I know what I want & I know how to get it?

A common cry among HR people is that they are ignored or dismissed within their business. It’s something that in my 30 years in HR has never gone away, and forms a staple of many an HR conference. The “how do we get a seat at the table” discussion has outlasted almost every topic or fad that the profession has debated.

For me, one of the problems is that, while HR people moan to each other about not being taken ‘seriously’, we rarely ask our colleagues, who are after all our customers, what it is they want. But, after 18 years, working with a wide variety of organisations in widely diverging industries and sectors, I’ve come to the conclusion that what most want from HR is

·         To keep them legal – that means having a good knowledge of Employment Law and related regulation.

·         An understanding the business and its objectives, and the ability to devise solutions to problems that achieve this.

·         Good professional skills that no-one else in the business can provide – whether this is recruitment, employee development, handling a complex union negotiation, or an individual issue.

·         Someone who will remind them that they are dealing with other people. It’s very easy for managers to become focused on the task and forget that other human beings are involved. Pointing out the human consequences of a business decision isn’t being a “bleeding heart” – it allows better long-term decision making and planning.

·         Looking at ways things can be done, not reasons why they can’t

·         Someone who brings in expertise and knowledge from outside that can ‘add value’ to the business they are working for.

Now, I’ve never conducted a formal survey among the 125+ organisations I’ve worked with, and this view is purely based on my perceptions. So I’d welcome comments from businesses – and other HR people. Perhaps if we better understood what business wants, we might finally know how to earn the mythical seat at the table.

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.

Time to Drop Discipline?

In HR, we love to update our terms. After all, we even renamed ourselves “Human Resources” because “Personnel” sounded a bit old fashioned. And the names of things we do is forever changing – we don’t recruit, we acquire talent; we don’t induct new employees, we onboard them; we don’t train them, we develop them; and while we once did appraisals we now do performance reviews.

Now some of these are actually sensible and reflect a different mindset for the modern workplace – others are however just an attempt to sound hip and trendy. But one term persists – and to my mind it is the one that should have been cast into the dustbin of HR history many years ago.

I refer of course to Discipline –  a word that the Oxford Dictionary defines as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience”. Surely no word harks back more to the outdated command and control management style that goes back to FW Taylor and the pre-war years? So why do we – and indeed other professionals in the area such as ACAS – persist with the term?

It may be because the same term is used in the US, since the UK tends to follow American terminology about a decade later. Or it may be that we’re all closet Taylorists, believing that staff will attempt to get away with anything without a good dose of corrective sanctions. Or even because it allows HR people to get involved in something that sounds quasi-judicial and stop line managers from getting it “wrong”.

I’m intrigued to know – why do we still use Discipline? And what term should we replace it with? (A final warning for anyone who suggests “Inappropriate Employee Behaviour Modification Procedure”!)

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.

I Fought The Law

Every so often, and usually despite my better judgement, I’ll read or even get involved in a LinkedIn debate about an employment law topic. One a few weeks ago concerned the applicability of the TUPE regulations in a particular situation. What annoyed me about the debate – on this occasion – was that the first few responses, from apparently experienced and qualified HR professionals, were “ask a lawyer”, often with a subtext of “much too complicated and risky for the likes of us”.

Now I’ve nothing against Employment Lawyers (some of my best friends… etc), and their expertise is always useful. But I do find it worrying when HR people – who ought to understand the organisational and cultural context the law is being applied to – refuse to comment on a basic query and kick it upstairs to the legal profession.

So here’s a little quiz:

  1. If an individual makes an employment tribunal claim against your company, what are the processes and timescales for responding?
  2. If one of your managers asks for advice about whether a restructuring situation will result in redundancies, how do you respond?
  3. Could you advise a manager on what the protected characteristics are under the Equality Act?
  4. What is the process for a Shared Parental Leave request? And how does it differ from Additional Paternity Leave?
  5. What are the big changes being planned in Employment Law and where would you find more information?

If you’ve a CIPD qualification* and you can’t answer all of those with ease, then you really should be concerned (and if you’re one of my non-HR readers, if your HR manager or consultant can’t answer them you should be equally concerned). That’s not me being a smart-arse – those questions are based on the CIPD’s own learning outcomes for the Employment Law module in the Advanced Diploma. As an HR professional, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of the wonderfully named “Daddy’s Dance Hall” case or whether there are legitimate grounds for appeal in the recent Holiday Pay case – that is a job for the lawyers. But the basic tenets of employment law? You bet.

(* I understand some CIPD qualified people are specialists in certain areas – such as Compensation & Benefits – and don’t need a detailed knowledge of general employment law. But they still need to know how the law impacts on their own specialism)