Who are you trying to convince?

Nobody wants to work for an organisation that sucks. Well, unless you’re a vacuum engineer, in which case you don’t want to work for a company that blows.

We all want to work for a “Top Best Company Employer” (names confused to protect the innocent). And that’s lucky, because there are a number of different awards that exist to help us work out where to go, to assist us in our search, point us along the path……

Once a year the good and the great gather together to celebrate their competitive awesomeness and show just how incredibly good and best and top they absolutely are.

Which is nice.

They share it on Twitter, photos of the people that they value enough to take to the ceremony. And they celebrate – back in the workplace – disproportionately with cupcakes (much cheaper than a gala dinner ticket).

But when the metallic balloons have deflated, the cakes have gone stale and the “Celebration” chocolates (did you see what we did there?) have melted. When the PRs have issued their press statements about the CEO’s being “proud” and valuing the importance of “their people” and “their contribution”. When the attention has gone back to the sales figures, the balance sheet and personally benefiting from that contribution.

What then? What does it tell us?

Are we really proud of celebrating that as a company we don’t dump all over our employees? Is that where we’ve sunk to? That we need to have a trophy cabinet of awards in reception that show we aren’t complete and utter ba***rds?

If we are really concerned with being a good employer, why then do we need to share it with the rest of the world? Why can’t we just be one and be happy with it?

Because we want to convince people we’re not awful. Because people think we are. And truth be told, we probably know that we are too….just a little.

That’s why we make it an objective of our HR departments, we incentivise (and punish) line managers to achieve higher and better ratings, we provide incentives to employees just at the time we’re completing the surveys (purely coincidental you understand).

That’s why we systemise “being good”. Not because we believe it’s right, but because we don’t know how to do it any other way. And we shout about it, because WE need to tell you, about US.

Employees, job seekers, candidates are savvy. They don’t get fooled but marketing, by PR, by stunts or by branding. They research, they speak to people, they look at a thousand different points of data, not necessarily the ones that you want them to see.

Like the middle aged guy diving the oversized, oversized, flashy car. Hanging out awards that show how great you think you are begs the question,

“Why?”

Is it because you’re genuinely the real deal and if so, why do you need to tell me? Or, as I suspect, is it because you’re compensating for a lack of “substance”…..you know……somewhere else….

The myth of entitlement

Throughout the entirety of my career, I’ve repeatedly come face to face with two of the most common myths within the workplace;

  1. Organisations somehow owe something to employees
  2. Employees somehow owe something to organisations

As if there is some unwritten obligation to be fulfilled.

There isn’t. This is the myth of entitlement.

Organisations are collaborations that exist to serve others. There is not a single one, private, public or third sector that exists to serve the needs of its employees. Not one.

And likewise there is not a single employee that exists to serve the needs of its employer.

This misapprehension is reflected in our professional practice and driven by our inability to understand the basic economic transaction that exists within the workplace.

Organisational purpose is delivered by labour and labour is rewarded for that delivery.

But before I’m accused of taking some neanderthal backward step to the dark ages of lords and masters, let’s also be clear about a few other things.

  • Employees have choices. Most organisations have doors and people are free to come and go as they choose.
  • Employers have choices. Employment is not guaranteed and organisations are free to hire and fire as they choose.

The relationship that brings employee and employer together is one to organise labour to deliver collectively for a defined purpose. And that purpose is the economic driver and the one and only reason that both exist.

Far from being backward, realisation and acceptance of this is the key to understanding and building an adult relationship within the workplace. It is central to building a healthy and sustainable organisational culture that understands the balance and trade offs that exists.

Yes so often it is missing and instead replaced with an over inflated expectation of our worth and our value, both as an employer and employee.

Strong healthy employment relationships are psychologically the same as any other relationship. They require balance. And they require an acceptance that if that balance is broken, if the needs are not being fulfilled, either party has the freedom to act.

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.

Some are more equal than others

I’ve been a great believer in initiatives to improve the gender imbalance and to focus on diversity of all kinds. I genuinely want to be inclusive.

But the more I look at it, the more I think that most of our actions are just window dressing. I wonder if we’re acting, but essentially undertaking institutional appeasement. Saying the right things, whilst nothing really changes.

What if business is essentially a masculine construct, with male rules and the only way to succeed is by being more male than the men?

I wrote a post back in 2013 called “Just a middle class white guy” and reading it now I think I only scratched on the surface of something that actually significantly hampers our ability to genuinely leverage organisational performance

Not only are all our rules are stacked in favour of men. We’ve taken the rule book and hidden it behind third urinal from the left.

When we go for an interview and they are looking for qualities like “commercial”, “decisive”, “confident” or “ambitious”.

When meetings are ruled by the “single minded”, “focused”, “action orientated” and the “natural leaders”.

What are we really talking about?

Of course, I’m not saying that women don’t have these characteristics or indeed that men automatically do. What I’m saying is that our laziness and sloppy use of language hides a darker truth.

We build our assumptions of success based on the evidence that we have around us. But if that evidence is based on an uneven foundation, are we sure that we really know what is genuine success?

We reward, we promote, we recruit and we develop people in the model of business that is built on a masculine premise. We tell people that they need to be more like our predetermined view of the “norm” if they are going to succeed. We develop them towards this and reward them when they comply.

The more that I look at it, this won’t be solved by initiatives, campaigns or well-meaning propaganda. This will only be solved by wholesale reform and re-engineering of organisational culture and practice by the “male types” that run them.

But most likely, it just won’t. Or at least, not any time soon.