“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.

Is “Evidence Based HR” the latest HR fad?

Lots of people criticise HR.

Actually I could just stop there, but the point of this post is that lots of people criticise HR for jumping on the latest workplace fad without any evidence that it works. “Netflix have dropped performance reviews – we should too” “Employee engagement is a big issue – we need to do something about it” Too often we adopt some new initiative more because it creates the impression that we are doing something about something, regardless of whether it will actually solve the problem.

So the increasing trend for evidence-based HR is something that generally I welcome – the concept that we should be able to prove, using properly constructed evidence, that doing A leads to B. And I particularly enjoy academic Rob Briner’s frequent challenges to the profession to consider the evidence for our various HR sacred cows.

But (and you sensed there was a but coming…) there are four reasons why I think we should be as cautious about evidence-based HR as we should be about anything else in the profession.

  1. Organisations are dynamic and different. A might lead to B (our preferred outcome) in one organisations but it might lead to C or D in others. Taking an overly academic approach would lead us to say that there’s no evidence that A works, because its results can’t be replicated outside  one organisation.
  2. There’s a danger of paralysis. “Should we drop or change our performance reviews?” “Well there’s no evidence that that would work” “Ok, better not do it then” – If someone doesn’t sometimes back a hunch, without evidence to support it, then we’ll always be stuck where we are.
  3. In the business world, we don’t always need to know the middle step of why A leads to B. It can just be enough to know that it happens. It’s a little like the fact that scientists know (from observation) that if you split a magnet in half, the two resulting magnets will have a north and south pole. They don’t know why (currently) but they know what will happen and can then plan accordingly.
  4. We might just end up with one size fits all “Best Practice” under a different name. If doing A leads to B, and we have evidence that this is the case, then if we want to achieve B then we must always do A. A may not fit with our own organisation, its culture and business context, but the evidence says this is what we should do.

The danger is that Evidence Based HR might fall victim to the very thing it seeks to challenge – becoming the latest bandwagon and seeing HR practitioners uncritically misapplying it. After all, we’ve already seen Dave Ulrich’s model feted then condemned, people with only a modicum of knowledge parading neuroscience as the future, and a nonsensical obsession with millennials, as flavours of the month in the last few years.

Weather man says fine today

Radio 4’s ever interesting Thinking Allowed programme recently featured a report of a study into weather forecasters- and specifically what it referred to a “science rooted in unpredictability”. The research was based on a long-term study and its key findings were:

  • The core of the profession was based on evidence and data – whether this was an analysis of historic trends, mapping variable data in to the future, or using latest research to inform and update their modelling and prediction techniques
  • At the same time results needed to be interpreted and presented in a meaningful way to the recipient. While it might be scientifically accurate to say that there is a 65% chance of rain, what the end user wants to know is “do I need to take my umbrella out with me?”. So a key skill is clear and effective communication
  • Personal experience and “intuition” are still a vital part of managing the unpredictability – the research revealed that forecasters might spend significant time observing the sky and sharing stories and anecdotes as well as poring over computer models and satellite images. Being able on occasions to use this accumulated knowledge is essential to develop appropriate solutions. In fact the report gave an excellent example of this. The computer model predicted that Kansas City would not receive its first snowfall of the winter one night. Experienced forecasters believed it would. The decision was to go with the computer model, and the result was chaos as the city ground to a halt, unprepared for heavy snow.

Very interesting you may be thinking, but why are you writing an HR blog about it? It seems to me that this research also describes HR management pretty well. We’re dealing with unpredictable elements all the time (we call them “human resources”, though I prefer “people”). We should be using evidence and data wherever possible to support our activities (sadly, we don’t on too many occasions) but we also need to rely on our own experience to inform the judgments and decisions we make. And we need to communicate our advice and decisions in a way that is understandable and useful to managers and employees.

You can listen to the full Thinking Allowed report here