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.
A couple of events last week made me reflect on the assumptions that we so often make of others and how in doing so we build narratives that skew our perspective on the world. Every day is filled with multiple interactions that we evaluate with the aim of creating meaning.
Let me give you a most basic example. On Friday, driving home, there was an accident involving four cars. Inevitably with an accident that size in rush hour traffic, things got snarled up and slow and the journey took substantially longer than normal. As I passed the accident and moved into more free-flowing traffic I was aware of a driver behind a few cars behind me who seemed to be in a rush. She pulled out to overtake a car behind me and then I could see her gesticulating in the rear view mirror, unhappy with my speed.
The narrative commenced;
What’s her problem?
Why does she think she needs to be somewhere quicker than someone else?
Who the hell does she think she is?
By the time that she’d flashed her lights at me and driven off in a tail of smoke, I pretty much knew who she was and what she was about. But of course, I had no idea.
Was she trying to get to a sick or unwell relative? Was there a work or domestic emergency? Could she have been a surgeon trying to get to an operation? All of these thoughts were as entirely plausible as the reassuring answer that I’d come to…a Friday night nutter.
And of course at work we do the same, but once the narratives are built they’re maintained. People become, the moody one, the difficult one, the obstinate one, the quiet one with nothing to say. We create the stories that help us to justify our own behaviour, because it just makes things easier.
In the same way that I can tell you I intentionally slowed down by a few miles per hour to really hack the unknown driver off, I wonder what actions we take in the workplace to slow down the people that we’ve created a negative narrative about.
And I wonder how much more productive we could be if we entertained alternative possibilities?
If you want a much more articulate and thoughtful discussion of the same topic, then check out this by David Foster Wallace.
I’ll start off by explaining why I do the job I do. Simply, I want people to have a better experience of work, to feel safe at work, to be fairly rewarded in exchange for their efforts. You can call it making work better, making work human or any other nomenclature that is in the current vogue.
One of the downsides of my role is that no matter how hard I work, no matter what improvements and changes we make, there will always be challenges and questions about where we could have done more. That’s just the nature of the work we do in the society that we currently live in. The challenges will be different, but we have to accept that no matter what we do, it will never be enough.
One of the downsides of this is that we can homogenise criticism of our practice as always being unfair. “That’s employees for you, never happy” or, “If managers just did their jobs, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of this”. And the danger of this is we fail to see the truths that we need to embrace.
Just because we will always be the focus of challenge doesn’t mean that some of it isn’t justified. Just because we are doing our best and trying our hardest, doesn’t mean we don’t get things wrong. Just because we want to do good, doesn’t mean we sometimes don’t wrong.
Knowing how to separate out the noise from the real issues is critically important and incredibly hard. Listening to the truths that hurt is at the heart of exceptional practice. If we want to be better, if we strive to be the best, if we believe in creating something that can be called a legacy, then we need to recognise that sometimes we get things wrong.
Ours is a profession that has the ability to transform lives and bring out the best in people, it has the ability to make society a little bit better and to impact on generations to come. But with that power comes the potential to do the absolute opposite – and that is the truth that we should always hold close to our heart when we evaluate our impact and work.
I was struck by the news this morning of the deal between courier firm Hermes and the GMB Union on employment status. The latest in a line of challenges to self employment and the so called gig economy.
Employees will now be able to opt to have 28 days paid holiday and a guaranteed hourly rate above the minimum wage, in return they will have to accept to follow the delivery route set out by the company rather than choosing the order in which they deliver their parcels.
The logic presented by the company is that if they’re going to guarantee an hourly rate then they need to ensure that couriers take the most efficient route. Which on first reading makes sense, but also raises an underlying question.
Is the suggestion that people are less likely to seek the most productive route if they are paid by the hour, that they’re more likely to (for want of a better word) slack? Or is it that the company don’t care about lack of productivity if they’re not paying for it, that’s the courier’s (and subsequently the customer’s) problem?
Whichever way you look at it, it points to an interesting interpretation of the contract of employment – that “terms” trump the psychological aspects of the employment relationship between worker and employer. It suggests issues of trust.
My guess is that the company is trying to distinguish between the self employed and employed by taking away a freedom that their current couriers appreciate and enjoy. If you want the good stuff (holidays and guaranteed wage rates) then there’s a cost to you too – the deal is on the back of losing an earlier employment tribunal.
But regardless of the specifics of the case it raises questions for us all. What assumptions do we make about the behaviours of people that work for us? And do those assumptions help or hinder what we are collectively trying to achieve?
Last week whilst on holiday, I found myself unexpectedly observing my own profession. I’d call it a busman’s holiday, but to be honest it wasn’t as bad as that sounds. The hotel I was staying in was hosting a leadership event for a company that will remain unnamed.
I was curious to start with, I was in a different continent these were different cultures and customs. How would it play out? The answer was depressingly like every leadership event I’ve ever attended.
Over the last 25 years I’ve seen and participated in hundreds of these. The locations change, the companies are different, the participants come and go. But the structure, the content and the general formula remain boringly static. I’d love to think this was because of the high success rate, but I think it has more to do with our collective lack of imagination.
Break out groups
Jiggle around, rename, reshape, but don’t alter a winning formula.
It makes me wonder how much business plc. invests in these sessions per year, what the value is and whether there is anything but a placebo effect to be achieved. There must be examples out there of doing things really differently (and NO paint balling doesn’t qualify, nor does using a quirky venue).
There’s a dearth of talent and thinking in this whole space, rather than excitement and creative thinking it feels more like the inevitability of new year’s eve. We talk about it with excitement and hope, we believe everyone else is having an amazing time, but the reality is an expensive version of an ordinary event, which we could and should do without.
When I started work, I don’t remember thinking I was due anything other than a pay cheque at the end of the month. I’d received my contract and terms and conditions and I accepted the deal – the amount of holiday, the level of pension and the protection for sickness. That is about all there was in those days.
I figured that if I worked hard, put in the hours, managed to show a bit of intelligence and initiative that it would help me. Not to get a promotion, but to get experience and ultimately a good reference. Because when I started the job, my director had been very clear – I wasn’t going to stay.
It wasn’t that he was a hire and fire them character – far from it – but he had taken a policy to hire young, eager, recently qualified professionals and to give them a chance in the world of work. In return he realised that he got good quality people, but one’s that would want to move on pretty quickly – and he was ok with that. That was the deal.
Throughout my career, I’ve heard reference to “entitlement” more and more. It really wasn’t a term I was familiar with back in the mid 90s. And whilst I’ve worked with some people who truly believe they were the most entitled on the planet, “we’re unicorns, Neil, that’s what you need to do if you want to hire unicorns”, I’ve met more who’ve been disappointed that a promise they were led to believe, hasn’t materialised.
The thing about a deal is that it has to work for both sides, and yet as organisations too often we want to pretend we have something greater than the reality, in the belief that what we actually have wouldn’t be appetising. The implication of this is we don’t believe that job applicants and employees are capable of making an assessment based on facts and acting in accordance with their best judgment.
So instead we talk about nebulous concepts such as career enhancement, progression, development opportunities and stretch, which are easily misinterpreted and can be unintentionally disingenuous. Frustrations normally kick in at about two years into the employee journey, when people start to realise that their interpretation of the phrase wasn’t the same as the organisation’s.
There’s nothing wrong about a straightforward deal at work, in fact I’d argue there is something pretty refreshing. “If you come here, you’ll be working with good people to do your job, we will look after your health, safety and wellbeing, we will pay you x and give you y on top. You’ll learn and hopefully enjoy yourself and in the future, who knows, you might find something else here you like or you might choose to move on. And we understand and respect that”.
Whilst mooching through social media this weekend I came across a fascinating thread. Someone within my network had posted a rather generic request for help on a pretty generic topic. It was one of those moments that we’ve all had where we ask, “does anyone know anyone who can xxx”.
What fascinated me was that despite the very generic nature, the thread was filled with responses, “I can” or “I recommend x”. It was only after about forty or so responses that someone answered, “I think I might be able to help, but I need a little bit more detail. What specifically are you looking for, who are the people you’re looking for this for and where and when would you need it?”
It reminded me of many of the conversations that we have at work. A problem is generically stated and immediately we all pile in with attempts to fix it. Suggestion after suggestion is made in the attempt to solve a problem that we haven’t even fully understood. From the limited data that’s presented we all form our own individual interpretation and yet we rarely take time to check that our understanding is the same.
The impact on the original requestor can be overwhelming as they are inundated with solutions that can often be contradictory to one another meanwhile the other participants can get frustrated as their “obvious” answer to the problem goes unheard. But what if instead of being at the end of the thread, those questions had been at the beginning? Would that have led to a better quality of response?
It would be easy to say that the originator of the question should have thought it through, but I disagree. The nature of collaboration is that we work together to try to find a solution and that is particularly true in the workplace. If we all take responsibility to ask questions and seek to understand all the aspects of a problem, rather than making assumptions, we not only help to achieve better answers, we save everyone time and effort in the process.
As I write the last post before the Christmas break, I’m drawn to reflect on the future of work. A debate that seems to have warranted more airtime than probably it was due. I say that, not as a denier of progress, not as someone blind to the opportunities, but more as someone equally as interested in the here and now.
Over the next week, many of us will down tools, put on the out of office, lock the door and travel to be with friends, family and loved ones. We will eat, drink, laugh, argue and share moments together safe in the knowledge that others are looking after the things that matter. Because at the same time as we relax and unwind, an army of workers are carrying on as if nothing has changed.
Out critical infrastructure will still run, so when we turn on the light, ignite the hob, run a shower or even connect to the wi-fi we do so in the knowledge there will be service. Should misfortune befall us, we rest assured that our medical staff, police and fire services will be ready to step in and help us recover. When we switch on the television or the radio to listen to the Queen’s speech or watch our favourite Christmas film we know they will be there. And should we choose not to cook for ourselves or maybe cannot do so, the chefs, waiting staff or care workers that will attend to our every need.
Over 1 million people will be working this Christmas in the UK alone and whilst not everyone in this wonderful multicultural country that we live in will place the same importance on the specific holiday, they’re providing a service so that others can take time off in peace. I can’t list the entirety of the professions that work and an omission is not meant to signal a lack of importance at all.
The future of work may see opportunities for some of these areas, but for many there will always be a need for humans to take time for the sake of others. So in our proclamations about the future, let’s not forget the now. My ask of you is simple, as you rightfully enjoy time off in the next few weeks, take time to think of these people and raise a glass and toast in thanks. They may not be seen, but they’re working so that we don’t have to.
Sometimes we get an unexpected lens on the profession. Too often we look from our own position of knowledge and insight and not often enough do we put ourselves in the shoes of a user, whether as an employee or candidate. We talk about “candidate experience” and the role of technology in providing this and we applaud ourselves on the implementation of systems that improve our speed to hire.
And then we have the chance to look at it from the position of the candidate.
I had this opportunity to do this recently as my daughter applied for Christmas temporary roles with some of the biggest brands on the high street. And I’m here to tell you that your approach well and truly sucks.
Hold in your mind that we are talking about temporary roles here. Maybe four or five weeks. We are talking part time, low paid, customer service roles. We are generally talking about roles that get little training or direction and that are insecure and disposable.
Which of course is why you need to have an application process that takes on average an hour per role, that includes psychometric testing and situational judgment tests and that results in a standard email telling you that someone will contact you. Which they never do.
Could it be that she just has bad luck? Maybe. But when I talk to her friends they all have experienced the same treatment. And two years ago I had the same experience with my son, resulting in this brilliant message exchange (it was January).
So of course, your brand just looks a bit stupid and a bit out of touch. When you’re 16, 17, 18 you don’t understand why companies use such laborious and clunky approaches and particularly not as part of an exchange that doesn’t feel fair. You want me to complete all these hoops and hurdles for a minimum wage job with a life expectancy of weeks? No thank you very much.
So yes, it might make life easier for your resourcing teams, but frankly it makes you look stupid. Many years ago I was responsible for recruiting 20,000 Christmas temps for a UK wide high street brand. We put posters up in store asking candidates to speak to the manager inside – ridiculously old school, but funnily, that always seemed to work. And the candidate ALWAYS got to speak to a human being.
Everyone I know has written a book. My social media feeds and email inbox are all full of friends, colleagues and contacts exalting their new publications. Whether it is recruitment and resourcing, learning or the latest stream – HR Disruption/Transformation/Reinvention – they’ve all got the answer to the questions you never knew you had.
And I can tell you right now, you don’t need to read them.
I’m not suggesting that reading per se is bad and I’m certainly not saying that there aren’t brilliant leadership, management and business books out there. I’m suggesting that there are a disproportionate number of titles to the needs of leaders, managers and businesses. And I’m suggesting you’d be better off talking to your employees and colleagues, rather than reading the latest HR trope.
There are a couple of key questions you need to ask yourself based on whether the author is a practitioner or academic:
When did you do this? What were the results you experienced?
When did you research this? How was this been evidenced and peer reviewed?
Look at the vast majority of the profiles of these “authors” and you’ll see a list of the times they’ve spoken about the topic and the articles they’ve written, they’ll rarely talk about actually having done anything.
Compare this with your employees who spend all day doing the work that you’re trying to change/improve/increase. They’re in your organisation every day experiencing the environment and the culture that you are the guardian of. They’re able to give you better quality feedback on pretty much every single aspect of your organisation than a faceless hack.
So next time you’re tempted to put your hand in your pocket for the latest “must read” from some obscure publishing house, ask yourself whether your curiosity and desire to learn couldn’t be better directed towards the people all around you. They’ll certainly have better qualified answers, and you’ll save yourself money at the same time.
I’ve been in the world of people management long enough to know that our profession is not without criticism. Many of the challenges we face are of our own making as we flit between almost schizophrenic versions of our own identity, causing confusion and bafflement to the people that we serve – our employees. Which is why, when you see something that genuinely has the opportunity to move the profession forward, it fills me with hope and excitement.
It would be surprising to hear such excitement come in a package, describes as, “The new Profession Map” (yes, I’m confused by the capitalisation too, but let’s just park that for now), but this has the potential to really transform our profession. Launched by CIPD last week, the product of thousands of conversations with practitioners, businesses and teams the map for the first time, articulates the profession that I know and believe in.
At the heart is the core purpose, “…to champion better work and working lives. Creating roles, opportunities, organisations and working environments that help get the best out of people, delivering great organisational outcomes, in turn driving our economies, and making good, fair and inclusive work a societal outcome.” I could have written that myself.
And to do this well, we need to be led by principles, ensuring ethical practice where people and professionalism matter. We need to based our decisions and initiatives on evidence, not fads and whims and to be focussed on the outcomes of our work for our people, for our profession and for society at large.
For once, I read a set of core behaviours that matter to me – “valuing people”, “situational decision-making” and “ethical practice” to call out a few and an articulation of core knowledge that I see in truly great practitioners, understanding “culture and behaviours”, being able to demonstrate “analytics and creating value” and “business acumen” rather than simple statements of commerciality.
Of course, the success of “The new Profession Map” will be dependent on the adoption by practitioners not just in the UK, but across the globe. I know my team have already started looking at how we can incorporate this into our organisation. And that’s why I absolutely implore you to do the same, to help us come together and build a profession that is fit for the now and the future.
It is easy to be cynical and to criticise, but I find it genuinely hard to understand how anyone could not find this both useful and productive for the profession. Now if we could just deal with those capital letters, it would be absolutely perfect.