HR for the many, not the few

Sometimes I can’t help thinking that we’re having the wrong debate.

Scratch that.

It’s not sometimes, it’s most of the time.

We’re having the wrong debate, because most of the participants are looking at the world through a single lens:

A middle class, professional, privileged lens.

We have an obsession with the elements of work that matter most to us, but least to the majority of people. It’s the same reason that HR has such a bad reputation, because we fiddle with the inconsequential without addressing the fundamental.

The future of performance management? The social organisation? Reconstructing  the working week?

None of these mean anything to someone holding down four jobs in order to keep food on the table. And I could go on…

Headline grabbing announcements about allowing people to take as much holiday as they like. Unless they work in the support functions….or in service roles….or customer facing….

What about the living wage and the impact on regional employment, zero hours contracts and employment instability, the deskilling of jobs through technology? And I’m not talking about from a legal perspective, but a moral, ethical and cultural approach. How we tackle these issues in real time, in real organisations.

If we believe in good work, we believe in good work for everyone. We believe in creating safe and productive workplaces where everyone can contribute to the best of their ability, where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Where everyone can grow and develop, should they want.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be creative, far from it. I’m arguing that we should be using our creativity, our knowledge and experience to deal with the issues that challenge the many, not the few. I’m arguing that we should be targeting work and interventions that matter to everyone.

The credibility of HR is only enhanced when it makes people’s lives better and damaged when it seems to make the existence of a select group better, whilst ignoring most.

Our challenge is to ask ourselves whether we’re trying to benefit all….or whether our practice is grounded in making it better for some, which almost inevitably, will include ourselves.

Because that, would be selling ourselves short.

The myth of inclusivity

I’ve been involved in a lot of debates about diversity and inclusion recently. The conversations are fascinating and the views diverse in themselves. With one particular area of seemingly strong consensus when confronting the issues that we face;

It’s never our fault.

Of course, this is completely natural. We all like to think of ourselves as liberal minded, inclusive and welcoming people (well most of us). It’s just everyone else, they’re the problem.

Going back over thirty years I can remember my Grandmother telling me she wasn’t a racist like those other people, she even used the “Paki shop”. Whilst we can all look at this with the shock that time permits, she genuinely meant it. But this isn’t a generational thing, how many of us can hand-on-heart, honestly say that we don’t have perceptions and expectations of the opposite gender?

So if we all want this all inclusive, welcoming, meritocracy, what gets in the way?

When we talk about the culture of our organisations, we talk about the way in which people behave, the way in which people act towards one another, we talk about our values and we talk about the way in which we do things.

In HR we talk about how we can underpin the culture with our interventions; recruiting to fit, rewarding to incentivise, training to develop and structuring to facilitate. We build our organisations to reinforce the very cultures that contradict our conscious intention.

Culture gets in the way of and we reinforce the culture through our actions and our formal and informal systems. It’s rarely our intent.

The challenge we have is to get beneath intent and start to challenge these behaviours, systems and structures. Which invariably means challenging the way in which we feel naturally comfortable in doing things, how we make decisions and how we design our businesses.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t improved by tokenism, “programmes” or initiatives. They can’t be when our organisations are still constructed around an infrastructure that is decidedly “exclusive” and rewards people for conformity of behaviour and compliance to a set of unwritten rules.

The start of the path to improving organisational inclusivity is recognising that we are all part of the problem. The smallest act, or use of language multiplied a million times a week, the unintended consequence of doing something the way we’ve always done, the choices and decisions that we’ve learnt to make.

We have the power to make things better, we can choose to make a change, but in order to do that we need to do two things; accept that we are not ok and that, at the end of the day, it IS all our fault.

You don’t need a degree to work in HR

If you went to University, let me ask you a question:

How much of the taught subject matter are you using in your work?

I asked myself the same question and the answer is “very little”.

I am sure that there are certain professions, certain vocations where the content matter of a university degree is a necessity. And yet, in the majority of roles, I’m not so sure.

The CIPD released a brilliant piece of research last week highlighting the expansion of Higher Education in the UK and the resultant increase in graduates working in historically “non-graduate” roles.

There are several hypotheses to explain this, some with positive outcomes, some without.

Two things immediately strike me as being highly culpable in this trend,

  • the homogenisation of higher education post the 1992 reforms
  • the insistence of businesses to require degrees for non-degree roles

I’ll leave the first for people better placed to comment on the education sector (although you can check out this brilliant assessment from Peter Scott as a start).

I want to talk about the second point.

Why do I think we ask for degrees?

  • We’re lazy. We ask for a degree when no degree is necessary because simply it makes life easier.
  • We lack creativity and fall foul of unconscious bias. We have degrees and therefore it must be a requirement.

Don’t believe me? I ran a search on Changeboard of the HR jobs that specifically called out a degree as a requirement in the ad and there were over 170, (I don’t mean to pick on Changeboard, I did the same search on HR Magazine and got a similar return).

With over 20 years working in the profession, I’m yet to come across a role where a degree is of critical value. And of course, the irony is that in the case of HR, the degree will often be in a subject matter that probably isn’t relevant to the role.

We’re stuck in the past and assuming that a degree in some way differentiates the ability of the candidate, but more importantly we are sending out a message that you have to have a degree to work in HR. A pattern that is replicated across numerous other roles and professions.

There are certain life skills, there are certain intellectual processes that do come from study, I complete get that. But can they be obtained in other ways? Of course.

Our duty as a profession is to challenge the preconceptions of requirements, to throw our doors open more widely and to make our assessment and selection processes based on genuine capability, talent and potential. Not on meaningless qualifications.

But if we can’t do that within our own recruitment, what chance have we got in other areas of the business? We need to get our own house in order and be ruthless with our own professional approach.

Let me put it simply,

You don’t need a degree to work in HR.

So let’s stop saying you do.

Can you make the case?

There are two truths that I’ve learnt through blogging:

– If you write enough words the statistical odds are, that at some point, you will land on something that makes sense.

– If you reread that particular “thing” enough times, you’ll wish you wrote it slightly differently.

On this occasion, the specific phrase is one that I wrote in January 2013,

“We need to accept that you don’t get influence through control, you get influence through other people’s positive experience of you. Get influence through people wanting you involved not by telling them you have to be.”

Fast forward two and a half years and I’m sitting with some fellow HR Directors listening to the Conservative “political beast”, Kenneth Clarke MP, speaking about the challenges of winning the debate on continued involvement in the European Union. Critiquing the state of current politics, one particular statement he made really stood out (and I probably paraphrase a little),

“We used to look at the opinion polls and think, ‘how do we win the debate and convince people our arguments are right’, but now we look at the polls and say, ‘let’s do what they want’.”

In some ways, I think this is an argument that the HR profession needs to heed and particularly when we think about how we use data and analytics as a force for good work and organisational performance and success.

There’s a lot of pressure within organisations for HR to do what the “voters” want, and this has undoubtedly been one of the biggest weaknesses of the drive for HR to be more, “commercial”. Being truly commercial is more about leading the debate than it is following opinion, it’s about having a strategic direction and understanding the steps that need to be taken to achieve it, it’s about cohesive “policy making” and having a view.

One of the things that we overlook in our discussions on data and analytics is the, “so what?”. We can have all the data in the world, but what if it indicates something that is against the prevailing mood of the organisation or the leadership team? What then? Do we have the influencing skills to really carry the debate forward?

The fact is that data is only half the argument, how we use it, how we create the experience of the profession that positions us as experts of everything relating to the employment experience and how we develop the platform of knowledge and insight is as important as the data itself.

Sometimes, as in politics, we’re going to need to be brave and take forward an argument, a belief, a perspective that won’t be immediately welcome or in line with the prevailing opinion. At that point, we’ll test our ability to use insight and data to win the debate and convince people our arguments are right.

That’s when we’ll truly test our mettle and our organisational worth.