Lead for the many (and not the few)

It is July 14th, 2015 and, despite the generally good weather, there has been a sudden and heavy downpour. I remember it well because I was on foot making my way to speak at a CIPD event at City Hall. Unfortunately I’d understood County Hall, which is in a completely different part of town and ended up arriving late, drenched and grumpy.

The result of this was a rather dark and pessimistic take on the impact of flexibility on the workplace. Speaking alongside Dave Coplin, who was ebullient with the opportunities, I saw a much more dangerous and divisive trend. At the end of the sessions, I left the venue and skulked off to, once again, be late for a drink with a friend.

Four years later, I am more convinced than ever that the way in which we approach flexibility in the workplace is an exemplar of the way in which we are building a two tier workforce, built by the haves for the haves, designed for the few and not the many (to bastardise the current phrase of a certain political party).

In 2014, when Virgin announced that they were allowing employees to take as much holiday as they wanted, an HR policy decision became front page news. They were following the approach taken by Netflix, amongst others. More recently we’ve seen organisations, include the Wellcome Trust, talk about the introduction of a four day week. When the Virgin story was unpicked, it became clear that it wasn’t actually applicable to all staff, as they said themselves, “[it] permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want”.

What do Virgin, Netflix and Wellcome Trust all have in common? Simply, and I mean this with the deepest respect, if they didn’t exist no-one would notice. But perhaps more importantly, they have a certain workforce segmentation that more easily allows for the introduction of such policies. They don’t represent the workforce experience of the many.

We don’t have to go far to understand that the use of workforce “flexibility” can be a double edged sword – enforced part time hours, rotating shift patterns, annualised hours and of course, our dear friend, zero hours contracts. The point I was making back in 2015 was that whilst flexibility might be the emancipation of the few, it was potentially the shackles of the many. For every one tech wizard working on their laptop in the Bahamas, there are ten delivery drivers working on a “self employed” basis.

Which is why as a profession we have to be super vigilant of not drinking the Kool Aid. If you believe in good work, you believe in it for all. If you want to drive flexibility, then it starts with individual choice. Across western economies we’ve seen an increased polarisation in our economics, in our politics and in our workplaces. We’ve created inequality and now we are looking to reinforce it.

None of these policies are wrong per se, but the application of them, the thinking behind them and the championing of them is shaped by an unhealthy preference to consider only “knowledge workers” (yes I hate the term too) to be worthy of such freedom. Only when we start to design workplaces that treat workers of all types with equality of treatment will we create organisations which we can proud of. Let’s start with the many and not the few.

NB: The Wellcome Trust actually abandoned their plans after a three month trial describing it as too “operationally complex”. Interestingly, they were brave enough to try and do this for the entire workforce, regardless of role.

The myth of the external candidate

I’m always slightly nervous when it comes to comparing internal and external candidates. In many ways it is like moving house. On one hand you have you have the wonderful description of a potential property and beautifully taken photos and on the other, you have your current abode, lived in and known.  You can take a few visits, have a look around, you can even get a surveyor’s report, but it will never amount to the knowledge and experience you have from years lived within, learning the good the bad and the indifferent.

Of course there are ways you can be more objective about the comparison, you can run aptitude tests, profiling and be as structured in the assessment as possible. But I’m not sure you can ever completely counterbalance the opportunity of being unknown. Let’s take something like stakeholder management. An external candidate will give you examples of where they’ve been successful, how they’ve managed competing demands and ultimately you can only assume this to be true. The internal candidate may tell you the same, but you’ll also have the feedback from the stakeholders themselves.

The only way I’ve found to approach this situation is to add in the equivalent of a balancing number. On one hand assume that the external candidate will be 15-20% less good than you assess them to be. On the other add a factor for growth to the internal candidate, based on your knowledge of their current performance.  Then look at the two adjusted performances and try to make a comparison based on this revised approach.

Ultimately, if an internal candidate can get within distance of the external candidate based on this assessment it feels like the right thing to do to allow them to develop and grow. It’s not the most scientific approach, I grant you, but in the absence of anything genuinely more objective, I’ll be sticking to my old school ways.

That’s not a gap, not if you look from over here…

The BBC ran an article this weekend highlighting the gender pay gaps of a number of companies that had already reported. The original article is here.

Already we’re starting to hear some interesting responses to the debate that it has raised:

It’s the wrong metric
The situation is complex
We shouldn’t confuse this with equal pay
Women aren’t as good at asking for raises
Sorting this could be bad for women

The over intellectualisation of the situation runs a massive risk of missing the unmistakable point:

The world of work has been designed to be discriminatory.

That’s not to say that individual organisations have gone out to structure their workforce in particular ways to discriminate against any specific group, just that the world of work over a number of decades has become biased in many different ways and we have been complicit by failing to interrogate it with the level of granularity that it required.

It is absolutely right to say that the issues are systemic in nature, for example the gender imbalance between pilots and crew isn’t (I would imagine) the result of direct discrimination. But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong and that it doesn’t need tackling.

My biggest fear on this issue is the level of mansplaining that is taking place to justify the figures. We are immediately looking at criticising the data, rather than embracing it. At the same time, we need to support and not belittle companies that are publishing gaps. Ultimately progress will be achieved over the next two or three years and that is when we should be judging people based on progress.

The factors that have led to the current situation are multi-faceted and complex. The solutions will be equally complex and multi-faceted. You don’t change a system overnight. But we will make absolutely no progress unless we accept the basic truth that we have a problem.

And that problem isn’t just about gender, it’s about race, disability, it’s about socio-economic background and ultimately it is about fairness. So let’s not try to explain it away, let’s walk forward together with confidence, courage and a single unifying purpose, to make our organisations better and fairer, for now and for the future.

Five simple steps to improve social mobility

I was genuinely saddened by the news this weekend that Alan Milburn and others were resigning from the board of the Social Mobility Commission. I’ve had interactions with this work for the last seven or eight years and I’ve been a big champion of their agenda.

If there is one good thing that comes from this, I hope it is a renewed focus and energy to address the topic. At the Skills Summit last week I was really pleased to hear the Minister for Education Justine Greening make it a central point of her proposals. But talk on its own won’t change a thing.

I personally believe that businesses and employers can do so much more to drive the social mobility agenda forward, without the need for Government to lead the way. So if you’re serious about putting your effort and energy behind change, here’s a few simple steps you can take.

1. Check out the data. There’s a brilliant social mobility map from the Sutton Trust that you can find here and the State of the Nation 2017 report from the Social Mobility Commission (here) to understand the make up of the geographic area in which you operate. Until you understand the problem you’re going to struggle to fix it.

2. Review your approach to new talent. Do you really need a graduate? And if so, do they really need to come from those universities? Are your recruitment processes stuck in the past? Do they really focus on finding the best possible talent? What are your obligations to the communities within which you operate? Quit whingeing and get behind the apprenticeship levy and make it work.

3. Build relationships with local schools and colleges. Providing opportunities isn’t enough, you’ve got to show that the opportunities are really available – and obtainable. Building a long-term commitment to relationships with local education providers helps not only support the education of all, but also can help raise aspiration.

4. Create sustainable careers. Not only in terms of fair pay and benefits, but training opportunities, security of employment and opportunities for progression and advancement. Mobility is exactly that, it isn’t about charity but opportunity. And that opportunity doesn’t stop when you make the hire.

5. Start to measure. Like every other aspect of diversity within the workplace, you need to understand the construct of your workforce and start to target improvements. We’re more familiar with measuring other areas of diversity (and I’d argue more comfortable with asking the question), but there are some good indicators that can be used some of which you can find here.

And of course, if you want to chat about it or think that we can do some work together, you can always give me a shout.