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?

The Problem Is You

Every day, I get bombarded with emails about “happiness”, “wellbeing”, “mindfulness” and “resilience”. Now, no-one, including me, wants people – whether they are employees or not – to be unhappy, in poor health (physical or mental) or unable to cope with things. But, as is often the case in the world of work, too many in HR are spending their time trying to tackle the symptoms, not the causes.

So: you’ve got a manager who’s working 14 hours a day, spending every evening doing emails and is aging visibly before your eyes. It’s ok – just send them on a resilience workshop.

Or an employee on minimum wage who’s worried that they can’t feed the family all week. No problem – a bit of mindfulness meditation will solve that

Or that guy who can’t sleep because they are failing to achieve the ever demanding targets of the company – just stick a Fitbit around their wrist and give them some feedback on their heart-rate. That way they can worry about the fact they aren’t doing their 10000 steps a day as well as everything else. (And of course we can add to our HR metrics too, to optimise their work performance)

The issue is that all of these situations, the problem is passed to the employee. It is their fault they can’t cope. As responsible employers of course, we make sure they’ve got the tools to deal with their failure to cope with the situation; after that they are on their own. Rarely do we acknowledge, let alone tackle, the organisational symptoms that contribute to the problem. Instead, we shrug our shoulders and conclude that, with all the support we’ve given them, if they can’t hack it in our environment they know what to do.

After all, HR has no responsibility for things like pay rates, working conditions, culture, organisational development, performance management or training do we…?