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·         Clinging on to outdated ideas – like “Best Practice” – a set of theories that derive from a discredited 1980s management study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

 

The “Headscarf Ban” – what it really means for small businesses

Today’s ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that employers can ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves has attracted a good deal of publicity and comment from both sides of the argument. But it’s important for small business owners to understand the implications of the decision before deciding whether or not they need to do anything at all about this ruling.

First – and probably the most important point – is that banning a Muslim woman from wearing a headscarf is not direct discrimination only if it is part of a policy that all employees are not allowed the “visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign in the workplace”. In other words, such a ban must also prohibit, amongst other things

·         Wearing of a cross by a Christian

·         Wearing of a turban by a Sikh

·         Wearing of a Kippah by a Jewish man

·         Anyone wearing a t-shirt with a religious, atheist or philosophical message (such as this for example)

·         Rastafarians having dreadlocks

I’m sure you can think of others (wearing a poppy in the lead up to Remembrance Day for example?).  

But even if you want to introduce such a ban (and we’ll look at why in a minute) you need to beware that such a policy might be indirect discrimination – in other words a requirement which, although it appears to treat everyone equally, disproportionately affects one particular group. Indirect discrimination is permitted by an employer if it is ‘objectively justified by a legitimate aim”. In the cases before the CJEU, the court decided that a legitimate aim could be that a company wished to convey an image of political, religious or philosophical neutrality to its customers, but that the desire of  acustomer not to be served by an employee wearing a religious symbol (in this case a headscarf) would not be a legitimate reason.

So, having considered all this, and the potential for a legal challenge if you do implement a ban, why would you want to do this anyway? How business critical is it that you convey an image of “neutrality” to your customers? Is it so important that you wish to try and dictate to your staff what they can and can’t wear?  What happens if someone is wearing a headscarf as fashion accessory or for hairloss after chemotherapy, not for any religious reason? How do you distinguish?  As we saw last year with the “High Heels” issue, imposing arbitrary and unjustifiable dress codes can lead to a wealth of damaging bad publicity for the companies involved.

And we haven’t even considered the issue of whether this ruling will be binding on the UK after we leave the EU (given that a claim now would probably take more than 2 years to reach the Supreme Court) – I’ll leave that one  for legal bloggers and commentators.

As always, remember the two golden rules of Employment Law for small business

1.       Don’t believe anything you read about Employment rules in the Daily Mail

2.       Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Note: Like everyone else commenting today, I’ve based this post not on a reading of the full legal judgment (which is not available at the time of writing) but on the CJEU press release, which can be found here. Should the full judgment contain anything different, I’ll update this post.

Culture eats “Banning things” for Breakfast

Today, the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons has published a report outlining the urgent need to reform the law on pregnancy discrimination, including the need for a “German style system” (a phrase which as unfortunate echoes of the “Australian style points system” on immigration) to make it harder to make women redundant during pregnancy or maternity leave.

The report is laudable in its aims and timely in its publication but (a little like Karl Marx) it draws the wrong conclusions from its analysis. It’s reported major conclusion is the lazy politician’s “We don’t like something – let’s ban it”.

UK employment law is absolutely explicit on the issue of pregnancy. It is automatically unfair to dismiss a female employee if the reason is because she is pregnant, has given birth recently, is breastfeeding or is on maternity leave. Women have an absolute right to return either to their own job or one of the same status, terms and conditions after a period of maternity leave. And in a redundancy situation, women on maternity go to the top of the queue in terms of redeployment (probably the only situation where employers not only can, but must, positively discriminate).

Where the system does let women down is that, if an employer does flout or ignore the law, the Employment Tribunal system has been priced beyond reach for most women (in fact most employees of either sex) to seek redress – allowing bad employers to continue to behave in this way. To be fair, this is something that the report does recognise. Reforming the tribunal fees system so that employees could access justice would be a quick and easy win (and also benefit good employers as I suggested here).

Much, much more important than that though, is a need for a change in business culture. Instead of seeing pregnant women as a “problem” we should take at a positive approach to the situation. We talk a lot in HR about things like retaining talented employees, flexible working and workforce development. It’s time we started putting some of that into practice. And if we want to encourage women back into the workforce, we need to be positive about making sure that fathers are involved in childcare, utilising things like the already existing Shared Parental Leave rules. And while we shouldn’t fail to recognise that – especially in a small business – losing a key employee for up to a year can cause problems, it’s not as if babies are a new thing or that we don’t get plenty of warning (and hence time to plan).

Culture change does take time – and businesses can’t solve all society’s issues. But HR can start the process of creating a different business mindset. And until the mindset is changed, changes in the law will not have the desired effect.

Anger, Brexit and Moving Forward

I was reluctant to write a post about last week’s EU referendum. Enough keyboard warriors have already given their reactions, opinions and solutions. But a couple of recent posts and comments from HR people have changed my mind.

First, let me state that, as a Remain voter, I’ve been through anger, disbelief, shock and all the other emotions that many others (like this, this and this) have also experienced.  It’s small consolation to live in a city which voted overwhelmingly to remain and where I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s anything other than horrified by the result and its implications for them and their children.

But what I will not do is get involved in a blame game. People who voted Leave did so for a variety of individual reasons – some will have had well thought out principled arguments, some were out and out racists, some had a rose-tinted and nostalgic view of England in the 1950s and some were just conned by the duplicitous snake-oil salesmen leading the Leave campaign.  To start trying to demonise the old, or working class people from the de-industrialised north, or those who live in rural areas, or those without a degree, for the way they voted is neither constructive not helpful. Indeed, the demonising of certain groups, particularly by politicians (and I don’t just mean UKIP) is the sort of tactic that has led us to the present situation.

We talk in HR a lot about “engagement” – an ill-defined concept which provokes a range of reactions from evangelism to cynicism. But I remember in one discussion a colleague saying “I can’t really describe what an engaged employee looks like – but I certainly know what a disengaged one is”. What we saw last week was the result of a disengaged population who wanted to kick back against something. As an old boss of mine used to say when discussing union negotiations, “when you’re in a lose/lose situation, do what you want to do”. And that’s what they appear to have done.

The UK seems to be in a collective Kubler-Ross curve at the moment. But the only way we will move forward to is get past the denial and anger stages and start to make the best of our new circumstances.  And maybe that means applying some of the ideas we use to try to improve employee engagement on a wider basis.

All the World’s a Stage

There seem to be a lot of HR related blogs on authenticity at the moment. The concept of “bringing your true self to work” has gained a lot of traction for what are very understandable reasons. If we are looking to improve productivity and get the best from committed and motivated employees, then we need to counter the “reverse superman” effect (a phrase coined by Organisational Development specialist Ali Germain) where people who are talented, capable and innovative in their non-work lives suddenly turn into lifeless corporate drones as soon as they clock in. And creating more human, people centred workplaces may well be the way to attract people to work for our businesses in future.
However, I’m not convinced we actually want real authenticity. Let me give you two examples.
Many years ago, I worked with a senior manager whose life was dominated by his hobby of yachting. His office was full of yachting memorabilia, including a sailing cap he always kept on his desk. People used to hate being summoned to his office because, after 5 minutes of business, they would be subjected to interminable (and to non-sailing types, i.e. most staff) tedious anecdotes about his yacht, sailing generally or his days in the navy. He was being totally “authentic” but the real him was a dreadful bore.
More recently, I had to deal with a disciplinary situation where an employee was constantly rude and aggressive to colleagues, but never in front of her manager. Following a particular incident, she was suspended and ultimately dismissed. During the investigation, many people commented that it was good that management had now seen her true colours. In her hearing, she argued that she had done nothing that wasn’t warranted and that she had always been like that – even using the phrase “what you see is what you get”.
But even if we want to get the “real person” in work I very much doubt we will. There have been numerous psychological studies about how people modify their behaviour in different environments – as Shakespeare put it “one man in his time plays many parts”. It’s one of the HR clichés that you don’t have to be friends the people you work with – and if you aren’t, you probably won’t be comfortable with showing your real feelings or personality in the working environment – no matter how much you like your organisation, job or get on with colleagues at a superficial or professional level.
When we talk about authenticity in HR, what I suspect we really mean is that we’d quite like people to show some of the nicer aspects of their personality in work, maybe with the odd idiosyncrasy thrown in, not their misogynistic or racist views or even their tendency to drone on about their yachting exploits at the weekend.