Roll Over Beethoven

Government Minister Lord Freud got himself in hot water last week when a recording of a Conference Fringe meeting was revealed where he stated that some disabled people were not worth the minimum wage, and suggested that employers could pay them £2 per hour with a state benefit being used to top this up. While most criticised him, there were some who sought to defend his comments, with this Daily Mail article being a particular example. In summary, it makes two points; firstly that the author’s father, who was blind, accepted he should be paid less because he required support to carry out his work – despite the fact that he was a highly rated newspaper columnist; and secondly that “the market” would inevitably value some jobs (by implication those done by people with disabilities) below the current level of the minimum wage.

Taking the second point first, it is quite possible that, if we simply allowed the market to determine wages, some jobs might be paid less than the current minimum wage rate of £6.50 per hour. If Lord Freud and his supporters want to make the case for abolishing the minimum wage, then that’s a perfectly acceptable position to argue (though none of the mainstream political parties seem to support it) – but it does seem to me that dressing up this argument as some form of altruistic help for the disabled is at best disingenous.

What worries me though about the first point though is that it demonstrates how out of touch politicians and media “commentators” are with the modern world of work. Firstly they seem completely unaware of the Access to Work Scheme, which provides  support for those with disabilities in work. To take the example of the blind Mr Utley, these days he wouldn’t require his employers to provide him with a paid secretary to read the newspapers to him, since a) most modern software includes a “read aloud” feature (as well as other accessibility options) b) if he did need special equipment it would be paid for and c) even if he did require a full time support worker his employer would get assistance with the costs. Without making a political point, it seems as a taxpayer that the government spending £500-£1000 providing an employer with special equipment to support an employee with a disability to work  is a more cost-effective solution than subsidising the disabled employee through the benefits system. Even in the case of  severe disability, where the individual requires a full time support worker, the current system (though not perfect) seems a better option.

Secondly,  they assume that a disability means an inability to do anything. No-one (even his political opponents) seriously suggests that David Blunkett was less effective than any other Home Secretary because he was blind. Indeed, rather than paying him less, if Mr Utley Snr really was the “leading Tory thinker of his generation” you’d expect the Telegraph to be paying him top dollar (it’s that thing called the market again) rather than ripping him off. Just imagine how Beethoven would have managed under Lord Freud and his supporters. “I’m sorry Ludwig, I know this symphony is genius but as you’re deaf, we’re only going to give you a third of what we paid Schubert for his inferior composition”.

Time to ditch the Equal Opps questionnaire?

Some months ago I was working with a client on a recruitment project, and they provided me a copy of their “Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form”. It was certainly a comprehensive document, covering as it did around 20 different definitions of ethnic origin, a dozen major world religions, an option to declare if your birth gender was different to your current gender and five options for sexual orientation. In line with good practice the form carried a declaration that it was not part of the selection process and would be detached from the individual’s application; it was anonymous and every question had a “prefer not to say” option.

This sort of form is pretty common throughout HR departments – certainly in the UK – and it is, in my experience, genuinely used for the stated purpose, i.e. simply monitoring applications to ensure that the organisation is attracting candidates from all sections of the community. But something about it left me feeling uneasy and wondering why we are really doing this. While I have had conversations in the past about why so few women are applying for a particular role or that the company seems to have an issue attracting candidates from a minority ethnic group despite being based in an area which has a high population, I can honestly say that I’ve never had a discussion about “this vacancy seems to be attracting a large number of transgender candidates – I wonder why that is?” or “We’re not getting many Sikh applicants, do you think we’ve got a problem?”

Now that could be that as a profession we’re just not as aware of discrimination when it doesn’t involve race or sex. But it could also point to the fact that we are operating simply as data collectors in order to tick a box (and indeed in the traditional risk-averse HR way, storing the information purely as insurance against a discrimination claim: “Us – discriminatory? We’ve had 17 lesbians apply in the last 6 months”)

But my main sense of unease is the intrusive nature of the questions. We talk a lot about candidate experience and trust in employment relationships. Yet for many individuals, one of their first contacts with a potential employer is to be asked a lot of extremely personal questions – and then to believe that someone they have never met will keep their stated promise that “this information doesn’t form part of the selection process”.

Of course, without the information, organisations won’t necessarily know if we do have a problem in recruitment. But is there a better way to do it? One that better balances the company’s requirements without the need to pry into personal information that we admit is of no relevance to the role we’re recruiting for. I don’t have an answer – do you?

Fine Words Butter No Parsnips

Social media went crazy over “Harry Potter girl” (her words not mine) Emma Watson and her speech to the United Nations last week about Gender Inequality. Surprisingly for a speech promoting feminism, the majority of negative comments (aside from the hoax “nude photos” campaign) were from other female commentators critical she had watered down the message to make it palatable to men (perhaps the trolls who gave other women such as Carolyn Criado-Perez such grief thought Hermione might turn them into actual trolls).

One area which was suspiciously quiet about the speech however was HR. As a profession we can’t change the world, but we do have a significant influence over the world of work. And within the speech there were a lot of challenges that we should be happy to pick up.

So what can HR do? Here are just a few thoughts:

  1. Looking at your organisation’s workforce – are there certain jobs/areas that are heavily male or female dominated? And is there a wage/salary discrepancy between the two? If so, is there anything you can or should do to address them?
  2. What is your attitude to issues like shared parental leave or flexible working? Is it a grudging acceptance that “it’s the law so we’d better do it”, or do you positively promote it as being good for both employer and employee?
  3. What is the management style of your organisation? If it’s based on aggressive “command and control” with an emphasis on presenteeism and competition rather than collaboration and team work, then what are you doing to challenge and change it?
  4. Address mental health issues in the workplace. This can be as simple as including mental health in absence management briefings and training. And if you don’t feel fully clued up on mental health, then make it one of your own personal development targets
  5. Challenge inappropriate behaviours. While the nude calendar on the office wall has been generally consigned to history, there are still many workplaces where “banter” is used to exclude, belittle or isolate those who are “different”.

And do you know what? As I typed that list, I realised that all these are things I’d expect a competent and qualified HR professional to be doing as a matter of course in the organisation that they worked in. So why aren’t we all doing it already?

The Monstrous Regiment of (Childbearing Age) Women

A few weeks ago, the NZLEAD Twitter chat was about the role and position of women in the workforce. Some of the debate I found quite odd, since it seemed to be focussing on issues that I personally thought were almost dead and buried in the UK – whether men had a problem with women in the workforce, or if women were “debarred” from working in certain occupations. Sadly, it seems I’ve been viewing the world of work through somewhat rose tinted glasses.

Earlier this week, a report was published which attracted a good deal of press attention, suggesting among other things that 40% of UK employers would have reservations about employing a woman of “childbearing age” and that a third of managers would hire a man in their 20s/30s rather than a woman of similar age, due to fears about maternity leave.

Originally, I was going to write a blog about the dubious use of statistics – the research was commissioned by a firm of lawyers who specialise in employment and discrimination claims and who are no doubt suffering a loss of business currently – and it’s interesting that the data itself is not easily available (the source of all the media stories seems to be this press release, which doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate the claims). And even accepting the data at face value, it’s quite easy to turn the headline into “60% of employers always aim for the best talent, while an overwhelming majority operate non-discriminatory recruitment practices” should you wish to spin the story a different way.

However, it’s not the data but some of the reaction to the news stories that made me re-think my own views. Commenting on the story, Employment Minister Jo Swinson and TUC Leader Frances O’Grady both described businesses who have this attitude to younger women as “dinosaurs”. As a political soundbite that’s probably ok (if a rather lazy and clichéd image), though personally I’d sooner find out why such a high percentage apparently still hold these views rather than attack them for it (I suspect that much of it is based on a misunderstanding of  employment rules, something I blogged about here).

But the reaction to Swinson’s comments – most notably here – were of such a vile and personal nature that it made me realise that perhaps I have too positive a view. How very dare she express an opinion, especially as a young woman who (shock horror) had a baby and took maternity leave from her ministerial post. Doesn’t she know that British business is collapsing all around her because women are taking maternity time off?

Clearly the debate hasn’t progressed as much as I thought or hoped.

Talkin’ Bout My Generation?

Originally posted March 2013

I’m a great fan of literature (as this blog shows) but if I could burn a book it would probably be Generation X by Douglas Coupland. Not that there’s anything wrong with the novel itself, but Coupland’s rationale for writing it, and the subsequent nonsense that surrounds it,  has taken HR people into a cul-de-sac of stereotyping and pointless debate.

Essentially, Coupland’s novel was a classic “young generation isn’t understood by the older generation” story. The Baby Boomers – those born immediately post WW2 – ran the world in way shaped by the War and just didn’t get the next generation – Generation X.  This generation – roughly speaking those born from 1960-75 – were a mixture of selfish individualism (their heroes being Reagan and Thatcher) and anxiety at the ever-present possibility of nuclear war.  The succeeding generation – which Coupland dismissively called the “shampoo generation” (because their biggest concern was deciding which brand of shampoo to buy) – are now referred to as Generation Y (or sometimes as Millennials, which makes them sound like an End Time Cult).

Now that Generation X are in their late 30s to early 50s, they are generally speaking, the dominant ones – the Baby Boomers having taken advantage of the “Peak State” and gone off on early retirement.  As the cold war has ended, Generation X-ers need something else to worry about, and being very business focussed they obsess about the fact that Generation Y people apparently aren’t. Not only do Gen Y spend all their time on this modern “social media” technology (Generation X people come from a time when digital watches were considered a pretty neat idea) but they apparently want to work for organisations that have values and ethics and want jobs where they can grow and develop, not just make money. So HR people now have to spend all their time looking for new ways to attract and engage them (mostly by attending expensive conferences where experts will give the latest thinking on how to do this).

I’m not stupid – I know that people’s attitudes can be shaped by their age, as well as their class, gender, nationality and religion (and plenty of other things besides). But this labelling of people by their age alone and the ludicrous generation boundaries is not only contrary to all good HR practice, it might even break Equal Opportunities law (substitute White/Black/Asian for Boomer/Gen X/Gen Y to see how it is the worst type of crude stereotyping).

HR should stop acting like the embarrassing parent trying to be “down wiv der kids” and focus on getting the basics right – creating workplaces where people are valued and respected and where employers can recruit the most talented as a result. That’s something that will benefit businesses and individuals, whether they are 20, 40 or 60.


(The inspiration for this post comes from Twitter user @HRGem, who coined the term “Generation Blah” in this blog – worth a read)