Monday, 29 March 2010

Why clever HR people believe stupid things

Like, I suspect, many readers of HR Case Studies, I have been particularly impressed by Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science. Goldacre, who is also the author of the 'Bad Science' column in the 'Guardian,' studied Medicine at Oxford and now works full time for the NHS as an academic and hospital doctor, seeing patients and "explaining difficult ideas to difficult people."

As a lifelong fan of Robert Pirsig's seminal work "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," I was drawn to Goldacre's quoting of Pirsig:
The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something that you actually don't know
Or, to paraphrase Goldacre's much more pithy language: Why do clever people believe stupid things?

Goldacre's book is targeted at the plethora of 'complementary' therapies such as Homeopathy and Nutritionism, together with dodgy educational fads such as The Brain Gym ("a series of quick, fun and effective activities designed to enhance performance in all areas by assisting whole brain integration") but it seems that it's time for someone to turn the spotlight on a few areas of Bad HR: those HR practices that many clever HR people accept as given without questioning their inherent stupidity.

Areas such as:
Forced-ranking appraisal systems which reward those at the top, but fire those at the bottom.

Believing that outsourcing transactional activities has positively and universally transformed Human Resource Management.

Swallowing the Ulrich pill that convinces you that organisations want Business Partners, not HR Managers.
Sounds like there's a series of HR Case Studies blog items here, doesn't it!

Friday, 26 March 2010

Anyone seen an HR Director around here?

Who is responsible for Employee Relations strategy in the UK’s major organisations?

You’d think that the answer would be pretty straightforward: surely it’s the organisation’s HR Director, isn’t it?

But you’d be excused for thinking otherwise if you looked in the national press this week.

To put this issue into context: Unions within National Rail have given the green light for the first national rail strike in 16 years; British Airways cabin crew are due to begin a second round of strikes over proposed changes to their pay and conditions. Both of these conflicts have been given a significant level of media attention.
Here’s the HR Case Studies challenge for today: can you tell me who the HR Director is in either of these organisations? Or (for a bonus point!) can you find a single reference to the HR function in any press coverage of the strike action?
The figures in the media spotlight in both of these cases are the Chief Executives of the organisations, together with the National Trade Union Officials who represent the striking workers. So far the HR Directors in both of these disputes seem not only to have been denied a speaking part, but also aren’t even in the theatre, never mind on the stage!

It will probably be stated that both National Rail and BA have made a decision to have a single point of contact with the media. Clearly with BA in particular that is the forceful character of Willie Walsh (who, incidentally, originally trained as an Aer Lingus pilot and was a union shop steward, before eventually moving into management). But for the HR function to remain silent on the issue can only lead to criticisms of its role and purpose.

If the UK’s HR profession is to answer those critics who question the reasons for its existence, it is surely at times like this where it needs to make its presence felt.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

What on earth is Dave Ulrich on about now?

I promise that if I read the phrase “HR guru” once more I shall scream. Loud. And if the sentence also contains the words Dave and/or Ulrich I may not be able to account for my subsequent actions.

Here’s the latest Ulrich Utterance:
I think that HR people should market themselves as a professional services firm within their own organisation, being a key account manager for the most important clients.
Does anybody understand what this sort of claptrap means?

Not for one moment am I suggesting that HR should revert to referring to itself as “Personnel” but, come on, hands on heart, do any of us actually believe that the man in the street, the mythical man on the Clapham omnibus knows what is meant by the concepts of Professional Services, Business Partner or even Human Resources?

Ulrich also scornfully refers to those within HR who, particularly during a downturn, “go back to concentrating on transactional processes and cost-cutting.” They may not be the only activities of HR, but to constantly denigrate them and leave them languishing in the lower divisions of the HR league is a fatal mistake.

Ulrich has claimed that as a result of organisations adopting his recommendations, HR has moved from dedicating 70–80% of its resources to administrative work to 15–20%, without a loss of quality. As stated by the CIPD, whether organisations have in reality been as successful as he claims must be in doubt.

But we need to apply some good old British cold and clinical logic to much of what is regularly regurgitated by this transatlantic trendsetter!

Am I the only one who is beginning to view Ulrich as the HR equivalent of a crackpot nutritionist, offering quick-fix solutions based on little empirical evidence, but wrapped up in pseudo-scientific terminology?

Guys: it’s time to get real. Drop the guru. Engage the brain. And think for yourselves.

CIPD: HR should market itself as a professional services firm, says Dave Ulrich

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Fancy your chances as an Employment Tribunal chairman?

The judgements of Employment Tribunals concerning the fairness (or otherwise) of employers' decisions to dismiss is notoriously unpredictable.

To give readers of HR Case Studies an insight into the verdicts of various Employment Tribunals (and also the more significant Employment Appeal Tribunals) here are a few thinly-disguised cases from UK employment case law. Why not pit your wits against the legal experts?

Answers will be posted later!

Case 1
Ms Sickly-Robinson was employed for a period of 18 months before her dismissal (at a time when the qualifying period for unfair dismissal was one year.) During that time she was absent for a total of 96 days. With the exception of her final period of absence, which lasted one month, the rest was taken in short periods of one or two days. For the most part her illnesses were covered by a wide range of medical certificates, but there was no apparent link between them. Doctor’s notes referred separately to dizziness, anxiety, bronchitis, viral infections, cystitis, althrugia of the knee, dyspepsia and flatulence.

Ms Sickly-Robinson had been warned that her absence was unacceptable on three occasions, but no formal medical examination was carried out prior to her dismissal. This was because the company doctor saw no point in doing so given that the illnesses were unrelated and transient.

Ms Sickly-Robinson claimed she had been unfairly dismissed on grounds of illness as no proper medical investigation had been undertaken. The tribunal found in Ms Sickly-Robinson’s favour.

The case progressed to Employment Appeal Tribunal. How would you expect the EAT to respond ?

Case 2
Boddington and two of his colleagues were caught by a manager in a pub at lunchtime. They all worked for a provider of public transport (i.e. a bus company!) All were summarily dismissed because they had broken a long-established and well-communicated ban on all employees entering licensed premises while on duty.

Yet there were differences between the cases.

Two of the men were drinking alcohol at the time they were discovered. Mr Boddington on the other hand, was only eating his lunch.

At Employment Tribunal, the dismissal was held to be fair

What was the judgement of the Employment Appeals Tribunal?

Case 3
Mr Bugner was employed as a foreman in a UK construction company. He was summarily dismissed from his job after one of his subordinates claimed to have been assaulted by him.

In his defence, Mr Bugner presented evidence to show, first, that he had been provoked and, secondly, that in the past employees had not been dismissed for rather more serious incidents of fighting and assault. He therefore claimed the employer had acted unreasonably in summarily dismissing him – on grounds of inconsistency. His previous record of conduct had been spotless.

The employer claimed that the other incidents had occurred some time previously and that their policy on such matters had toughened in the years since. They also claimed that Mr Bugner’s position as a foreman made his case materially different.

Why should the fact that Mr Bugner was a foreman make his case materially different?

Under what circumstances do you think it is fair for an employer to defend himself in cases of disparity of treatment by arguing that it has recently tightened up its procedures? In what circumstances would such a defence be unfair in your view?

Friday, 5 March 2010

It’s lonely at the top

The recent recall of millions of their vehicles worldwide because of safety concerns has understandably led to not only a battering of Toyota’s reputation but also a drop in morale in the company’s workforce.

Recently, Toyota president Akio Toyoda exchanged his business suit for a worker's uniform to speak to the company's Japanese employees and hopefully get them (unlike their cars) firing on all cylinders.

In an unusual admission of vulnerability he admitted to the employees, dealers and suppliers who were present at the company headquarters for the address that the constant barrage of criticism had left him feeling lonely:
"I was feeling lonely as Toyota was being criticised repeatedly on TV and in the newspapers, and I was being chased by the media."
Not to worry though, he also revealed that he felt protected by those employees that he had met when in the USA when appearing before a US congressional hearing to answer questions on safety concerns.
"I had been thinking I was striving to protect those people, but I realised I was actually being protected by them. I was deeply moved and thought I was really lucky to be a member of Toyota."
  • Is it a sign of strength or weakness for business leaders to admit to such feelings?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Seven facts that HR professionals need to know about Sathnam Sanghera

Over recent months, Sathnam Sanghera has inflamed, irritated and generally got under the skin of the HR community by writing a series of rabble-rousing articles for his column in the Times, with provocative titles such as Human resources departments: I've never understood the point of them and The fuss that HR makes about itself far outstrips its contribution to the world. His most recent column was a highly critical and at times insulting article directed at Cary Cooper (Lancaster Management School’s Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health) oh-so-humorously entitled Genius or rentagob? Is there an expert we can ask?

It’s clearly time for the HR community to get up off its collective backside and fight back rather than just whinge about the ill-informed populist drivel that this man spouts.

Here are a few arrows to keep in your quiver for the offensive.

He’s a journalist
As such his job is to enrage, provoke and inflame. Compared to the complexities of the HR profession, he’s got a very easy life.

He’s a swot
Graduating from Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature in 1998 clearly marks him out as someone who is much more at home in the world of academia rather than managing the critical and often conflicting demands of employees and management in a challenging commercial environment. Incidentally, previous alumni of his Cambridge college include John Milton and Sacha Baron Cohen, so there’s a wide spectrum of role models to be emulated, isn’t there?

He’s a novelist
As you’ll see from his highly self-congratulatory website, the achievement of which he’s most proud is his first book (“The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton.) This obviously leads one to believe that he has major problems distinguishing between fact and fiction in his writing about HR. Incidentally, one reviewer said of the book, "This is by no means a literary effort. It reads as though he is talking to himself, which is basically what he is doing."

He has had difficulty in holding a job down
Of his own admission Sanghera mentions that before settling down as a writer (not “journalist” please note: that would imply a degree of objectivity and investigation which is sadly lacking from most of his writing) he had “amongst other things,” jobs at a burger chain, a hospital laundry, a market research firm, a sewing factory and a literacy project in New York. Perhaps this maybe the source of his dislike of HR, as one can easily imagine an interviewing HR Manager questioning the likelihood of him remaining in post before the beefburger burns or the hot-wash cycle ends. But then this is a man that is on record as saying, “The hardest thing in life is to work out what you want to do. Once you have worked that out, it is relatively easy to do.”

He gives a new meaning to the word “Narcissistic”
His website consists of little else other than a litany of his achievements and awards, plus links to his writings and projects.

He has no experience of the profession that he criticises
“I’ve never really understood the point of human resources departments” he proclaims in one of his articles. But in the next sentence he admits “I’ve never dealt with HR myself.” Readers will surely draw their own conclusion to such contradictions.

He very mischievously bites the hand than feeds him
Putting aside the assertion that he’s never dealt with HR, he proudly proclaims that his “numerous prizes for journalism” include Watson Wyatt HR Journalist of the Year (“Recognising those journalists who have highlighted issues central to HR management”) in both 2006 and 2009. In 2009 he also received an award in the training and development category. Not bad for someone who has “never had dealings with HR.”

OK HR Community: On your feet and respond!