Just have a little pension, I’m still hurting from a love I lost

It doesn’t matter how much organisations talk about retention, EVP, their responses to the supposed “Great Resignation” and their enduring cultures. Nothing shines a light on our view of the labour force as entirely transitory as the approach that many organisations take to pensions.

I’m old enough to remember Final Salary pension schemes being in place and was lucky enough to have participated in a couple in the early years of my employment. And even in the simple language of the scheme there is a tell tale to how we have changed our perception of employees and their careers. The expectation in so many organisations is that we no longer expect you to stay here until you retire and so we aren’t going to incentivise you to do so.

Whilst I understand that there are complex financial considerations about the specific provision of defined benefit schemes, that shouldn’t hide the fact that too many organisations’ approach to pension provision is nothing short of woeful and one of the reason why the Government were forced to act through statutory minimum contributions. There has been a silent race to the bottom which has taken place out of the eyes and ears of the mainstream debate.

Compare and contrast with the last twelve months coverage of hybrid working (yes I am on this bandwagon again), and debates about the number of days that organisations will ask their people to be in. Is there the same debate about the level of contributions that organisations are making into their employee schemes? Of course not, and the double irony is that the supposed liberation that has come as many organisations sell off their property portfolio will harm both pension fund investments and, I can almost guarantee, won’t go back to employees in any shape or form.

So who cares? What does it matter? The Government will take care of it, right? Well there are two possible answers to that, if the answer is no then we are going to have employees working until they die and if the answer is yes, we’re placing a huge burden on the next generation and the one after that. It hardly sounds like inter-generational fairness. If we believe that we, as organisations, have a role to play in society then we could do far worse than making sure that our employees can survive after they’ve left us.

PS. Take That, if you were asking. I bet they never thought they’d be misquoted in that context!

The P&O scandal shines a light on our privileged view of work

Like many, I was pretty gobsmacked by the brazen approach of the P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite in addressing a parliamentary select committee last week. If you’re unaware of the story, it broke a couple of weeks ago when P&O effectively fired a quarter of their workforce with immediate effect via video. And, unsurprisingly, there was widespread outrage from politicians, the media, trade unions and employer groups. Rightly so, these were acts that even if the law was taken out of consideration were highly immoral and unethical.

But the fact these made headlines, these are just the actions of a rogue organisation, right? Sadly not.

Before I go on to make my main point, I want to stop for a second and clarify something that I think is important to the context of the argument. There is an intellectual difference between believing something is wrong or right and believing it is the principal argument that needs to be had, right here and right now. In a world full of opinions, but limited space and time, our job as leaders is to curate all of those multiple points and focus on the ones that matter the most, for our teams, for our organisations and, for society. The ones that matter to the majority.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of work and creating a sustainable future we fail to do this. That’s why you’ll find the last twelve months littered with articles and opinion pieces about flexible working, working from home, remote working, hybrid working, the four day week and more and why you’ll find little on the increasing practice of fire and rehire.

What is beneath this? Well the first set of issues relate predominantly to white collar, professional workers and the latter to blue collar skilled or manual workers. It is simple as that. And yet the latter group make up a much more significant proportion of the workforce. So as leaders and HR professionals we focus on the things that matter to us personally, and the journalists write about the ones that matter too them. Curiously there is a significant overlap.

I’ve spoken before about my concerns about restructuring work without thinking about the majority of workers and the communities that they live in and I stand by these concerns because they are very real and pressing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in progress in the workplace or moving towards a different more flexible future, I just don’t think it is the most pressing issue that we face in our societies and in our workplaces, right here and right now.

If the P&O situation tells us anything, it is that for many of us our view of work is shaped by a privilege afforded by position. These practices have existed for years (Irish Ferries did something incredibly similar in 2005) and they’re going on in organisations today. And of course, this is just one of the unfairnesses that exists in work. If we believe in creating a future that is better, that is supportive of all and that creates the kind of organisations that we would be proud that our grandchildren work in, we would be better starting there rather than feathering our own, already comfortable nests.

You should always be free to leave

I’m not sure about you, but when I think back to my early twenties I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I ended up studying a postgraduate and entering into the world of HR mostly based on the advice of friends and family. I figured that if it didn’t work out, I could leave and do something else. Fortunately, it turned out to be the right career.

Having seen my son entering into the world of work last year, much of his experience has been similar to mine. A vague idea of the kinds of stuff that he likes doing and is good at. Less certain about what he wants to do and where he wants to do it. But an understanding that his first job won’t be his last job and that he will work for good and employers and sometimes have to move on. I’m sure neither he nor I are particularly unique.

But imagine if the mistake you made in choosing your first job meant that you had to pay off thousands of pounds in “debt” for “training” that didn’t lead to any formal qualifications. Of course it would all be in the small print of the contract, you’d have signed to say you accepted it, but how many of us in our 20s would either read the agreements to that level of detail, or be so cynical to imagine it would all go horribly wrong so quickly?

Unfortunately that’s the case for hundreds of young people every year who are approached by companies offering them placements with prestigious brands and training that can take as little as a few weeks but result in an obligation to repay tens of thousand of pounds if they leave before the fixed term of their “graduate scheme”. These companies have been highlighted as part of a campaign by Tanya de Grunwald. The stories shared by individuals trapped on these schemes is shocking and resonates with some of the personal stories I’ve also heard, where even in the case of some of the most personal and disruptive life events, the exit fees have been applied and legally enforced.

This is very different to the study aid that most organisations offer to employees who have been in their service for a number of years. Someone who has time to understand the company and the work before making a personal choice to undertake study for a qualification and commitment to repayment in the case they leave. These are young people at one of the most anxious and vulnerable points in their lives making a multi thousand pound commitment without knowing anything about the company or the work and then being threatened by lawyers and debt collectors if they leave. And of course this disproportionately impacts those without the family support or connections to fully understand the implications of the contract.

Exit fees aren’t illegal, although you can make a good argument that they should be, and these organisations can argue they’re doing nothing wrong and that the contracts are set out and explained. And whilst client companies are willing to contract with them, then the practice is legitimatised. But in a world where big organisations sign up to the Living Wage, Social Mobility pledges and employability programmes it feels pretty incongruous that at the same time they’re facilitating a modern version of bonded labour.

Which is why, if you’re running an organisation it is worth checking out whether you’re supporting this kind of activity and whether you think it reflects the values of your organisation or whether your commitments to society stop before they come to the actions of your supply chain. If you’re interested and want to do something about it you can find out more and sign up to the campaign here.

What more can we do?

It goes without saying that the last three years have been a hell of a ride for most employees. In the UK we’ve faced into Brexit uncertainty, a global pandemic and now a war in Europe. And in many other countries across the globe, there is a shared sense of anxiety, uncertainty and fear. Those feelings are shared by many of us regardless of whether we are at home or at work.

There is much business can do to be a force for good in the world, I genuinely believe that, but whatever kind of organisation you work in or lead one of the biggest things you can do now is to focus on the needs of your employees and to truly focus on the things that they need, rather than the things that you want them to do for you.

Whilst it won’t be an exclusive list, those things generally revolve around three key words; certainty, acceptance and care.

When there is so much disruption around us, the more that we can do to provide a single place of certainty is hugely important to our psychological wellbeing. I’ve long argued that anyone who says they, “love change” is generally talking about change they’re in control of and at the moment there is so much going on our of our control that the more we can provide boring levels of certainty for our organisations the better.

The last two years have shone a huge light on the different lives that we all lead, our differing choices, responsibilities and backgrounds. In times of significant disruption it is easier than ever to feel alone, to feel that we are the only ones that are experiences life in a certain way. Our role in not only talking about accepting difference, but showing it on a daily basis is a huge signal towards psychological safety. When the world feels fragmented, we can act as a force that brings people together for the better.

And whilst care might feel like an old fashioned word to use in terms of leadership or organisational responsibility, the value and power of it remains undiminished. Genuine care reaches beyond statements of intent, or social media posts about your latest endeavours, it operates first at the individual level and if that is absent the rest falls into insignificance.

We can’t, of course, change the world. But we can each day make it slightly better, but only if we challenge ourselves to ask what more we can do.