Burying our head in the sand

There’s been a lot of reaction to the concept of ‘best practice’ in HR over the last few years –  the idea being rejected primarily because no-one can identify what these best practices are, nor is there much (if any) evidence that they work. As a result, the alternative ‘best fit’ model has gained in popularity.

Superficially, best fit has much to commend it. Our HR practices are adapted to the size, sector and most importantly the strategy of our organisation. The approach that might be taken in a large corporate services business is not the same as an SME in a manufacturing sector. But we need to take care.

One of the most well-known best-fit theories  (Schuler and Jackson 1987) suggests that when a business is cost-sensitive, HR’s approach should be to control and reduce costs. This means not just keeping wages at the lowest level to attract qualified staff, but also using very tightly defined job roles (so there is no scope for ambiguity or employee discretion), using ‘precarious’ labour (what we now tend to refer to as the gig economy), little or no training and development, and short-term performance goals. Ryanair is often cited as the ‘classic’ example of this approach in the UK.

The dangers of this approach should be obvious – and if they aren’t then yesterday’s article in the Financial Times, which exposed the working practices in the garment industry in Leicester should be top of your reading list. Taken to its extreme, it leads to unsafe working conditions, below minimum wage levels and exploitation on a large scale.

“But what can we do?” I can hear many HR professionals saying. After all these businesses won’t have HR.  But our ‘just legal but arguably unethical’ HR practices do lead to other companies taking the next step across that line. And with little current enforcement of regulations it’s all too easy to get away with ignoring basic employment law.

It is, as Canadian HR writer Jane Watson describes it, a “Wicked Problem” – and demands the same approach she suggests to tackling it. HR can’t solve the issue on its own, but neither can we pretend that we are not partly responsible for this state of affairs.

7 hacks to disrupt HR

Everywhere you look, people want to disrupt HR. Books have been written, conferences held, hashtags created. Many in the HR profession look at the way that Uber, Airbnb, Ryanair and others have disrupted their industry and wonder how we can do the same.  Now I can exclusively reveal that the seven hacks below will ensure that you can disrupt HR whatever your business or sector.

1.       Remove all pencils from the HR office (or in a tech company, hide all the iPad chargers). All HR work will soon grind to a halt.

2.       Respond with “Yes, let’s be just like Enron” whenever the phrase “war for talent” is mentioned. Most HR people won’t actually have read the book to be aware that Enron was one of the key case studies.

3.       If anyone in HR refers to the above concept as the “war on talent”, smile pityingly at them. This will disconcert if not completely disrupt.

4.       Replace all ergonomically designed office chairs with three legged stools. Defend any subsequent health and safety claims with “we were only implementing the Ulrich model

5.       Suggest ignoring employment law if it doesn’t fit in with the preferred solution to a problem (I saw this genuinely proposed by a qualified HR person on a LinkedIn discussion topic, so this disruptive tactic has clearly gone mainstream).

6.       Ask “have you any evidence this will work?” next time they propose a new initiative.  Repeatedly doing this will either a) make them leave you alone or b) find some evidence to support their argument.

7.       For maximum effect, switch on the sprinkler system during the CIPD conference this week. This will disrupt more HR people in one fell swoop than points 1-6 put together.

I completely understand that many in the HR world think things we do could be done differently and better, or even not done at all (I am one of them). And perhaps I’m being too literal by taking the dictionary definition of ‘disrupt’. But the word conveys the snotty-nosed punk rock attitude of ‘let’s smash everything whether it’s good or not’ (fine if you’re 17 and in a band, perhaps not so in a world of work). Moreover, with the disruptive chickens coming home to roost for many of the companies above, should this be a bandwagon that we just watch as it goes hurtling by?

A quiet week

I was sitting at my desk, thinking that this week had been comparatively quiet, but then I started to list a few of the things I’ve done:

·         Advised a client on a recruitment issue, including how to develop what they want and where they might source candidates

·         Worked with a small public sector organisation to review its restructure and recommend some improvements to it

·         Drafted a staff handbook for a growing professional practice

·         Helped a new start-up understand their ‘basic’ HR responsibilities

·         Assisted a client in a hi-tech field to deal with a performance management issue

·         Acting as the adviser for a charity client in a disciplinary issue

·         Dealing with a query about the Apprenticeship levy

·         Writing the script for, and recording a CIPD Level 7 training webinar (not entirely convinced that voiceover artist is a likely career move for me)

·         Finalising the edits for my book (of which more here)

It made me realise that even in the ‘quieter’ periods,  the variety of ‘people’ issues that crop up  in organisations are what makes my work so interesting. So, if your business or organisation needs some HR help, why not get in touch?

 

Frames of Reference (Part 2)

About 10 days ago, I posted a blog post which consisted of a series of images and the simple question: What do you see?

The reactions it gained, both in the comments and on social media, were interesting and varied – as I’d suspected, everyone saw the images in a slightly different way – some saw them individually, some saw them thematically, and the same picture could elicit different reactions.

The differences occur because we all perceive things based on our own knowledge, experiences and values – everyone has a different frame of reference. And these frames of reference transfer into the workplace as much as any other aspect of life.

Sociologist Alan Fox broke these workplace frames of reference down into 3 broad categories:

·         Unitarist – everyone in the organisation shares similar values and culture and they are all working to the same end

·         Pluralist    people have different aims and objectives, which may depend on where they are in the organisation and as a result organisations become a coalition of interests –  and these interests can and do sometimes conflict

·         Radical (or Marxist) – the groups in a workforce (which can crudely be split into ‘managers’ and ‘workers’) are inherently in conflict – if one gains the other loses.

For the last 30 years, the dominant viewpoint in HR and business has been the Unitarist one – whether it’s Tom Peters and his “excellent” companies, or HR concepts like ‘best practice’ and ‘employee engagement’. But is it time to reconsider the idea that “we’re all in it together”? The increasing numbers of industrial disputes – which I highlighted here – suggest that increasingly groups of employees are considering that their interests are better served by opposing the wishes of their managers. While the so-called Uber model of employment distances people from their organisation even further.

After all if we interpret 5 photographs differently, why on earth should we all interpret something as complex as a business in a unified and agreed way?