Relationship matters

Have you ever had a relationship at work? When you think about the amount of time that people spend in work, the role that it plays in our lives, it would seem almost inevitable that relationships would occur. Yet for decades, organisations have been uncomfortable with the idea.

Early in my career, when a relationship occurred between two people in the same unit or team, one was required to move to a different part of the business and if no alternative job was found they were dismissed for “some other substantial reason”. It always seemed slightly perverse to me and had the added consequence of disproportionately impacting on female employees (invariably the junior employee and therefore the one most frequently easier to redeploy). A few years later I was in a position to remove the policy.

Like many of the aspects of our work, a seemingly simple solutions papers over a world of complexity and, I’d argue, potential opportunity. I was quite surprised recently to learn that many organisations still had policies and procedures for managing relationships in the workplace. Which feels slightly arcane and counter to our drive to connect workplaces with human emotion and behaviour.

(Now at this point, I should be clear that I’m talking about consensual relationships – I am not talking about abuses of power, harassment or any other untoward behaviour, which are a completely different topic and one for another day).

Let’s assume that two people fall in love whilst happening to be employed in the same workplace. Are they really going to not fall in love because of a policy? It seems highly unlikely. So we have to assume that this will happen. Now, let’s assume that we say that they can’t be employed together whilst in a relationship. Well there you are either forcing them to lie, or for one or both of them to leave – which means potentially the two people YOU hired as being necessary for the organisation are now gone.

So we go for the middle ground and we say that you have to tell us if you’re having a relationship, but that it is ok. Which feels convenient, but what about if you don’t want to talk about your relationship status, because you’re a highly private individual, you’re lesbian, gay or bi and uncomfortably about this being known at work, or you’re having an “additional relationship”. Are you really going to declare that?

The argument goes that we need to know so that we can be aware of conflicts of interest or potential abuse of power. But do they only happen in sexual relationships? Have friendships never led to anything untoward? So should we have a policy on friendships in the workplace too? That would put an end to the Gallup Q12 for a start.

Like most things in the world of work and culture the solution starts with an “it depends”. And we know that “it depends” makes for bad policy making. My personal view is you’re better off accepting that these things happen, develop a strong and effective approach to “dignity at work”, build trust, transparency and openness and manage problems by exception.

I discussed this recently with others for The Bottom Line. You can hear the recording here.

Power, control, HR and Ulrich

As I write this, I’m heading off over the Atlantic. So I know it is normally de rigueur to mention the number of feet….but I’ve never been the most spatially aware and, let’s be honest, you really don’t care. It’s ok….we can be honest….we’re amongst friends.

Whilst working on the subject, of which we must not speak, which occupies most of my waking and sleeping hours, I’ll also be spending some time with someone who divides my world, our profession, more than most. Someone we could maybe describe as the Marmite of the HR world. Revered by many, loathed by others and the subject of more column inches than even the Rave Pony. I’ll be meeting and spending time with a certain Dave Ulrich.

I’ve been pretty open about the Ulrich model in the past. I firmly believe it has been responsible for down skilling the HR profession. I believe it has made building a career in HR harder than ever. The model has been snatched by the profession with the blind eagerness of an addled addict spying a wrap of crack down the back of a well worn and somewhat putrid smelling sofa.

I also don’t believe that you can blame Ulrich for this any more than you can blame Smith and Wesson for the ridiculous levels of gun deaths in the country that likes to consider itself the most advanced in the world. Yeah…I’m posting this after I’ve got through immigration.

But that isn’t it. The issue isn’t the model.

The issue is about power and control. And no model has, or will, deal with the issue that is at the heart of the problem.

We see the power tension in the EU, in the United Nations, in our health care system, local and central government.

In any organisation with central and devolved functions, with local and global functions will always have tensions. The thing about the Ulrich model is that it did nothing to tackle them and instead went a long way to creating significant additional issues by highlighting and emphasising them.

Centres of Excellence looked down on Business Partners. Business Partners looked down on Centres of Excellence. And everybody looked down on the Shared Service guys. If they could find them….somewhere between here and Bangalore.

The creation of an additional power struggle within an already fragile and uncertain profession was as welcome as the proverbial fart in a space suit. And as parts of the HR function set about fighting in and amongst themselves, in a comedic HR turf war. The people that really matter, the employees, the managers, the customers and consumers, became increasingly disenfranchised from the department that couldn’t even speak highly of themselves.

Confusing. Baffling. Conflicting. Debilitating.

I don’t think any “model” is going to work unless you can deal with this issue of power and control. Throwaway statements about collegiate working and cooperative solutions are excrement coated feathers in the breeze. Easy to throw out there, seemingly light and appealing, but ultimately stained, stinking and ineffective.

So let’s get this elephant on the table, this walrus on a rock, this ostrich egg on a giant sized egg cup. And let’s crack this thing once and for all. The power struggle within HR is all pervasive and crippling. No model that separates, that divides will work unless it deals with this, the very essence of our identity crisis:

Who has the power and who has the contol?