Government doesn’t make bad employers

Before the election I was asked to write a piece for HR Magazine laying out my dream policy. The sad fact is that whichever party had come to power the idea of providing free cheese and wine to HR Directors was never really going to get any traction. We can but dream. But, if you’re really interested, you can see the series of articles here.

Since the election, I’m hearing a lot of noise from left leaning, liberal, tree hugging, social media loving types, highlighting the risk to the world of work and employee rights from a right of centre government. And whilst it isn’t surprising (we all know the pantomime lines after all) it does seem to neglect the power that organisations have themselves to create good work and a good working environment.

There seems to be a perspective on organisations that “if you allow them to do it, then they will” which I find patronising and naïve in equal measure. The fact is, that lots of us work incredibly hard year in and year out to make work better AND make profit. That doesn’t mean that we always get it right and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t dodgy employers out there either.

The irony is that the same people who preach trusting employees in the workplace, reducing policies and procedures and placing the emphasis on adult to adult relationships seem to change their tune when it comes to CEOs and their relationship with Government. Employees should be treated like grown ups, but companies? Heaven forbid.

I’ve been involved in the Good Recruitment Campaign, a brilliant initiative from the Recruitment & Employment Confederation supported by many, many large employers who want to ensure high standards in recruitment. I’ve also been involved in the superb Learning to Work initiative from CIPD, which also has many, many high-profile businesses working to help reduce youth unemployment and connect the unemployed with opportunities in their businesses. These are just two, I could go on.

Beside these organised initiatives, there is also good practice going on in organisations up and down the country. Leadership and management teams that are trying to run their organisations well and responsibly and also provide shareholder return. After all, we all benefit from successful companies.

We have it in our power to be either good or bad employers, to treat people well or to treat them badly, to be supportive or attritional in our working relationships. No-one makes us do anything and ultimately we have the choice. The Government doesn’t have to set the agenda for HR, we can set it for ourselves. Instead of whinging and whining about matters beyond our control, let’s get back in to our businesses and make the argument for doing the right thing, regardless of who is or isn’t in power.

Size doesn’t matter

Statistically speaking, you’ll not always be right.

The amount of money involved in the decision has absolutely no mathematical bearing of the probability of you being correct.

Yet, it will have a direct and absolute correlation with your ability to accept your mistake.

And that, in three sentences we unveil perhaps the greatest folly of business and in turn, HR.

I’ve observed this over the years that I’ve been in corporate life, the larger the stakes, the lower the propensity to accept the reality of failure.

Like a punch drunk gambler at the casino table of life we pour good money after bad to assuage the egos of those that set us upon this path.

I wrote last year about the changes in technology that allow us to approach investment discussions in a different way. Since then I’ve seen a number of conversations with the likes of Undercurrent and Josh Bersin about the need to approach business cases like a start-up.

Low barriers to entry. Short cycles. Fast failure.

Yet the argument, whilst unassailable in its logic, still falls on deaf ears. Because of the simple fact that corporate life is predominantly male.

And men value size, not satisfaction.

Where are the bragging rights in showing off a small, low-cost, pilot project, when we can talk about multi million pound investments with gargantuan Powerpoint presentations that suggest the future value of something but with no empirical evidence, whatsoever, to support.

It isn’t the efficiency of your car, it’s the size of the engine. It isn’t the quality of the meal, but the price of the bill.

In business, we still determine value and importance by volume. We pride ourselves on the investment more readily than the return.

Until we can change our perspective of success from that of the old corporate norms, until we can challenge the way in which we judge efficacy and performance within our (predominantly traditional) businesses, we will not be able to face up to the new economic realities and we will show ourselves as wanting, as vulnerable to the faster more agile, less egotistical organisations entering in to our markets.

We need to redefine success criteria within our businesses in order to survive. But that starts with redefining the value that we put on our own corporate careers.

Let’s build a legacy that ensures future recognition, rather than build a monument to ourselves.

Insy or outsy?

I’m hearing it all too often at the moment, “we need to take an outside in approach”. It’s a movement that finds a proponent in the form of one Dave Ulrich, he of the failed HR operating model that encouraged a slavish implementation, that set the profession back the best part of a decade.

But of course, Ulrich wasn’t responsible for our misinterpretation of the model and nor is he responsible for the potential screw up we could make on an outside in approach by assuming we need external expertise and perspectives.

It’s not you, Dave, it’s us.

So let me start by suggesting that what we really need to take is an inside, outside, inside approach.

It doesn’t trip off the tongue as well, admittedly, but stay with me.

You see, everything starts with your employees. I can almost guarantee that any problem that you have, any barrier you need to overcome, any issue that needs improvement, can be better identified by the people within your organisation than anyone outside.

My evidence?

The first thing any external third-party does when you hire them? They suggest carrying out a series of interviews, focus groups, listening groups or some sort of questionnaire to understand the needs of your employees.

It really is the equivalent of giving someone your watch and asking them to tell you the time.

I’m the first person to suggest that HR people need to get their heads up and scan the horizon, but that starts by looking outside the HR function and only then outside of the business.

Yes we need to understand the economic and socio-political context in which we operate, yes we need to focus on the markets and environments in which our businesses exist. But that only has any relevance if we know where the skills, capabilities, weaknesses and opportunities exist within our own enterprises.

Look outside by all means, but first work out what it means to be inside. Because that’s is where your organisational value lies.

The future of work is…

A recent fad appears to be making predictions about the future of work. Made by the same demographic that watched Tomorrow’s World in the 70s and proclaimed that by the year 2000 we’d all be going around in flying cars and eating meals in the form of pills.

The excitement is real and genuine, every time a high-profile organisation does anything goofy, we hear “that’s the future of work”. Which totally misses the point. This isn’t about,

  • Social connection
  • Collaboration
  • Mobile technology
  • Holacracy (I can’t even bring myself to say it)

At the end of the day, the basis of work is an exchange of labour for reward. Not much changing there any time soon.

Too much of the debate is led by the middle-income, middle class, semi professional demographic. Who, it seems to me, are forecasting what they would like to see happen rather than basing it on anything solid.

So what are the trends that we are definitely seeing?

But none of these things are new. We’ve seen them all before. In fact, they represent the trend for significant parts of the history of work and employment.*

  • A gap between rich and poor
  • The skilled and the unskilled
  • Regional wealth
  • Longer working life and the dependence of the infirm*

In some ways, you could argue that the last fifty years have been the blip. When we look at the future of work, we need to look a little bit further afield…..

But it isn’t forward, it’s back.

And there’s not a single, shiny new management trend in sight. Just a significant challenge for all of us involved in the world of work to face up to.

*UPDATE: Thanks to @FlipChartRick for seeking clarification on this point. The use of the word “trend” is perhaps a little loose and reality might have been a better choice of words.