Lifelong learning

I wrote recently about the perils of organisations delegating responsibility to employees under the guise of empowerment and “individual choice”. Effectively placing every individual at jeopardy to changes in the economy, society and the organisations that they work for. The continued, pernicious rise of neoliberalism in the workplace.

Don’t have enough pension to retire? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the healthcare provision to cover your operation? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the skills to make you employable? That’s what you chose.

And it is this last point that I really want to focus on today. Because on one hand I hear organisations constantly talk about particular skill sets being short in supply and then at the same time I see those same organisations making people redundant. Of course, I’m not talking about the impact of Covid-19 here, which has placed so many organisations in exceptional circumstances, this is a pattern that has been ongoing for as long as I’ve been in business.

The simple answer is retraining, a concept that often invokes images of Government schemes and interventions routed in the decline of industrial cities. No mining? Don’t worry we can retrain you as a call centre operative. But of course, retraining and reskilling doesn’t have to be after an employee has ceased to be of “economic value”, in fact I’d argue that it should be significantly before then. If organisations are making people redundant because they don’t have the skills that they need for the future, that’s a failure of the organisation, not the individual.

This is where organisations need to be intervening for the good of their workforce, their communities and for society as a whole. And this is also why individualism once again falls down. You can’t expect any one employee to be able to predict the decline of their particular skill set, or indeed the speed of that decline. Because they simply don’t have the data required. But organisations do.

That’s why we need to see retraining, reskilling and lifelong learning as a fundamental part of the psychological contract, a key tenet of the leadership philosophy of our organisations. It is why the HR profession should spend as much time focusing on internally meeting future skills requirements as it does on identifying the gaps. It is why we need to make careers for life a viable option for anyone who wants it and not look down our nose at those who choose to be a one company employee.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can hear me and others talking about it on Monday 16 November at 10am as part of the CBI@10 series. You can find out more here.

The folly of individual choice

It is very rare that I recommend a book, I did enough of that when I worked at Penguin Random House so I figure I’m due a break. And, to be honest, I’m baffled why my ex-colleagues didn’t acquire “The Lonely Century” by Noreena Hertz, because, quite frankly, it is brilliant. If ever there was a book for our current times, then this feels like it. But I’ll allow you to explore that for yourselves and instead move on to a few reflections that come from it.

If I think back to my early studies and career, I recognise now the relentless push towards individual focus in the workplace. Often driven by research from the US, we were encouraged to look at performance related pay, individual rather than collective bargaining and concepts such as engagement and discretionary effort. After decades of frustration caused by industrial disputes and fuddled business thinking, a new doctrine was emerging – singular choice.

I think most of us would conclude now that the push on performance related pay based on granular performance reviews is folly which failed to deliver on its one stated aim and of course we’ve seen the impact the individual bargaining has had on the gender pay gap, not to mention the inherent discrimination in many organisations against black, asian and other ethnic employees. And yet, the direction of travel continues through other elements such as pension choices, extreme flexible benefits and individual learning accounts.

And now, perhaps the biggest threat to collective organisational culture and support. The “choice” about where you work.

If anything, our workplaces and organisations should be a driver of societal cohesion. They should be places that bring people together to deliver collective outcomes and goals, they should be places in which we identify and feel we belong. They should be places that celebrate and welcome difference, through unity. They should be places that literally bring people together.

And in many cases they haven’t been anything like this.

The answer, however, cannot be to further fragment our organisations to allow people to choose when and if they come together with their colleagues. It cannot be to allow the behaviour of the majority to leave others feeling left out or to create organisations where only one “type” feels that they can truly fit in, or to create two or three tier organisations where only certain rules apply to certain groups.

The answer instead is to recreate our organisations around our communities, to be truly inclusive, cohesive and welcoming. Recognising that sometimes we all have to make individual sacrifices in the pursuit of a higher collective goal. Where we sign up (explicitly or implicitly) to support one another first and to think of ourselves thereafter, where the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. The answer has to be to try harder, not to give up.

If I think back to March this year, there was genuine hope that we would emerge from the pandemic having rediscovered concepts around community, collective identity, selflessness and the recognition of previously unsung heroes. As we go into the autumn and winter (and another lockdown) I worry this was more of a temporary blip, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

HR needs the workplace more than most

Over the last few weeks I’ve written about the need to bring people back into the workplace and to find a new balance of flexibility. There are countless reasons why this makes sense, which I won’t repeat again, but you can read some of them here and here. Last week the same calls were made first by the CBI and then by the UK Government. Cue outrage from the normal quarters within the people profession, busy munching on their homemade granola.

Whilst the arguments for a gradual return to the workplace span all job types, for those in the HR profession there are particular concerns, which makes it doubly ironic that many in the ranks are championing their own demise. Once again, we have drunk the proverbial Kool Aid and not stopped to think through the implications of the arguments that we make.

Lets start with the administration that forms part of every HR function, no matter how we try to streamline it or remove it altogether. People need to get paid have changes made, get issued contracts, have records kept and a whole host of other activities. The arguments for systematization will only become stronger with teams absent from sight and if people are really necessary, why pay the higher wages of the UK when the work can be outsourced to other parts of the world? What difference does it make if the process is standardised and the only connection is digital?

Then we have the other aspects of the work that we do. If we are learning remotely, then why not buy the content in, we can digitalise the whole process allowing subject matter expects to buy directly in from providers, no need for costly intermediaries who only interact with the business online. Delivery can be recorded by and consumed at the time and need of the individual regardless of the business that they’re in. What value does the internal recruiter have, when interviews are scheduled by Zoom, following an advert automatically placed on a job board and they’ve never met the hiring manager?

The argument around widespread homeworking assumes that the value that we perceive we can add in this way is matched by the value of those that employ us. That’s a dangerous assumption to make and one that has, over the years, consistently shown to be mismatched. Our job now is to build on the fantastic work that HR professionals have delivered over the last six months, to demonstrate our knowledge of the broader societal and economic impact of organisations and work and to articulate the importance of culture and shared values. The overwhelming evidence is that this prospers better in person than online, we can choose to champion that agenda or to slip backwards at our peril.

When recruiting gets tough

I’ve mentioned before that I started my career in a recession and how the process of getting my first job was utterly soul destroying. To this day, I still have the rejection letters that I received from the hundreds of companies that bothered to reply as a reminder of how it feel to be on the receiving end. The letters are almost uniform in their nature, with banalities mentioning the number of candidates, the fit to the role, but with little specificity or anything of any help.

A quick scan through Linkedin will show you that many are in that current position. And with headlines in the news about the thousands of applicants for roles it can all feel bleak and difficult for candidates. At the same time, hard pressed resourcing teams are finding themselves faced with increasing numbers of applicants and in many cases, simply do not have the time or resources to handle the new volumes in their existing processes.

It is a tricky mix. But one that those of us in the industry need to work through.

We need to automate but not depersonalise – automation can be a big help, many organisations will have a system of some sort for recruitment. But at the same time, we need to understand the impact that a cold automated email has on the morale of those seeking work. The wording that may have been acceptable six months ago, may seem clumsy and uncaring now.

We need to balance the effort of the applicant with that of the resourcer – there is a temptation to introduce a whole load of exercises or tests to reduce the number of applicants. That’s fine, but if you’re going to ask an applicant to spend an hour of their time to do these, you better provide them with something more than a simple email. The more you’re asking candidates to put in, the more you need to give back.

We need to be open to all – I’ve seen a lot of well meaning people say that they are going to prioritise those who have been made redundant. Others copying and pasting statements about being willing to help “anyone they’ve worked with in the past”. Whilst I understand the sentiment behind these, they’re both discriminatory and unfair. We cannot know the background of all our candidates, so we need to treat them all the same.

We need to ask for what we need – The qualifications shambles that has taken place over the last few weeks should act as a blunt reminder that qualifications are not a good means of selection. Nor is asking for prior experience beyond the needs of the role. Now more than ever, we need to specify only those things that we need, it may increase the number of applicants, but it is also more likely to get you the best hire.

We need to be humble and care – Every applicant is a person, a human being, with a unique story. They’re not a candidate number or a CV. Our focus on candidate experience should increase during this time, even if our approach to it needs to change. We may not be able to handle things in exactly the same way as before, but we should care about candidates equally, if not even more.