree what “employee engagement” is and if/how you can measure it) it’s not illogical. In fact it reflects more on our broader business management in the UK if this isn’t be done currently.

There’s a time for numbers and there’s a time when they aren’t appropriate in HR. Dismissing metrics out of hand isn’t a way forward.

My main point though is that the HR professionals who understand the need to do good stuff need to be out there engaging with the wider business community – on social media and elsewhere. The debates we have about how to make things better should be with the likes of TV’s Dragons, the MDs of bigger companies and other business leaders, not just among ourselves.

If you’ve done 6 impossible things before Breakfast….

At the age of almost 6, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents to come downstairs and watch, on a grainy black and white TV, the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I felt a similar sense of excitement and history being made last week as I watched the scenes from Mission Control as we (and they) waited to find out if the Philae probe had landed on Comet 67P.

In so many respects, the Rosetta mission exemplifies what we in HR would like to see happening in every workplace -albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

It had a clear and incredibly stretching objective (I’d love to have been at the meeting where someone said “I’ve got a good idea – let’s see if we can land something the size of a washing machine on a comet 400 million km away and moving at 34000km an hour. To make it really interesting, we’ll have to send our instructions to the rocket half an hour before we need it to do them, and we’ll then have to wait another half an hour for the answer”)

Allied to this clear purpose was team working and collaboration – the effort involved not only different nationalities but scientists of different disciplines, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians. And suppliers (such as those who built parts of the lander) were just as involved as the scientists working directly. (One other nice thing was the diversity of those involved – there were almost as many women scientists and engineers involved as there were men).

There was learning from failure – not everything went exactly right (Philae’s now famous bounce on landing being a particular example) but everything that happened was used to gain greater knowledge and to plan for the future.

There were clear and consistent values throughout – virtually everyone interviewed talked of the desire to do something new and the potential benefits of the things they were hoping to discover.

And finally, while the technology and the science were clearly important – the mission was only achieved through committed and motivated people. The scenes at the point of landing were not of the lander itself, but of the team at Mission Control anxiously waiting to find out what had happened. The expressions on their faces in the final 20 minutes, which varied from tension, nervous laughter, nonchalance (one team member appeared to take a call on his mobile with less than 10 minutes to go) to complete joy as the signal came through, emphasised how essential the people were.

The day after the landing, a trending hashtag on Twitter was #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant…If I were of a cynical mind, I’d conclude that tweet with “Build Better Workplaces”. But I’d like to believe, in the words of a certain US politician “Yes We Can”.

Come on In, The Water’s Lovely!

Yesterday I attended the Social HR Conference run by the CIPD in Manchester. There were lots of great learning points but one thing that struck me repeatedly were the reasons put forward by (often frustrated) HR people as to why their companies wouldn’t embrace “social media”, as they are often the reasons some of my clients also state. So I thought I’d challenge a few.

“People will do stupid things on it and we’ll end up sacking them”

Yes, some employees do stupid things sometimes – they always have done and always will do. Some of them will do it on a social media forum. But if someone doing something daft on social media leads to a disciplinary problem, then, to quote Pets At Home HR Director Ryan Cheyne, you have a problem with an employee – not with social media.

“People will just waste time on it”

Some people waste time at work no matter what. They might take overlong fag or tea breaks, wander around telling jokes to colleagues or discussing last night’s Eastenders. Again, if someone isn’t achieving their work targets, tackle it as a performance problem like any other. But…

…the time you think they are wasting might be being spent finding out the answer to a problem quickly and cheaply, getting some useful ideas on good practice from their contacts, or even finding out some information or knowledge on a competitor or a new opportunity.

“It might be ok for professionals and techies, but we employ manual workers/truck drivers/cleaners”

And you think that your manual workers don’t have Smartphones or Facebook accounts? Even if they don’t use them in work it doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t have them. Some companies adopt technology earlier than others but in the end we all do. One interesting learning point for me yesterday was that there is a huge online community of people who discuss knitting and crochet, and (while I accept this is a total stereotype) you wouldn’t normally associate people with those hobbies with the cutting edge of technology

“People might get a bad impression of the company”

People have always moaned about their employer and things they don’t like. But if you’re perceived as a poor employer, word always gets round. Social media just gets it round faster. And with the onset of sites like Glassdoor, it’s going to happen whether you “forbid” it or not.

Look at Friends Reunited and Myspace – they were just passing fads

Individual sites may come and go (there are some suggestions that Facebook may soon fall out of favour, while the end of LinkedIn has been prophesied regularly) but the means of communicating via internet or mobile technology will be around for a long while.

What’s its ROI?

As Mervyn Dinnen pointed out at yesterday’s conference, this is the “killer” argument used by those who just don’t want to do something. After all, how many companies measure the ROI of talking (and listening) to their employees, making new business connections or of providing mobile phones?

For a small organisation, the benefits of using social media more seem overwhelming – a cheap and easy way to promote your business and services, a chance to get immediate customer and employee feedback and an opportunity to “punch above your weight” against bigger competitors. In the same way that we now expect a company to have a website and an email address, there’ll be an expectation from your employees and customers in the future that you’re in social in some way. Thinking it will go away or ignoring it is not the right strategy.

Rome, Death or Umbrage

Humorous novelist Barbara Pym, a High Anglican Christian, once remarked that most people left her church for one of three reasons: Rome, death or umbrage. Her comment’s also true for the reasons most people leave a business.

Rome (i.e. the Catholic church) was in many respects the “competition”. If your staff are leaving to go to a competitor, what is it that they offer that you don’t? Is it more money; better working conditions; more career opportunities? Or is it that they operate in a way that is more in tune with the individual’s values? Whatever it is that makes your competitors a more attractive proposition than you is something that you need to understand and address if you can.

Although death is still thankfully a fairly rare occurrence in work, the abolition of the default retirement age means that you don’t necessarily know when an employee might decide to leave. But although you may not know the day or the  hour, you can be certain that they won’t be with you for ever. Are you planning what you will do when loyal staff retire? I recently worked with a company who had recognised that 3 long-serving senior managers were intending to retire in the next 2 years. When they assessed the consequences of this, they realised that it had “knock on” implications for employees all the way down to shop floor level.

And finally umbrage – a falling out with a boss or colleagues. Barbara Pym thought this the most common reason, and it’s one of the HR cliches that “people join organisations but leave managers”.  Like most cliches however it probably contains a element of truth. Work is a relationship and if we don’t get on with the people we work with, then we’ll generally look elsewhere for a pleasanter atmosphere.  If your staff are leaving, it may be for reasons that seem trivial to you but are important to them (for example when a football manager banned chips from the canteen) Minor gripes and moans can – if left unchecked – become toxic and employees will vote with their feet, so creating a positive culture isn’t some “airy fairy” HR idea but sound business sense.

Do you know why staff leave your business? And what are you going to do about it?