Wednesday, 23 November 2011

You're going the wrong way!

This morning my car is currently sitting in the small office car park where I work.

Nothing particularly newsworthy in that, I hear you say, but it actually represents a painful lesson learned over the last 48 hours.

For the last 12 months I have taken the same route to work. It's a journey of about 15 miles across the outskirts of London and normally takes me about 40 minutes through typical stop/start urban traffic. I measure if I'm on schedule against what's on the Radio 4 Today programme at particular stages of the journey: To arrive at work on time I need to be in the car by the business news, at Tolworth roundabout by the sports update, and driving over Kingston Bridge by Thought For The Day.

I've been convinced that my route to work is the shortest and fastest that I could take, and I've disregarded advice from those trying to persuade me that there are better routes to follow.

But yesterday there was serious congestion in the early part of my journey, and I decided to turn back and try a different route rather than just sit in the non-moving traffic. I was surprised at how free-flowing the traffic was and, even allowing for the disrupted journey, I arrived at work at pretty much the same time as normal.

So this morning I tried an alternative route to work. Simply turned left at the first set of traffic lights rather than driving straight across. Yes, you've guessed it: the route is shorter, faster, more free-flowing (and also more picturesque!) than my previous one, and it also means that I get to work early enough to claim one of the few coveted spaces in the car park.

So here I am, wishing that I'd tried a different route a long time ago. Just think of all the time, petrol and money I would have saved by listening to the advice of others and not stubbornly believing that I knew best and that there was nothing to be gained by considering other options.

Extending this a bit wider, I wonder how many of us hold onto opinions, prejudices, convictions and groundless beliefs and constantly refuse to consider the views and insight of others? It's very easy to be so entrenched in a position that it would take much more than mere traffic congestion to get us to consider an alternative position. Realising that you're wrong about something isn't exactly easy, and often it makes you see that in the past you were a bit of a fool.

But to do so may well lead to something more significant than just a place in the car park!

Monday, 21 November 2011

The fruitless search for employee happiness

Imagine this:

It's October 2015, and England are up against reigning champions New Zealand in the final of the rugby World Cup at Twickenham. In the 79th minute, with both teams level on points, in front of a crowd of 82,000 Jonny Wilkinson steps up to take a penalty which, if converted, will almost certainly give England the victory and make amends for the team's hapless performance in 2011.

Wilkinson places the ball, takes a couple of steps backwards, clasps his hands in his trademark prayer-like gesture and focuses his gaze on the target.

Quietly, just before he begins his run-up, the HR Director of the England Team steps up to Wilkinson and asks:

"Are you happy, Jonny?"

What would Wilkinson's response be?

More than likely it would be one of puzzlement and confusion at the nature of the question. Quite probably Wilkinson would state that at that precise moment in time the question was utterly irrelevant. I imagine that he'd say words to the effect of, "Right now, all I'm bothered about it making sure that this ball gets between those posts. Whether or not I'm happy is of no interest to me. Once I've kicked the ball and scored the points, ask me again and I'll tell you how I feel. But right now I have a job to do."

The same scenario could have been repeated this year with Jenson Button on the starting grid of the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Montreal, or Stuart Broad as he prepared to attempt to claim a hat-trick against India in the second test against India at Trent Bridge.

In all these cases, the response of those in question would be to indicate that whether or not they were happy just didn't enter their mind as they prepared to undertake the task in hand, but that they simply had a job to do, and that any happiness would follow the completion of the challenge, not precede it.

So why do we seem to be obsessed with the concept of employee satisfaction and engagement? From the overwhelming range of tools and techniques available to measure and improve employee satisfaction, you could be excused for thinking that making the workforce happy was the sole purpose of HR's existence.

The pursuit of employee satisfaction seems to have become more important than ensuring that employees are fully equipped to do their jobs, and are effectively managed to enable their organisation to achieve its strategy.

Surely it's the case that happiness is a product of success, not a prerequisite for it?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

8 million UK workers are miserable. Are you one of them?

According to research reported by the Chartered Management Institute, almost eight million of us workers in the UK are unhappy in the roles we currently occupy.

The incisive, in-depth, profound, comprehensive (and 100% sarcasm free) research into worker satisfaction found that 28 per cent of workers are unhappy in their role, although only 25 per cent are currently looking for career development opportunities elsewhere. How many of the 25 per cent listen to the news, I wonder?

Also, according to the findings, UK workers think a good salary is the key to happiness at work, with 64 per cent of respondents stating that a good salary would make them altogther more cheerful. Herzberg, where are you now that your transatlantic cousins need you?

Who commissions these surveys? I though that the Ministry for Research into the Flipping Obvious was one of the quangos that was wound up just after the current coalition government was elected?

Let's face it, we're living at a 17-year high point in unemployment. According to the Office of National Statistics, the unemployment rate stands at 8.3%. Between July and September of this year, UK unemployment rose by 129,000 between July and September to 2.62 million.

For the UK's youth, the situation is even more bleak, with over 20% of those aged 16-24 out of employment.

To make matters worse, inflation is wobbling at around the 5% mark, and bank interest rates for those fortunate enough to have any savings are so low that the biscuit tin under the bed seems an attractive location for any few coppers remaining at the end of the month.

Bearing all the above in mind, is it actually surprising that UK workers are not currently constantly convulsed with laughter?

What is irritating is not so much the fact that the outcome of such reseach could be predicted in advance, but that there is a hint that if employees are unhappy, it is inevitably the fault of management who must thereofore also do whatever it can to turn its workforce into deliriously happy chappies!

Or am I just being Mr Grumpy?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Once upon a time there was a wicked old HR Manager ....

I recently spent some time talking with the Senior Management Team of an organisation, discussing their perceptions of HR and also what sort of service they required from HR in the future.

On a number of occasions, leaders would tell me that they had heard that it was said of HR that they were slow, inaccessible, a blocker to progress or some other negative comment. When asked for a specific example of this, the senior manager would often backtrack slightly and explain that “I haven’t found this to be the case myself, but I’ve certainly heard other people saying such things.” 

My response was (as politely as possible!) to suggest that it wasn’t particularly helpful for anyone if unsubstantiated rumours, gossip and anecdotes were passed off as if they were accurate, and that spreading such views should be contained and suppressed.

Someone far less diplomatic than I might have commented, “If you haven’t got any evidence behind your statement, then you need to shut up.”

Controlling the truth of what is said of the HR profession is a difficult challenge, particularly as such nonsense is regularly spouted about us.

Here’s an example: Yesterday, a widely circulated article asked the question “Is HR Killing Another Generation of Technology Innovation?” The article concerns a recent report in the Wall Street Journal which mentions that companies can keep track of their workers by checking their status updates on various social media sites. “When HR organizations start to use these tools to track employees and measure productivity, we have killed another generation of trust and innovation that HR should be fostering” says yesterday’s article.

So what’s the picture that we’re given? It’s one of an HR function that sneakily - or possibly formally - checks up on employees to make sure that they are in the right place at the right time and that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It’s one of an HR function that is suspicious of the company’s employees and therefore utilises available technology to keep an eye on what they are doing. Big Bad HR, doing its normal thing of suppressing innovation and destroying the trust of its employees.

Only one problem. The original Wall Street Journal article doesn’t mention HR once. There's nothing in there at all to suggest that any such initiative is being driven by HR.

But from reading yesterday’s article, you’d be excused that this is all part of The Big Plan of HR to control a company’s employees. It’s just another example of the way that sloppy reporting starts to spread stories about HR that are far from the truth.

My plea: let’s get behind the facade of the half truths about our beloved HR function. When the stories are based on truth we need to respond. When they are based on myth, we need to expose them as such.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

German Rock Music and Plain-Speaking HR: Tenuous Links and Self-Indulgence!

Time for a tenuous link or two, plus some shameless self indulgence today.

First, here's the self-indulgent bit. Unless you're German, the chances are that you won't have encountered the German rock band Juli. It's a shame really, as they are equally as good, if not far better than most of the bland processed junk that we are fed in the UK. The same goes for a number of other German rock bands such as Wir Sind Helden and Silbermond.

They are all popular in their native Germany but have had limited success outside their home country, for the simple reason that they only sing in German.

Here's a quick experiment: check out the video of Juli's "Perfekt Welle" on the sidebar on the right. This song got to number two in the German charts and sold a healthy 160,000 copies. Incidentally, the song, which concerns (at first glance) a surfer who is waiting for the Perfect Wave to ride on, was removed from the German radio playlists just after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, when the lyrics were thought to be rather inappropriate.

Go on, give the song a listen.

Done that? Good. OK; now it's time for a question: What would record sales of bands such as Juli be like if the band performed in English, I wonder? Perhaps I'm simply betraying my preference for melodic and intelligent rock, but I'd like to believe that an English-speaking audience would be happy to part company with the odd couple of quid in exchange for the purchase of a CD (do people buy CD's anymore, or am I totally out of touch?) of the band. Put simply, I supect that if the band sang in English, they'd be as popular outside their native Germany as they are within it.

Right. Time for the tenuous link. How much of what we say as HR professionals is expressed in a language that only we understand? Don't we sometimes use terminology that overcomplicates what we're doing, and don't we sometimes do that because underneath it all we realise that our message is very simple, but by using long words it gives us the appearance of being experts in a highly technical field?

Basically if we spoke the language of the masses, wouldn't our message be heard and understood by a wider audience?

So who's with me as a founder member of the Campaign for Plain-Speaking HR?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

HR, Organisational Development .... and all that Jazz

Now that the 2011 CIPD Conference in Manchester is in the past, I've had a couple of days to reflect on the highs and lows, and consider which of the seminars and sessions will be the most likely to leave lasting impressions, and also to ponder what the annual gathering says about those of us who work in the people business.

My immediate observation is that HR remains a profession in search of an identity. The long-running debate on what unique offering can be made by HR has clearly not yet been resolved. In particular the question of what is the relationship between HR and Organisational Development rambles on pretty much as it has done over the last few years, with little likelihood of an answer or agreement.

One or two of the sessions pointed to a recognition that we know that OD is something that HR professionals are supposed to "do", despite the fact that we're not quite sure what it is. Much as I enjoyed participating in one of the longer afternoon workshops promising I'd leave with a deeper of understanding of organisational development and leadership, I'd argue that there was little in the session that most HR professionals would recognise as solid OD content.

I was reminded of a gig I went to in a pub a few years ago, where the band (Metro Jazz, I recall with amusement) announced their first number with the words "This is a Jazz song by The Jam" and then launched into a relatively faithful-to-the-original rendition of Going Underground. Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, and Eton Rifles were also each introduced as "Another Jazz song by The Jam."

I left after about four numbers. It was fun, but it wasn't Jazz. I'd gone to hear a Jazz group, but was treated to a few frivolous moments of English Punk Rock/Mod Revival. Just calling something Jazz doesn't make it Jazz. Just calling something OD doesn't make it Organisational Development either.

The CIPD's own definition of OD is "A planned and systematic approach to enabling sustained organisation performance throught the involvement of its people." Even the somewhat confusing syntax of that definition betrays the confusion that persists in the minds of many of us in the HR profession.

To be quite honest, althought I firmly believe that OD is important for HR, I'm not totally clear on what it is.

Are you any wiser?

Anyway, to avoid frying my brain, I'm going to listen to some real Jazz. Enjoy the clip in the sidebar on the right. It's by the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, whose leader died in a scuba diving accident in 2008 at the tragically early age of 44.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Theology and HR Converge at 2011 CIPD Conference

One of the themes that appears to be running through the CIPD conference in Manchester this year is that of playing to your strengths.

Sessions which cover this theme include:

  • Making an impact: using your strengths for exceptional working relationships
  • Taking a strengths-based approach to performance management
  • Strengthening resilience against stress at work

And then of course there’s today’s closing keynote address by (swoon ladies, for it is The Handsome One!) Marcus Buckingham , who has made a lucrative career for himself exploring the concept of finding your strengths and using them. 

Areas to be covered by Marcus Buckingham include:

  • Recognising the strengths that exist in your organisation and how to utilize them for individual and business success
  • Acquiring tools and techniques for ensuring your people are leveraging their strengths, and being supported to do so by managers and leaders

The strengths-based approach represents a subtle shift from previous attitude to people management, including how we equip those in the HR profession to perform in their roles. Gone are the days when the focus was solely on providing HR professionals with new skills, be those ones of negotiation, consultancy or business partnership. Now the focus is much more on identifying abilities already possessed and putting them to good use.

It’s more a case of Stop Trying To Be Someone Else, and Start Being The Person That You Already Are.

As a Theologian in the world of HR, I would say this, wouldn’t I, but this is not a particularly new idea.  The New Testament Parable of the Talents covers exactly the same theme: that of recognising what your gifts, abilities or strengths are, and putting them to good use in the service of others. In fact the New Testament approach to talent development is far more radical than anything that you’ll hear at the CIPD Conference this year. The New Testament doesn’t simply say that it would be A Good Idea if you used your talents. It tells us that you can either Use Then Or Lose them. It suggests that to ignore the abilities that you have is actually irresponsible.

So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

So, Dear HR Case Studies readers: Do you know what your strengths or talents are? And, more importantly, are you using them?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Where have all the blonde girls gone?

Until yesterday, my only visit to the CIPD Conference and Exhibition was back in the Thatcherite era of the late 1980s.

Clearly a lot has changed since then.

But there are two groups of people who very much in evidence at my last Conference in 1988, that are noticeable by their absence this year:

Tall, long-legged blonde girls and fat, ugly blokes.

Let’s take the girls first. Back in 1988 it was practically impossible to navigate your way from one end of the exhibition accompanying the conference itself without being accosted by a succession of impossibly attractive and amply-bosomed, flaxen haired beauties. Generally they would offer you the chance to win a bottle of single malt whisky or a bottle of champagne in exchange for your business card and their sales pitch about time and attendance systems or employee loyalty schemes.

Somewhere over the years the girls have disappeared, as have most of the alcoholic incentives to chat with the representatives on the stand. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that in Manchester this year, it’s easier to talk to Alcoholics Anonymous (they are next to the ACAS stand) than it is to get a drink in the exhibition centre.

The other group that are missing are the fat, ugly blokes.

Their absence is actually more of a concern. These are the Trade Union representatives who in the 1980s were a regular sight on the presentation stage at almost every annual HR (sorry, Personnel Management) conference. People like John Edmonds of the EETPU, who would regularly share the platform with Peter Wickens of Nissan to talk about how a deal for single union recognition had been struck at the car manufacturer’s Washington plant. 

Generally, the focus of their speech would be on how UK companies needed to move away from a confrontational industrial relations style to one that was more collaborative and inclusive.

Back in 1988, the annual CIPD conference in Harrogate (so perhaps they just do things differently across the Pennines) was rich in opportunities to explore employee relations issues. This year there’s not one seminar, masterclass or workshop that covers this particular issue.

Is this because employee relations conflict is a thing of the past? The strikes planned for the end of this month by public sector workers clearly indicates that this is not the case.

Research undertaken recently reveals that more than half (54%) of UK senior HR professionals are working in teams in which no one has experience of dealing with trade union action.

If the impact of the current austerity measures in the UK leads (as it surely must) to further disruption in the workplace, I wonder how many of the attendees at this year’s conference might wish that they could have learned a bit more about dealing with a difficult employee relations situation, rather than discover yet more about talent pipelines and future-proofing your organisation.

One final thought: if HR isn’t capable of managing employee relations issues in future, who’s going to pick it up instead of us?

Monday, 7 November 2011

How to experience the CIPD Conference without leaving the comfort of your own home

As many of the readers of HR Case Studies will know, the annual CIPD HR Conference is taking place this week in Manchester.

Clearly getting there will be a problem for those HR Case Studies readers based in (I jest not) French Polynesia, Guadeloupe, or the Turks and Caicos Islands.

So if you're one of those who will unfortunately be absent from the CIPD conference, here's a way to enjoy the intellectual stimulation of the event from the comfort of your own kitchen.
  1. Download the attached document
  2. Print the document on good quality paper
  3. Cut out all the words into separate strips of paper
  4. Choose a selection of terms (carefully extracted from this year's conference programme)
  5. Apply glue to the back of your selected terms
  6. Arrange your selected terms into a (possibly) meaningful sentence which may (or may not) be uttered by one of the conference speakers
  7. Apply to a flat surface of your choice
  8. Stand back and observe your handiwork
  9. Marvel at the result
  10. Share your learning with other HR Case Studies readers
Download your HR Case Studies DIY CIPD HR Conference here

Young readers: make sure that you get your parents' permission before slicing through the tablecloth with a Stanley knife, or sticking your newly-created strategic musings over the Canaletto in the hallway.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Executive Pay: The Subject Which Must Not Be Named

It’s the week of the annual CIPD conference, where the great and the good of the HR world get together to “learn from best practice examples from leading organisations ... pick up practical tools that you can implement right away in your organisation... and hear the most current thinking from high quality speakers who have been there before.”

And with split second timing, one of the most high profile members of the profession makes a public attack on the excesses of executive pay, saying that “top pay has been found to bear little or no relation to company performance”

He goes on to say that, “Perhaps it would help to make directors and CEOs more accountable to their employees. Perhaps there should be employee representatives on company boards.”

Great to hear a prominent member of the HR profession to be making a public statement on such issues, isn’t it?

The only problem is, that this comment doesn’t come from any member of the HR profession. It comes from John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.

Let’s look at what the Archbishop says in a bit more detail:

The news that Chief Executives (CEOs) of the FTSE 100 companies last year received average pay increases of almost 50 percent adds urgency to our cause. Typically these CEOs receive 300 times as much as the least well paid British employees in their companies. If they have a responsibility to their staff, it is hard to imagine a more powerful way of telling some people that they are of little value than to pay them one-third of one percent of your own salary. Top pay has been found to bear little or no relation to company performance, but even if it did, isn’t the performance of a company dependent on the work and wellbeing of all its staff?

Do you have to be a senior cleric in the Church of England to realise that paying some employees one-third of one percent of the salary of the CEO of an organisation is blatantly unfair and unjust? I think not.

But is this an issue that the HR profession seems to be happy to tackle?

Judging from the timetable for this year’s CIPD Conference it would appear that the subject of executive remuneration is the HR equivalent of Lord Voldemort: The Subject Which Must Not Be Named.

If you’re interested in Talent Management, Delivering Organisational Effectiveness or Building a Culture of Engagement and Leadership, the conference will have you feeling like a kid in a sweet shop. But if you’re looking for some open and frank discussion about the issue that has got the rest of the population gossiping, you are searching in vain.

OK, as an HR professional with a degree in Theology, I’ve probably got more in common with what Archbishop Sentamu is saying than many of my colleagues. But the question I’d like to ask is this:

If as HR professionals we’re not addressing this issue, who else is?

Come on, HR people! How about responding to this challenge of the Archbishop of York:

Our society will work best when we recognise that as human beings we are all, fundamentally of equal worth and members of one society.

Let us do it. Let us do it now.

Your comments are, as ever, most welcome