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.

It’s ok to care

I have a confession to make. When I hear about an employee that we’ve let down or treated badly, it hurts me. I can’t stand to read or hear about cases where teams that I lead and manage have fundamentally failed in their key responsibility to manage the employment relationship of every single employee well.

It goes without saying that we cannot always please everyone, there are moments in the work of HR and people professionals where we have to handle the most difficult of workplace issues. We are the ones that enter into situations of high tension, emotion and anguish so invariably there will be times when people are upset with the messages that we have to convey. I’m not talking about these situations, I’m talking about when we fail to care.

When I was doing my professional qualifications in the 1990s, care wasn’t a word that was used much in the classroom. We talked about commercial acumen, strategic thinking and human capital, but we didn’t talk much about looking after people. Nearly twenty five years later I can tell you that the worst HR professionals that I’ve seen are the ones that don’t see the human in front of them and the best are the ones that enter every interaction with the intention to care.

As I’ve articulated many times before, our role is unique in the organisation and we should revel in that distinctiveness. As marketing teams champion the voice of the customer, we should be able and willing to champion the voice of the employee. That doesn’t mean we become unable to act in the interests of the company, of shareholders or of any other stakeholder group. It means that we create balance.

Every time we let an employee down, we let ourselves and our profession down. The phrase the customer is always right, is trite and incorrect and similarly the employee is not always “right”, but how we handle the interaction, the relationship and the management of people in our organisations should always focus on the central pillar of care.

Lead change with care

I’ve written before about toxic cultures, but I was struck by the story that I read over the weekend about the legal case being brought against former executives of France Telecom. I’m no expert on the case in hand, but the story sets out a culture of harassment ¬†through constant change and disruption as efficiency savings were sought.

There’s a huge spectrum ranging from the extreme cases detailed in this story through to the ordinary change of organisational life and we need to be careful not to conflate the two, but there are reminders in the extreme that can help us in our everyday practice. We can all argue that, “it’s not like that here”, but it never hurts us to check and be sure.

The first check point is when we stop seeing employees as human beings. You can pick this up through the language that is used in organisations, the way that senior leaders talk about people as a collective. Most organisational change will have a human impact, but when we fail to genuinely recognise that, problems are not far away.

When change becomes a thing in itself, you’re facing a second check point. Organisations that become focused on change, but without realising why. The impact on people throughout is disorientation and confusion, neither of which are good for mental wellbeing. Most people can go through significant change and transition when they understand the why, but struggle when they feel constantly done to.

Finally, when leadership teams lose touch with their teams you’ve reached the third checkpoint. As a leader you can only make good decisions if you are well-informed. One of the most important sets of data is the feedback from the people who work in the organisation itself. I’m not talking about the annual survey alone, but about the informal feedback that tells you how things really are.

Put simply, leaders have an overarching responsibility for every single employee in their organisation. That doesn’t mean we should avoid tough choices or decisions, it doesn’t me would should be change adverse, but it does mean that we need to care. Hopefully none of us will ever experience the extremity of the France Telecom situation, however, each day as we go about our work, we should always check in and make sure we are staying true to our responsibility to our people.