In (slight) defence of Dave Ulrich

HR guru/thought leader/influencer Professor Dave Ulrich of the University of Michigan has copped for a bit of a kicking from many in the profession, for this tweet issued at the end of last week.

 

On the face of it, it’s an easy comment to criticise. Apart from the fact that not all organisations are driven by the profit motive, we can all point to companies that are “winning in the marketplace” in part by employment practices that are dodgy if not illegal – Ryanair, Amazon, Deliveroo, Sports Direct etc. It also has echoes of the 1980s attitude of ‘what’s good for the business is good for employees’

But there is an important point hidden in a badly worded tweet. We can have a bigger impact on employee wellbeing by promoting long term job security, decent wages and good working conditions than we can by well meaning but ineffective initiatives. All the “Employee Assistance Programmes” in the world won’t help the staff at House of Fraser. Organisations need to be financially secure and successful (however you define success) to be able to offer these – and HR’s role is to contribute to this, even if it’s not the most exciting or sexy part of our work.

One of the things I often challenge my CIPD students is to justify why they are making recommendations that may cost their organisations a lot of money,  if they cannot clearly articulate the benefits of doing so – and that in many cases this justification needs to be quantifiable in financial terms. Too often, we resort to hopeful statements about ill defined outcomes.

Nor is it an either/or position. Contributing to successful organisational outcomes is not at the expense of supporting employee well being. As the new CIPD profession map points out, HR professionals need to be Principles Led and Outcomes Driven. Each is as important as the other.

Maybe Dave did have a point after all?

Thinking Outside the Payroll

What exactly are the “Human Resources” of an organisation? 

The easy answer is that they are the people who work for a business, charity or public body. But while in the past, for the overwhelming majority of organisations, this term was synonymous with “employee”, these days that’s frequently not the case. And I’m not just talking about trendy hi-tech firms either – the chances are that if you’ve ordered anything for delivery recently, whether online or from a store, it will have been delivered by a self-employed contractor, not an employee of the company. Nor is it uncommon in many organisations to have sub-contracted out ‘ancillary’ services to others (indeed, that’s how I make my living!!)

So why is that an issue for those of us who work in HR? Well, there are lots of reasons:

·         It won’t be enough to know about “employment law” – HR professionals will need to understand the full range of legal relationships that people can have with organisations, and be able to advise on them. The excuse that “x is a freelance, nothing to do with us” won’t wash in future

·         How will we hire and fire in the future? Some of the time-consuming processes that we use to recruit, or dismiss, are not only not necessary but don’t fit with those who are working in a non-traditional way. And given that recruiting consultants or freelancers has been a traditional responsibility of procurement departments or line managers, how do we get involved without creating a turf war?

·         If we have to recruit people differently, do we also need to start rethinking how we develop them? And indeed, exactly who do we need to consider developing?

·         We talk a lot in HR about behaving “ethically”. If we start to use labour as a resource to be taken up and dropped when necessary for our business, how does that square with behaving in an ethical manner?

·         Even if you don’t accept the ethical arguments, there are several clear business reasons why HR will need to change. The whole “psychological contract” between businesses and their workforces will change and our practices will need to as a consequence

·         Things that we devote a lot of time to currently – like the nebulous concept of “employee engagement” – may become pointless; if workers aren’t all employees then chasing after engagement becomes a meaningless exercise.

That’s not to say we need to throw out everything we do in HR. Nor am I suggesting traditional employees will disappear – they will still form the majority of the workforce for the foreseeable future (at least for the remainder of my working life anyway!). But what I am suggesting is that we need to rethink exactly how – and why – we do a lot of things if the profession is to remain relevant in 21st century organisations.