Injustice is at the heart of this crisis

I’ve written so many times over the past years about social inequality and the role that organisations need to play in starting to right the wrongs of many decades of looking the other way. Whether that has been through investment in skills and training, fairer recruitment or simply through the ways in which we contract and pay employees.  If it was an imperative before, it now becomes an obligation.

“People living in more deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas. General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far COVID-19 appears to be taking them higher still.”

Nick Stripe, Head of Health Analysis, Office for National Statistics.

The fact that the mortality rate is more than double in deprived areas is a stark reminder of the systemic issues the underly areas of deprivation.  And whilst there is no more sombre measure of inequality than death, The impact of the virus won’t be simply contained to mortality.

As schools are closed, there is a disproportionate effect on those children living in deprived areas. Their access to technology, the role of parents and relatives in home schooling and the greater risk of disenfranchisement has been raised by the inspector of schools. It won’t just impact on those taking qualifications, but could impact throughout schooling, leading to growing attainment gaps for a number of years.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the impact on the labour market. Which will disproportionately impact on those in low paid, low skilled jobs.

“Some workers are disproportionally economically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Low paid workers are more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home. According to the IFS, one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.”

Commons Research Briefing CBP-8898

Health outcomes, Educational outcomes, Employment outcomes. Three of the factors that are fundamental to restricting social mobility. And that is before we look at the disproportionate impact on BAME communities and the overlap between ethnicity and deprivation – which we absolute cannot ignore.

So when we are talking about the future of work, when we make statements about the structural change of workplaces, let’s try and take our thinking beyond the offices of the secure, educated and highly paid. Let’s put aside broadly inessential discussions about flexible and home working arrangements and how Zoom and Teams are going to be part of everyone’s lives. Instead let us start to debate the issues of fundamental, structural inequality and how we as businesses can step up and take our share of responsibility for the sake of our society, our economy and our future.

Will we remember to care?

Last week I was having a conversation with a member of my team. Reminiscing that when I started in HR as a Personnel Officer I used to know all the colleagues absent with long term sickness, what they were off with and when they were having any treatments. I’d diarise (paper version) to speak with them on a regular basis just to check in. I wouldn’t pass the test as strategic HR these days, but there was something utterly right about it nonetheless.

As we start to emerge from the current situation, we can reflect on what we’ve learnt in organisations about colleague’s lives, things that we probably didn’t know about and had left to line managers. My team have personally contacted by phone over 900 colleagues who registered that they either have, or live with someone with, a vulnerability – to agree a personal care plan. The process has been both humbling and reassuring. It goes without saying that has received universal gratitude from the colleagues receiving the call, but it has also been a moment of pride for the HR colleagues involved.

It might just be a “big organisation” thing, prone to the application of some sort of bastardisation of the much loathed Ulrich model (yes Dave, I know you were misunderstood), where employee wellbeing is pushed to line managers and shared service centres. But I do wonder whether we can learn something from this about what employees really want from their HR departments and teams?

My guess is that it isn’t another change or development to the appraisal process, a new recruitment methodology or a self service portal. More likely a group of people who know them, understand their needs and can support them through work, whatever challenge they’re facing. Let’s not forget the the very origins of HR we practice lies in workplace welfare teams.

Sexy? Maybe not. Strategic? Probably more so than many activities that we do. Feeling safe, cared for and known is more likely to drive productivity than the new expensive leadership course you’ve been busy designing. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t do all these other things too. But let us not forget what is at the very core of our being and hope that this current situation brings it back to the fore.

What next?

It was noticeable last week that the conversations across organisations and networks started to shift from how we “endure/survive” the current situation to how we “recover” (with no intention to be insensitive through language). Shaped in the context of the debate about  the possible lifting of restrictions,

Understandably, we focus on the short term. What will social distancing mean for our organisations? Will there be different expectations on work spaces? How will people feel about travelling on public transport? What will we do about childcare and schools? Can we afford the current workforce?

And whilst we will need to answer all of these questions, whilst we will need to understand the practical implications. At the same time, there are perhaps more serious, longer term considerations that will come to test us.

The economic impact of the virus will be long term, not just for the organisations that have had to close their doors, lay off their workers or close down. But in the money that Government has invested to respond to the current situation. A generation could be set back by the financial burden, as we saw in the financial crisis.

And whilst we can’t definitively know, opinions on life, society and the economy will also be shaped by the experience we are having. There will be the demand for change, a level of recrimination, but hopefully too things that we have observed and experienced that will act as a future force for good.

As I’ve said multiple times, organisations are in effect a microcosm of society, we exist in a bubble at our peril. The debate will ultimately involve us having to explore our social purpose, consider issues of equity and fairness, challenge us on the treatment of all our stakeholder groups and in some cases require fundamental change and adaptation.

In many ways, the challenge for leaders is far from coming to an end, and not just because restrictions will go on for some time,  it is just starting. The virus and our ability to respond and manage it is one thing, the likely change it drives in society will raise a whole other series of fundamental, ethical and structural challenges.

In the shoes of others

I have my two children at home with me at the moment. One is a 20 year old second year university student, the other turns 18 tomorrow and is/was in the final year of her A-levels. It is fair to say that both of their lives have been severely disrupted by the current situation. But they can’t agree on who has it worst.

Social comparison theory explains how we determine self worth by comparison to others. Those that we perceive to be better off than us and those that we perceive to be worse off. Whilst under most conditions we have the learnt ability to keep these things to our internal voice, under stress and pressure, the veil of social acceptability can sometimes slip.

That’s why my son thinks his lot is worse than his sister’s as he is dragged away from his home, his life and his friends. And she feels done to beyond compare, as her A levels have been snatched away from her.

In a similar way we can see this play out in the world of work. People who are at home bemoan the fact and long to be out and about and working. Those out at work long for the safety of the home. We point the fingers at football players and CEOs, whilst they talk about their tax and charitable contributions being greater than those of most.

Reactions like this are entirely normal, they’re part of our psychology. It doesn’t mean that the judgments we make are entirely right, or indeed entirely wrong. They are how we make sense of the world and allow us to find our sense of self.

“I am justified in my actions, because of xxx, whereas they are not because of xxx.” 

“They are a good human being because they do xxx, they are a bad human being because of xxx.”

But at the same time that these reactions are entirely human, they provide little benefit in a time that requires more social cohesion than at any point in my life. We can’t stop ourselves having these thoughts, but we can ask whether expressing them is truly helpful to the situation we are facing into, or is more about making us feel better about ourselves.

There will be time aplenty to assess the rights, the wrongs, the successes and the failures. We will all look back and ask ourselves what more we personally could have done. Until that time, we might be better stopping to think what it is like to walk in the shoes of others, rather than bemoan them for not walking in ours.