My name is Neil Morrison and for 20 years now I’ve worked in HR in a range of different businesses and industries. Through this experience I’ve grown to believe that we need to completely rethink the way that we approach people management, focusing on organisational need more than alleged HR best practice.
Did you ever think that policy you introduced to protect against “shirkers” was going to cause a global crisis? Well maybe you need to think again.
Last year, Public Health England warned that unless we started to address resistance to antibiotics we could see 10 million more deaths a year within the next thirty years. At a cost of £66 trillion in lost productivity. Which is…pretty stark.
“But what does that have to do with me?”, I hear you ask. Because one of the major causes is over prescription, with levels of prescription being clearly linked with areas of higher immunity and resistance. Nearly 40% of patients now expecting to be prescribed antibiotics when they visit the GP for ailments that will cure naturally over time.
Now of course none of us like being ill and the sooner we can be back to health the better, but I can’t help thinking that organisational culture and sickness policies are also part of the problem. Many years ago I was made aware of a retailer that had a process that involved sitting on a long bench in a communal area with a sign that read, “We’re sorry you’ve been unwell, take a seat until a manager can come and speak to you”.
And of course it isn’t just the crass examples, its organisations that don’t pay waiting days, that don’t pay above statutory minimums, that change shift patterns or working hours or demand a GP note for any type of payment.
So next time you’re reviewing that policy, or you’re under pressure to make sure that you tighten up on the amount of sickness absence in your organisation, remember, our demand for always on, always available employees isn’t just ruining trust and engagement, it’s potentially ruining the world.
In the middle of last week, a story broke about a businessman who had made financial settlements using Settlement Agreements including NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) on a number of occasions following claims of sexual harassment and racial abuse.
Despite the undeniably serious nature of the original actions, in a world of global news reporting it may not have warranted front page news, except the businessman in question took an injunction out against the newspaper that had investigated the claims preventing it from publishing the details. And then in return, a Lord used parliamentary privilege to name the businessman.
I’ve followed the story, beginning to end and you know what? The whole thing stinks.
It stinks because instead of having the right debate, we’ve wrapped the story up in one of legal rights and wrongs. We’re discussing the integrity of the courts versus parliament, we’re discussing the integrity of NDAs, we’re discussing the integrity of legal precedent.
When we should be discussing the integrity of the people involved. The individual(s) that carried out the act in the first place. The leaders and HR professionals that sustained the culture in the organisation(s). And of course, the victims.
But also the lawyers that drafted the agreements, that defended the agreements and who have now lost sight of the individuals at the heart of the matter and are making intellectual arguments about legal supremacy, when if they and their peers done the right thing in the first place, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
Now I know that I’ll be faced with arguments that these agreements are entirely legal and proper, that it isn’t for lawyers to determine right or wrong but simply to enact what is legal and what is not. That the sanctity of the independence of the courts is paramount etc. I know, I’ve heard the arguments before. But I call b******t.
I’m sat here wracking my brains trying to think of a time in my 25 years of practice where I’ve been involved in a case where we’ve used a settlement agreement to settle a case of sexual harassment or racial abuse, and simply I can’t think of one. So to have multiple ones in the same organisation?
You can talk about the sanctity of the agreement and the “independent legal advice” that the individual has to take before they sign, but I want to talk about the moral responsibility of people propping up a rotten culture. I hold my profession to account, I hold leaders to account, but I also hold the legal profession to account. You can’t make clever arguments to claim immunity, you own this problem too.
So instead of continuing to engage in intellectual masturbation on the rights and wrongs of a member of the House of Lords naming the individual in question, let’s ask ourselves why they had to. Instead of debating the use of NDAs versus public interest, let’s ask ourselves why they’d ever be used in a case of this kind. And instead of pointing the finger at others, let’s start by asking ourselves a few searching questions.
A number of years ago I was dealing with the behaviour of an executive colleague. For a number of reasons their conduct had been called into question and we were trying to unpick a somewhat difficult situation. Once it was all sorted I was amazed to hear other colleagues tell me that this had been a repetitive occurrence throughout their career.
Whilst they’d been more junior within the organisation, their behaviour had been an annoyance; troublesome but manageable. But as they progressed through the ranks (one can question the judgment of those that facilitated this rise) it started to be more damaging to the organisation as a whole, it created a bigger impression.
The closer to the sun you climb, the larger the shadow you cast.
I used this phrase last week to talk about the importance of leadership role models. It’s a factor that many leaders forget and therefore undervalue the potential benefit. To put it another way, as a leader you can choose to behave in a way that not only benefits those directly around you, but those further afield in your organisation.
With all the talk of authentic leadership, we forget to explore the reason why. What lies behind the value of authenticity? The simple answer is that people will engage and follow authenticity more readily. But I think it is even more important than that.
I can’t cite the evidence, but I was told recently about a study of people on London buses. They found that when a passenger alighted the bus and said “thank you” to the driver, the probability of other passengers doing the same increased. Similarly, the same has been seen with passengers giving up seats on trains or picking up litter in the street.
And at the same time, we know that if the person carrying out the act is in a perceived position of power, the effect is multiplied.
If you’re a leader in an organisation you have both an opportunity and responsibility to role model the behaviours that you want to see and to encourage them in every interaction. The power goes much further than any leadership development intervention, value statement or strategic model. And even better it costs nothing and can be deployed at will.
Last week I was thinking about a conversation at work that had really got my goat. It was one of those conversations that happens without warning, that you participate in and then when you walk away you stop and think, “how on earth did that happen?” And the more you think about it, the angrier you get and the more unfair the situation becomes.
That conversation happened over ten years ago.
I can remember it clearly, the room, the time of day, the individual involved. I can remember coming away and tasting mustard in my mouth – a sure sign that I felt distressed by the experience. And to this day I hold a feeling of unjustness about the circumstances.
I’m quite clear that I need to let go.
I should probably listen to the advice that I give to my kids when they tell me about someone saying something unfair – you have a choice, you can say something and challenge the person about what they’ve said, or you can move on and let it go. There’s nothing in-between that will help you.
I often see people at work who are still hung up on a conversation or situation that happened in their work history. They hold onto it but fail to do anything positive about it, instead it becomes a limiting reminder of how the universe is unfair. It becomes an anchor, unhelpfully holding them to a specific moment of time.
Being able to let go and move on is critical to remaining open-minded, to learning and growing, to progressing and developing. It is key to our mental wellbeing. So if there’s something that is holding you back, talk about it, get it off your chest, put it in the ground and then tramp the earth down. You’ll be better for it, believe me.
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.
I’m currently in-between receiving A-level results and GCSEs for my two kids. Having been through the exam period with them and now awaiting results, I’m reminded how frankly barbaric this process is. As a means of assessing potential and capability, it ranks up there with Russian roulette.
Having spent 25 years in the HR profession, I can’t think of a time when I have knowingly and meaningfully taken the school exam results of a job applicant into consideration. As a candidate I’ve never stated my exam results on my CV, nor have I been asked by a prospective employer to detail the grades or results.
Yet when I talk to my kids, they’re told that the exams and their results are critical to their success in life and in work. They’re told that if they don’t fulfil their potential in their exams, they won’t fulfil their potential in life and this is something that I’ve heard from other parents and young people from across the country. This belief is as dangerous as it is wrong.
As a long standing champion of disregarding educational qualifications in the recruitment process, I believe business has a big role to play in changing this dialogue. Our job is to identify potential, to seek out talent and to build capability – yet we know that there is no direct correlation between this an academic results or educational establishment. This is why not only should we fundamentally limit the use of academic qualifications in assessment, but we should be open and clear that we do.
Imagine a young person that has accepted the view that qualifications determine future success, receiving results that are below the average or below their expectations. At 16 or 18 they are building a belief system that is already closing down opportunities, they are already limiting their potential, when they’re not even a quarter of the way into their life.
Education is about learning, it’s about curiosity and growth. The moment it becomes about disappointment and containment, it has fundamentally lost its way.