Just how hard is it to treat people decently?

Every so often the internet throws up some serendipitous issues. A discussion on Twitter about the recent case of the Vicar unable to make an unfair dismissal claim since he was deemed to be employed by God caused me to look at Rerum Novarum, the 1891 Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, which said among other things that

  • Employees should be paid a “living wage”and receive stable working conditions
  • They should have proper rest breaks
  • Trade unions were on the whole a good thing
  • Even if they had the economic power to do so, employers shouldn’t exploit or treat their staff badly

At the same time, the latest post from blogger Maid in London, which details life as a hotel housekeeper, popped up in my timeline. I think it’s fair to say that her employer takes the opposite view to Pope Leo.

Some people do pretty awful jobs in unpleasant conditions. They clean hotel rooms, collect bins, make or assemble things in hot and noisy environments, work with dangerous equipment, or deal with people in difficult or crisis situations. Although it’s true that you can get job satisfaction from even the most mundane or demanding task, most in those roles don’t do it for the love of the job. And despite what some in social media suggest, these jobs aren’t all going to disappear in the next 5-10 years.

So why do we think that just because someone does a manual job, for low pay, that it’s somehow okay to treat them like dirt? While some HR people might get slightly orgasmic at the thought that the world of work is full of “cool” organisations like Google, where employees drink lattes while sliding down pool tables, others boast of their commercial prowess by looking at new and innovative ways to cut employee terms and conditions in pursuit of the “bottom line”, and a third group wander around ineffectually bemoaning the fact that line managers don’t listen to them or follow their carefully constructed processes. None of these groups seem to consider that just treating people with a little common decency might pay dividends both in terms of staff morale and productivity.

Let’s face it, if a celibate theologian from the Victorian era can “get it”, then twenty first century HR professionals should be able to.

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.

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?


Everybody’s HR nowadays

Originally posted February 2014

“What do you do?” asked my new contact at a networking event

“I provide HR support for smaller companies” I replied

“Don’t envy you that” he said “I can’t be doing with all that people stuff”

“So what’s your role?” I asked

“I’m the Operations Manager for a company that makes and installs widgets. We’re growing, just won a big new contract and taking on a dozen new staff”

I’ve had that conversation (or variations of it) dozens of times over the years. It always intrigues me that “HR” is seen as something distinct and separate from the day to day running of a business. I’ve even heard HR described as a Black Art.

Fundamentally, the “Human Resources” of a business are the people who work within it. If you’re a manager, you are interacting with those people daily. For your direct team, you are talking to them about their work objectives and how well they are (or aren’t) doing. You may want to discuss whether they need extra training. Sometimes you may find that you don’t like or get on with colleagues and that is affecting how you work together. On occasions you might recognise yourself that you aren’t performing as well as you can and need some development. In short, you’re a people manager and you achieve your results through the people you work with. Put it another way – you’re doing HR!

So what do “HR” people do? Why do businesses even employ us? Once you strip away all the jargon ultimately it’s because we provide specialist skills and/or knowledge that the business needs. That could be technical stuff around employment law; it could be dealing with the mechanics of paying people correctly; it might be looking at how the business should be organised to achieve its objectives; or issues that are wider than just an individual manager or department (such as pay levels, recruitment strategy etc). And occasionally it does involve supporting managers in situations where they have less experience or which occur infrequently (such as dismissals).

HR – it’s what you do – and I support you with.