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.

My 6 Books

maverick  handy secret agentTMS cheese

A couple of weeks ago David Goddin (@Changecontinuum) wrote a blog post on the 6 books that had most influenced his approach to his coaching practice, and challenged others to do the same. After some thought, here are the books that influence my approach to HR

Maverick – Ricardo Semler

Even 20 years on, the way in which Semler transformed his traditionally run family business into one which gives shopfloor workers the chance to set their own wages, run their own production lines and take control of the way the business moved forward is still inspirational and sadly, still rare. What I particularly like about it is that Semco is primarily a manufacturing firm (not a trendy techy start up) and is based in one of the emerging economies (Brazil) – if they can do it why can’t more?

Understanding Organisations – Charles Handy

Anyone who studied for their CIPD qualification in the 1980s or 1990s will have probably used this as their “core” textbook – although it’s a fairly easy and straightforward read and not overly academic in style. It’s not a ground-breaking book in itself, but it emphasises the “human” in human resources and its influence can still be felt throughout the HR profession. It’s my first port of call if I need to refresh my memory on an aspect of HR theory.

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

I’ve blogged before about Conrad and his unlikely status as an HR guru, and this is a classic case of “a novel you read as a teenager having an influence for the rest of your life”. Every character in this study of a terrorist cell in London is complex, with their own individual motivations, and their interplay and misunderstandings lead to tragic consequences – things that impact on the world of work where understanding why people are behaving in a particular way is key to resolving issues.

The Wealth of Nations/The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith

Yes, this is two books – but both need to be read as Smith (who like Marx is often misrepresented) makes the important point that humans are both economic animals (we like to make a profit) and social animals (we have feelings for others and can understand their dilemmas and point of view). Balancing the two in business is a key skill in HR – we have to ensure that we achieve both.

Who moved my Cheese? – Spencer Johnson

Awful, patronising tripe, a heavy handed way of making the point “if you don’t adapt you die”. It’s the only management book I know to have been cited as a reason for unfair dismissal. So why is it here? Because it’s a constant reminder to me of how HR can and has been used almost as the “anti-people” department – and so it acts as a warning never to behave in that way!

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?


Quantum Physics and Refuse Collection

Originally posted July 2013

At the moment I’m reading and enjoying Daniel Pink’s “Drive”, and have just reached the point where he describes companies who have introduced a system called ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) – where so long as the objectives are achieved, there is no monitoring of whether an employee is in work, or if they are  actually working at a particular time.

It sounds innovative and radical, but it reminded me of my days working as an Industrial Relations Officer for a local council in the late 1980s. There, the refuse collection department was seen as a hotbed of labour disputes. One of the particular problems from a management perspective was a working practice called “Stint and Finish”, where once the days bins were collected, the bin men could finish work. So although contracted to work between 730 and 430, with an hour for lunch, the men (and they were all men in those days) would – by agreement between themselves – cut short their break and aimed to finish as early as possible – usually by 230 and earlier on a Friday.

At the time, the government were introducing “Compulsory Competitive Tendering”, whereby Councils had to tender their direct services and where – provided minimal quality standards were met – price was the only determining factor. “If the staff can finish that early every day, then they must not have enough to do – and maybe we need fewer staff” ran the logic. “If we can cut costs, the in-house service has more chance of winning the tender”.

So off were dispatched the Council’s Work Study team (or as they grandly titled themselves “Industrial Engineers”) with their stop watches and clipboards, along with the Safety Officer to make sure that the staff were following proper procedures. And what did they find…? Without any apparent dawdling or shirking, each daily round was completed exactly as specified and the vehicles arrived back promptly at 430. It was almost as if, like sub-atomic particles, the very act of observation had changed the behaviour of the employees.  And on the days the study was being carried out, residents’ complaints about late collection of the bins rose.

What we had was the classic trade-off between efficiency (keep costs to an absolute minimum and work staff as hard as they can be) and effectiveness (provide a service residents are happy with, give staff the freedom to organise the work as they see fit within a defined cost base). Where does your organisation lie?

(Oh, and if you’re interested, the in-house team won the competitive tendering bid)


Attitude Gets You Attention, but Courtesy Wins You Respect

Originally published May 2012

I had the misfortune recently to catch an episode of “The Apprentice“. What’s particularly depressing about this reality TV show is that people see Lord Sugar and his bunch of social misfits undertaking work-related projects, and think that business success is gained by backstabbing colleagues, talking in business clichés and pursuit of personal gain at the expense of everything else (including basic competence).

This “economic” view of people as inherently selfish and untrustworthy has a long history – in management theory it goes all the way back to FW Taylor, and now has a new lease of life following the publication of the Beecroft report.  If, as Beecroft and his supporters do, you believe that labour is simply a commodity to be picked up and put down when required, then it is logical to call for a reduction in employment rights.  As I pointed out in earlier posts, it’s ironic that this view of labour ultimately derives from Karl Marx!

There is a different way, as many successful businesses and business people recognise. They take the view that employment is a relationship between people, and therefore requires trust, confidence and mutual respect. People aren’t just machines to be managed at the touch of a button, but have different interests and motivations, and respond best to being treated as human beings.  It’s no wonder that the current big issues for many businesses and HR professionals are around employee engagement, values and retaining good people.  Though sometimes all people want is a simple “thank you” to recognise their efforts or achievements.

As another wise economist recognised “How selfish … man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it”  But businesses who display an interest in the fortunes of their staff will derive plenty from it, through greater commitment, reduced turnover and ultimately more profit.