Here’s some things we can all do

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about the societal impacts of the pandemic, the way in which it risks increasing injustice and widening the already significant gaps that prevent social mobility. And more than ever, organisations need to step into the breach and make real meaningful interventions and sustainable changes to the way in which they do business.

Whilst many of the changes are going to require substantial changes to our education system, our economy and our industrial policy. There are also practical steps that each and everyone of us can take.

  1. Stop asking for educational qualifications. This summer, for the fist time in living memory, hundreds of thousands of young people will leave school without having taken a single final exam – not to mention those that are graduating at the same time. The rest of the school system has been put on hold, risking significant disparity between different social groups. If you haven’t removed qualifications from your recruitment process already, now is the moment to do so.
  2. Invest in apprenticeships and retraining schemes. As people start to lose their jobs as sectors contract and the economy changes, we will need to create opportunities to retrain and re-skill. Where we’ve struggled to attract, to fill positions or to build succession. Now is the time to think about the opportunities to solve those problems  and provide good quality career prospects for people needing work.
  3. Think more broadly than working from home. There’s understandably been a lot of talk about flexible working, agile working, remote working and everything that we’ve learnt. Whilst of course we have some fantastic data and evidence, let’s not forget that not every one can work from home. And moreover, lots of jobs are based around people working in offices. Let’s think about all jobs when we’re making our plans.
  4. Engage with schools and colleges. When schools get back and running we need to double up our efforts to support them and build skills and confidence back into young people. Looking at how we can work better together as organisations, how we can reach those schools that need support the most and we can support the charities and organisation that act as intermediaries that will have struggled during this period of time. We need to create hope, as much as we do jobs.
  5. Consider jobs as well as technology. If there is one thing that we’ve learnt over the past few weeks is that we are better when people and technology come together, where they’re additive and not replacements of one another. Decisions that replace jobs with technology, without addressing the societal consequences will come back to bite us sooner or later.
  6. Be open to all, not just those you know. I’ve seen a number of people offering help to their connections either online or in person. Whilst well intentioned and well meaning, the problem is this only helps people you’re connected too. And we know one of the biggest challenges in terms of closing the social divide comes in the collateral that comes from personal relationships. It is no different to offering jobs or internships to your friends – find organisations and charities that will help you translate your offer to a wider group based on need.

If not now, then when?

People will have a range of views on the HR profession, I’m ok with that. It may not surprise you to know that I don’t come to work to either fulfil or disprove a myriad of perceptions of my worth or usefulness.  It may surprise people to know that the reason I do come to work is to steer the organisation that employs me at the time to do the right thing for the people it employs.

Obviously if you take this to the macro level, profitable organisations can invest back in the workforce, successful organisations ensure they have capital investment, commercial organisations ensure they can see and instigate the opportunities that lead to success and profitability – and so the cycle continues.

But that’s not the reason I get out of bed in the morning, the reason I do is to try to create the place to work that my colleagues want to be in. Even if that will inevitably involve some bitching and moaning along the way – you can’t please all the people all of the time…

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a rise in calls for “HR to step forward”, or how strong HR is needed more than ever. The clarion call of a crisis, once again being used to throw the profession into the light. Remember 2007?

Whilst it starts with obvious decisions about furloughing, protection of wages, short term working, redundancies, protection of health, safety and wellbeing, managing remote workers and resource and contingency planning. It extends to issues such as executive reward, dividends, culture, engagement and productivity and post crisis recovery. There is no doubt that there is a lot for us to navigate.

The cynic in me wants to ask why it requires a global pandemic for the profession to find some backbone and step into the role that it should be playing every day? Why it requires something of such magnitude to bring a focus on the contribution that we make? But I guess beggars can’t be choosers, and as a collective we have been beggars for far too long.

We have seen and will continue to see some shocking examples of bad HR practice through this event, we need to hold these organisations and decision makers to account. But if we genuinely want to learn and grow from this, we also need to celebrate those organisations that are doing the right thing, protecting their employees and stepping up and into the right leadership space.

Because frankly, if not now then when?

When leadership calls

Throughout our careers, there will occasions when we are asked, more than ever, to demonstrate our worth as leaders. Whether through a change, a significant challenge, or indeed a crisis. Any of us that manage people will be asked to step up, to step into the light and to do the thing that we talk and theorise about so often. To lead.

In these circumstances, great leaders put their own concerns aside. They may be worried, concerned or unhappy, but they understand that their role requires them to put this aside. They are there in the service of their people.

They understand that they need to be calm and reassure, that it is only normal that in uncertain times people worry and they look to those in positions of authority to tell them it will be ok. They don’t rush around creating drama, no matter what they may feel inside.

Great leaders understand the importance of simple, clear communications and the need to repeat it more than ever. When we are worried, stressed or concerned we can find it hard to take in multiple complex measures, simple and clear messages make it easier for us to digest and process.

They also know that it is important to play by the rules that they set. That it doesn’t matter how clear and simple the messages are, by contradicting them with behaviours we send out complex messages that confuse. Actions need to match and reinforce messages.

And they recognise the human at the heart of each decision, seeing the impact that each and every choice we make has on people, thinking about how it feels for them and being clear of the why as well as the what. Which means sometimes we can do the right thing and be unpopular.

Finally, great leaders know sometimes they get things wrong in the heat of battle and they are humble and recognise fault. People will forgive you for getting things wrong, they rarely do for denying it or apportioning blame.

When leadership calls, we need to show up as the best version of ourselves. Remain mindful of how we are feeling, what we are thinking and ultimately why we are there. Every day is a chance to practice, sometimes you’re called on to perform.

Pious indignation and false promises

Running an organisation of any size is tricky. There is an assumption that simply because of your position that you must know the correct answer for everything.  Not only must your actions be without criticism, but your intentions too. And we will be the judges and juries of both.

Our intolerance of imperfection and propensity for cynicism serves us badly.

I’m in no way trying to absolve genuinely corrupt, immoral and (let’s be honest) bad organisations. Merely to make an argument for encouragement for improvement, rather than blanket judgment. It should also be said that this isn’t a factor of business alone, you could run the same slide rule over politics and other parts of society too.

Last week Tortoise published their assessment of the FTSE100 against the UN  sustainable development goals, you can see the full report here. What I think is fascinating about the approach is that it looks at both actions and PR, the walk and the talk. Of the top 20 companies overall, only 4 were “guilty” of overselling their actions and many quite significantly undersold their performance. Probably not what you’d think from big business, right?

Compare and contrast with the annual vacuous press release from the CIPD and High Pay Centre which talks about FTSE100 pay, high on moral indignation and low on understanding and intellectual rigour. Frothing at the mouth and screaming into the abyss on a topic of significant complexity without any intention to encourage or support change.

We say that we want change and then we right off progress as “washing”. Pinkwashing, purpose washing, vegan washing, even woke washing. We will be the judges of whether you really mean what you say, not you.

If we wanted to develop an organisational culture of positive strength, would we start by doubting individual intentions, blanket criticism, reinforcing stereotypes? Or would we praise and recognise, reinforce positive behaviours, encourage?

There is a lot wrong in the world, that goes without saying.  Business, politics, society, sport, media, take your pick. Whilst we should always call out the abuse of power and serious malpractice, I also believe you get the culture you deserve. Maybe we should spend a little more time celebrating and encouraging change, supporting and championing progress?

It might not make for the most exciting headlines, “Organisations do what they say they’re going to do”, or help us absolve our own consciences, but it would sure make for a more pleasant world.