In an Octopus’s garden

We all know that, in the view of the general public, HR has a bad reputation. Those of us that work in the profession are either aware of this and battling against it every day, or hopelessly unaware and therefore probably part of the problem. We get reminded on a regular basis by polls, tweets and of course newspaper articles. The normal form of attack is, “there is no need for HR”.

Having worked in the profession for the last 25 years, it does beg a couple of questions:

  • Why am I still employed?
  • Are the people that employ me, therefore, entirely stupid?

Last week, the BBC ran an interview with CEO of Octopus Energy, Greg Jackson entitled, “My billion pound company has no HR department”. I’ve got a lot of respect for Octopus Energy, from what I’ve seen they’ve got a great culture, and whilst I don’t know Greg, every CEO is entitled to run their organisation in the way that they think best delivers their outcomes. I do, however, take issue with the sloppy reporting from the BBC that was clearly more about driving clicks than any sort of quality journalism. Unsurprisingly, this was then picked up by the Daily Mail and you only have to read the comments to get the general sense – interestingly whilst he said that he didn’t have an HR or IT department, you can see which one is used for both headlines and gets the kicking.

Now whilst I’m the first person to point the finger at bad and sloppy HR practice (you can read the last ten years of writing if you don’t believe me) I like to think we should base our arguments on data and evidence rather than silly, pointless articles which are far from the levels of journalistic quality we’d expect from the license fee. A quick search through Linkedin shows that there are “HR” people in Octopus Energy, they are currently advertising for someone to join their Learning and Development team and Octopus Group, the overall holding company has a Head of People. They’ve also recently clarified that they do have learning and development and recruiters (and presumably payroll and reward) but just no “HR Department”. Although that does beg the question what HR is, if it isn’t recruiting, training and rewarding people?

In essence, the discussion is about how much HR responsibility is devolved to the line and how much of it is centralised – which in experience works very differently for different companies, sectors and industries. And Octopus Energy look like they’ve found a balance that works for them – which is brilliant. It probably wouldn’t work for every other company and, who knows, it may not even work for them in the longer term. But that is all it is, one CEO explaining how he runs a specific company – yet the coverage (and many idiot commentators) seem to want to make it into a larger debate.

Why does it matter? It doesn’t really. It is silly and nonsensical to try to extrapolate. Most will shake their heads at another pointless article and go back to their day job figuring out what works best for their organisation and how to improve performance through people. But in a year when people in the profession, across industry have been thrown into more emotion, complexity, challenge and difficulty, where the profession has had to stand up and lead more than ever. Well, some people will feel this is an unnecessary and untimely kick in the teeth from people with too much time on their hands and who’ve never walked in their shoes. And to be honest, in the context, I’d forgive them for thinking this way.

Moving on up

A few years ago I wrote a post about internal promotion and the comparison to external candidates. It is fair to say that it raised quite a bit of debate at the time and a range of differing views. If you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to read the original post, my point was essentially that internal candidates should be given more benefit of doubt when being compared to external candidates.

One of the main challenges that internal candidates have is that their limitations and areas for growth most likely already known. Which, whilst some would argue is a benefit, can often be a reason to look beyond them. So does that mean that as an ambitious internal candidate you have to move on and look externally? Well obviously sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but before doing that, how about trying to address some of those gaps?

Every HR person and recruiting manager is different and of course I only speak for myself here, but when I’m interviewing or assessing an internal candidate I’m quite happy for there to be gaps between the role and the individual, it is only to be expected. But I want the candidate to be aware of that too. And that is particularly true if the role that you’re applying for is a promotion.

To put it more bluntly, no-one applying for a promotion should have nothing to learn. In fact it is entirely counter intuitive to believe that could be the case. Whilst there are always financial and other considerations, and I don’t mean in any way to belittle these, my experience is that the deciding factor for most people is that they want to pick something new up – more responsibility, a different team, a different department or function, a different business area.

Yet the moment you put them in the assessment process, the justification of worth can start and completely overshadow the very thing that I want to see. I want to know the individual has understood the requirements of the role, has assessed themselves against them, has made an appraisal of the areas that they can and can’t currently demonstrate and are willing and able to work on the gaps. I want them to have identified the very best person doing a similar job and asked themselves the questions, “how do I get to be that good?” not, “how do I persuade them I’m good enough?”

Being an internal candidate is hard – for all the reasons that I’ve mentioned in the previous post. No matter how we assess external candidates, they will always have the ability to add more spin and positioning than we will ever fully see through until they’re in post. But at the same time, internal candidates have a whole host of data, information and connections that they can use to their advantage. They just need to make sure that they absolutely do.

Careless talk

There is a lot to feel grumpy about at the current time and as a rule I try to look on the positive side – because when things simply get too overwhelming it rarely pays to search out more bad news. One thing that I do struggle with on a regular basis is the intentional use of exaggerated language in the reporting of the current situation – even by some of the most respected of organisations.

A case in point is an article I was reading yesterday which talked about the number of coronavirus cases “soaring” in the workplace after the Christmas period. This assertion was then used as the basis for the delivery of a whole series of opinions and beliefs which clearly were the journalist’s own. A quick look at the source data showed that the number was exactly the same as in November, there had just been a temporary decrease over the few weeks over Christmas. Perhaps because more people were on leave or there were closures and shut downs?

The point I want to make isn’t about cases in the workplace, but that the language used and the selective use of data that would lead most people to believe that this was a significant problem and therefore the subsequent beliefs were based on the solid use of empirical evidence. In many ways, the imprecise use of language in this context is of little consequence, other than my annoyance. But when we extend this into the workplace we run the risk of making decisions that have implications for peoples lives.

It isn’t unusual to hear phrases such as, “everybody is up in arms”, or “we’ve been inundated by” or, “nobody likes” (the list isn’t exhaustive, feel free to add your own favourites). Normally followed by a suggestion of an action that needs to be taken…RIGHT NOW! A simple enquiry of, “Everyone?”, “Inundated?” or “Nobody?” is sufficient to start a conversation that leads to better understanding. Who exactly has a problem? What size is it? How many people are really impacted? What is the basis for proportionality?

There will be those that tell you this is the reason we need better data and analytics in the profession and of course this is entirely true. But equally important is the way we describe and interpret them. The way in which we present that data to others and the inference we choose to put upon it. Language is hugely important in work, we can use it as a force for positive change but to do so requires as much thought as any set of data that we share. Being lazy and careless with language simply isn’t acceptable. And if it isn’t acceptable in the world of work, it really shouldn’t be in journalism either – but perhaps their motivation isn’t to help understanding and build knowledge, whereas ours certainly should be.

In praise of the grafter

If you managed your career through advice on Linkedin, you’d believe that aligning you work with your purpose, throwing everything out the window on a regular basis, always remaining agile and disruptive were the key to success. Trust me, they really aren’t.

Whilst there is no single key, there are so my situational and environmental factors, the biggest thing that will get you ahead in your job and in life is hard work. Nothing fancier than that. Before I’m beaten over the head with the imperial overlord arguments, let’s be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean getting up at 4am, burning the midnight oil or being taken advantage of, it just means giving everything you’ve got in the time that you have.

Given a choice between a lazy genius and an average grafter, I’d staff my team with the latter – no question. And my advice to any young person going into the workplace is to get your head down, work hard and opportunities will come and find you in time. Because ultimately, when push comes to shove and you need something done, you always look for the grafter.

And the difference between the grafters and the lazy, is that a lazy person will always end the day thinking they’ve worked hard, whereas a grafter knows they have (and probably thinks they could have done more). The lazy are generally more interested in how they feel about their work , the grafter is interested in how others feel about their work. It comes down to the psychology that drives the work ethic.

Get your head down, put in the hard yards, seize opportunities, demonstrate your value. Then you can build everything else that is important to you in terms of meaning on top of that, it really is that simple. Unless, of course, your end goal in life is to have a career in providing unsolicited, unqualified advice to the many on Linkedin, accompanied by motivational quotes.

In which case, ignore everything I’ve said.