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.

Nobody predicted this

There is nothing we like more in the world of work than a big bold prediction. Throughout my working life I’ve been bombarded with confident assertions about the future – first in print, at conferences and later online. The advent of the echo chamber of social media amplifies the latest fad, creating an almost overwhelming sense of universal confirmation and certainty.

But the reality is that most of these big changes, these bold predictions have been wrong.

One of the major reasons why, is that they tend to be incredibly insular and fail to take into account broader macro economic and societal events. Of course the defenders would say that, ceteris paribus their assertions would have come true. But the idea of all things remaining equal is theoretical nonsense and wholly paradoxical. If anyone had written an article five years ago on how businesses should handle a global pandemic, it would have had a minimal readership and been placed firmly in the “niche” classification. Or how about a global economic crisis driven by a European war? And don’t get me started about BRIC.

Which is why statements about “disruption of the workplace”, or “the future of work” are just farcical and a little bit insulting for the majority of the workforce who are entirely focused on the here and now, dealing with escalating energy prices and feel like they’ve been disrupted enough over the last two years without a bunch of consultants and guns for hire telling them that they want to artificially create more. What they want is stability, security and work that allows them to lead their life.

Far from being harmless theory, the group think that coalesces around these predictions and assertions is a dangerous distraction from the focus that we should be placing on our organisations and the way in which we look after our colleagues and our workforces. We listen to false prophets at our peril when the real source of intelligence and wisdom is all around us if only we choose to recognise it.

In reality, predictions of the future are as old as time and will continue for as long as the human race. But what we can change is our mindless repetition and augmentation of them without reference back to the living realities of the majority of the working population and a large does of pragmatism and, “it depends”. Let’s start by fixing the now, the future will come whether we like it or not and not even the brightest star can predict how that will be.

Sometimes things go wrong

It is as inevitable as night follows day, spring follows winter and England bore you at rugby that at some point in your career you’ll screw up. Most of us will push ourselves, try different things, take on new and different challenges and the result of that is that at some point something important will go wrong. And that, is absolutely ok.

Of course, it doesn’t feel it at the time and most of us will have experienced the physiological reaction as well as the emotional rollercoaster that comes with realising that you’ve done something wrong – or not done something at all! The large part of my career is littered with “oh sh*t” moments and I know from talking to others that I’m not alone. As, I say it is just the way that it is.

Whilst we might not have a choice about whether things go wrong or not, how we react when they do is the thing that can set us apart. And that starts with owning it and taking responsibility. It is amazing how reassuring and even disarming it is when someone says, “yep, I know that’s not right and that’s down to me”. We can probably all think about a situation when the opposite has occurred and someone has started to explain exactly why it isn’t their fault, “the thing is…”. And of course the more senior you get, the less opportunity there is to deflect responsibility.

Next comes a willingness to make things better or take steps to rectify the issue. Sometimes you won’t know how to sort it out and that’s ok too. A simple, “what can I do to help make this better?”. And whilst it might be seen as being neanderthal by some, that might mean pulling an extra shift, staying late, putting other stuff on hold. Showing you’re willing to take the pain and consequences goes a long way to showing your colleagues and your boss that you really mean what you say.

And finally there’s the value of showing that you want to learn and reflect on why things went wrong and how you could handle the situation differently in the future. To be honest, the right time for that isn’t in the heat of the moment, but a few days afterwards when the dust has settled. Taking a moment for self reflection and seeking feedback from others, “What would I do differently next time?”