Policies & Procedures

HR’s role in a crisis – April 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked us all. It’s returned the world to a state many of us hoped never to see again, and with stakes many others have never experienced.

It’s an important reminder for us HR professionals to always expect the unexpected. Very few organisations, even those operating in multiple countries, will have plans for dealing with invasions.

However, I’ve always been proud of our profession’s ability to adapt. We’re asked to develop long term strategies, only to be the last to find out about major organisational pivots. It’s this resilience to change which makes HR the obvious choice to manage crisis situations.

This should be a prompt to reassess risks. Despite long-term conflicts in the Middle East, we saw Ukraine as a stable country. Are there similar blind spots in other jurisdictions? Other places where conventional wisdom suggests that something is impossible?

What is your exit strategy? Are there employees who need to be expatriated, and what is the policy for local employees? In Ukraine we’ve seen conscription announced for all men aged between 18 and 60, as well as many civilians volunteering for service. If your employees were to walk out of work to pick up a rifle, how would you deal with that?

Many organisations simply won’t be able to leave a conflict zone. Many facilities can’t simply be turned off and left. If the worst were to happen, what happens to the employees that are needed to stay? And how confident can you be as an organisation that they will?

EMPLOYEE IMPACT

The Russia/Ukraine conflict is widely seen in the media and society through the lens of Ukraine Good, Russia Bad. This has tipped over into anti-Russian sentiment which could mean employees needing additional support. Whilst most organisations will have established diversity and inclusion programmes, our interventions are typically focused at groups who have always needed support. Organisations will need to act quickly to ensure people whose backgrounds are associated with a conflict are able to access support they may not have needed before.

Whilst politicians were careful from the outset to refer to ‘Putin’s war’ to avoid blaming soldiers, the emergence of war crimes on social media will doubtless make this line less sustainable.

The narrative in the west and the anglosphere has been firmly positioned behind Ukraine. But it’s important to realise that a huge number of countries in the Global South are following a different narrative in support of Russia. Remember that these countries, and nationals of these countries in the west, may hold very different views than the prevailing one, derived from different sources. Bear in mind the old adage that in conflict, especially one being shared live on social media, truth is always the first casualty.

There are also implications for organisations with operations in Russia. Many multi-nationals are withdrawing services from Russia, so what does this mean for their employees at offices and facilities in the country? If sanctions on financial transfers are invoked, can employees in Russia still be paid? If not, what support can you provide?

FIRST STEPS

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CROSS-ORGANISATION RESPONSE

HR’s response will be part of a wider organisational reaction. Many, if not all, parts of the organisation will be enacting protocols and planning next moves. For this reason, it’s crucial that the organisation’s response is being coordinated centrally. Force Majeure events are by their very nature fast moving. The information coming from the scene is sporadic, often contradictory, and rarely accurate.

HR’s cross-organisation role makes it best placed to coordinate the response to a crisis. Human life is always the most important thing, so having the most people focused part of the organisation in charge helps maintain that priority. Most other departmental responses are less time critical. None-the-less, we should identify key partners.

Finance is an obvious one. How do we release the funds required to secure transport? And how do we get it to employees on the ground?

Legal is also essential. The boycott of Russia has meant many multinational firms, including McDonalds and Ikea, have seen their stores taken over by copycat brands. These brands have been allowed to register trademarks that clearly infringe those of the original, Western brands. This partisan application of the law raises a clear problem for HR, as it suggests the law will not protect a foreign organisation. Suddenly you have no protection against overseas employees doing anything at all, from data abuse, corporate espionage, or exposure of interests. 

Finally, the CEO. It’s important during crisis planning to set escalation procedures. At what point does the CEO have to personally authorise an action, and how far can a department proceed along a planned sequence of actions before business as usual becomes an emergency?

TAKING ACTION

So what can you do?

ONE

Wargaming. For the past twenty years war has been something that happened far away to other people. The invasion of Ukraine is somewhat closer to home, and a reminder that not only is the world less safe than before, but for the majority of the world, it was never safe to begin with.

It would be a valuable insight to explore the likely consequences for your organisation of different scenarios. Some organisations may have high exposure to reserve service obligations (especially those with ex-military recruitment programmes) whilst others may be demographically exposed due to a young workforce.

TWO

Update social media policies. As I mentioned earlier, in war, truth is the first casualty, and your employees are likely to be discussing conflicts on social media. Is an employee who denies that one side is committing war crimes, or claims that the war is fake, in breach of a policy? They may be bringing their organisation into disrepute, but will any disciplinary action hold up to an employment tribunal?

THREE

Identify digital weaknesses. Cyber warfare has the potential to knock HR systems offline – what are your contingencies if rota software or payroll is down for a prolonged period? How long would it take to enact offline processes? Focus on the bare essentials of what employees need and make sure you’re always able to deliver.

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Diversity & Inclusion

Can the Pay Gap be closed? – March 2022

Let’s begin with a quick history lesson. After the success of the Davies Review into women on boards – a coalition government initiative pushing for 25% of the boards of FTSE 100 companies to be made up of women – the Hampton-Alexander Review was launched with the target of women holding 33% of board positions in FTSE 350 companies.

As I pointed out during the Davies Review, these targets were largely accomplished using a small pool of female non-executive directors sitting on multiple boards, rather than appointing women to senior executive director roles. In Norway, where 40% women on boards is enshrined in law, they call this phenomenon the Golden Skirts.

My point is that whenever a government tries to create change, the finest minds in the affected organisations will find a loophole that maintains the status quo. So, when the government announced they would be introducing gender pay gap reporting, I was completely unsurprised to see several large organisations outsource reception and cleaning contractors. The low paid, almost entirely female workers in those roles would have dramatically skewed their results. So, they were removed from the balance sheet.

As we know, the root causes of the gender pay gap are primarily social and cultural factors rather than ‘big bad bosses’. Childcare and caring responsibilities fall overwhelmingly on women, forcing them to make a choice between career or family that men rarely must make. The nature of pregnancy and post-partum recovery means that the vast majority of women neither can nor wish to return straight to work after giving birth.

I’ve also argued before that, unless racists are diligent enough to identify which part of the Indian subcontinent someone is from before discriminating against them, a purely bias-based explanation for the race pay gap doesn’t make sense. The difference in outcomes between Indian workers and Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers is too significant. The same applies to a lesser extent between Black African workers and Black Caribbean workers.

So once again, we must consider that culture and individual choice contribute to the race pay gap. In a multicultural society, should we be pushing monocultural values on work and the pursuit of money? If anything, the demand for hybrid and homeworking suggests that the dominant pre-pandemic working culture is being rejected by increasing numbers from all backgrounds.

DELIVERING ON DATA

In my view this means there will always be race and gender pay gaps. The alternative is to overrule women’s choices to spend time with and nurture their children by forcing them back to work. Or to forcibly replace family and community values with individualism.

But acknowledging that there likely will always be some level of pay gap doesn’t mean accepting the status quo. We wouldn’t accept the existence of external factors as an excuse for not taking action on internal factors in any other area of our organisations.

It’s our responsibility as HR professionals to identify discrepancies and anomalies in our workforces. The amount of information at our disposal means new skills are crucial for HR – we’re now data analysts, modellers and scientists. Make no mistake, the HR professional of 2030 will be just as proficient with SQL and Python as they are with appraisals and redundancy.

The data we already hold on our workforces is more than sufficient to identify specific issues on pay gaps, down to department and even team level. But of course, without the will to make change, change won’t happen. As I mentioned earlier, change is resisted. Loopholes will be found to avoid making widespread change.

FIRST STEPS

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PROBLEM SOLVED?

A US study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at 1,500 companies across 20 years, and found female senior managers under a female CEO earnt 16% less than female senior managers under a male CEO. The authors concluded that the presence of a female CEO resulted in gender diversity being marked as ‘done’, and the incentive to retain and promote other women into senior roles is removed.

This tick box approach to diversity is of concern in relation to pay gaps. We’ve seen that if a loophole can be found, it’ll be taken. Public reporting incentivises organisations to remove the issue (by outsourcing low paid roles) rather than doing the desired action of equalising the gender split at all pay grades. Why worry about recruiting and developing women for top executive positions when you can simply add a ‘Golden Skirt’ to your board.

We have to think in the medium to long term. If it takes 15 to 20 years for someone to reach a senior position then we’re currently seeing the outcomes of initiatives launched in the early noughties.

Large organisations will already have sufficient data to assess their actions over this time frame. Smaller ones may not. What we can’t do is fall back into the trap of launching an initiative and replacing it after two or three years, when clearly it’s only impacting a tiny proportion of an employee’s lifecycle.

And this links in with the short-termism of the modern career in general. With many employees moving employer to progress to higher roles rather than internal promotions, it raises the question of who is responsible at all? With individualism driving career moves, should the question of development also rest with the individual? What incentive does an employer have to promote groups with pay gaps, if they’re simply providing a springboard to their next role?  Only diversity as a public relations exercise, which is the same incentive that leads to organisations with a female CEO ticking the box of gender diversity and marking it complete.

TAKING ACTION

So what can you do?

ONE

Resolve what we control. Whilst many pay gap factors are out of our hands, there’s still plenty we can do. De-biasing processes might not be headline grabbing, but it has a long-term effect.

TWO

Targets not quotas. But more specifically, targets that have buy-in from senior leaders. If you force an organisation to do something, it’ll find a way to meet the letter of the law without actually achieving the intent or spirit. Targets represent an ambition rather than an obligation. Targets driven by senior leaders, who have a disproportionate influence on organisational culture, are far more likely to achieve their intended goals.

THREE

Get to grips with data. Advanced data skills are like gold dust in the HR world, but are normalised in other business areas. The ability to spot trends and patterns in your datasets allows you to target and focus your policies and initiatives, removes guesswork and allows you to quantify your impact. HR has long been seen as lacking the business nous of other departments, but proper use of data will quickly change this image.

NEXT STEPS

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Policies & Procedures

The New Covid Rules

With the removal of all legal restrictions in England, employers are having to tear up the rule book from the past two years and start again.

Employers have a duty of care to all employees. So, whether an employee should be allowed to work with Covid is a challenging question. If an employee is wanting and willing to work, and the employer sends them home, they aren’t taking sickness absence but are medically suspended. This means they’re entitled to full pay.

There’s also the phasing out of free testing to contend with. Unless the employer is paying for testing, it’s unlikely they will be able to mandate the employee to self-test. And whilst for some people Covid-19 is a serious and potentially deadly disease, for most of the working population it can be imperceptible from a cold.

This leaves the employer in a quandary. Whilst some employers will be able to switch to a hybrid working model where employees with mild illnesses work from home until well, there are plenty of roles where this is impossible. Many sectors, including retail and manufacturing, are run with the bare minimum of employees and have no slack in the system to enable routine medical suspensions for cold symptoms.

For these sectors, where presenteeism and zero-hours contracts are already common, it’s highly unlikely that line managers would encourage absenteeism for mild Covid symptoms, whether backed up by a positive test or not. In these circumstances you’re likely to see a clash between HR cautiousness and operational requirements.

Legislative Differences

There are certainly implications for cross-border work. Requirements to self-isolate remain in Wales and Scotland (self-isolation in Northern Ireland has always been a recommendation). What this means in practice is debatable, as enforcement and spot checks of quarantine ended long ago, but we would suggest that any employee with a positive test or who has symptoms which would require them to take a Covid test in Scotland or Wales shouldn’t be travelling across the border.

This confusion applies to travel. For example, Margaret Ferrier, the now independent Scottish MP accused of travelling from Glasgow to London with Covid symptoms, would now only have potentially committed an offence for a portion of her journey. It’s already been the case for several months that train passengers must put masks on when they pass Carlisle or Bristol, having travelled for hours unmasked – rules that showcase the futility of unilaterally imposing local restrictions.

But nonetheless, this means a catch-all cross-UK policy can’t be applied. And this does have implications for sickness and the principles of fairness. Employment law isn’t a devolved matter, so applies equally across the UK. This means sanctioning an employee for isolating with Covid in England would likely be unfair treatment if a comparator in Scotland isn’t also sanctioned for self-isolating. And of course, the Scottish or Welsh comparator is legally obliged to self-isolate, and so can’t be sanctioned by an employer.

Taking Action

So, what should employers do? Obviously, case law doesn’t exist, and for the likely short period (months rather than years) that self-isolation rules are divergent, the safest and fairest option is to allow employees in England to isolate for the same amount of time as the longest comparator in the devolved nations.

If employees can work from home (and of course, symptoms permitting), it may be worth offering this as an option, especially if the employee is receiving statutory sick pay. This relieves financial pressures whilst allowing employees to ‘do the right thing’.

Whilst employers have been able to mandate face coverings for employees through the pandemic, it may be harder to do so in the near future. Many of the mask rules have seemed counterintuitive throughout the pandemic, and employer rules will face increasing resistance with mandates having dropped almost everywhere else.

On the flip side to this is the employees who may want to continue wearing masks. It may seem strange for an employer to want to ban masks, but when you think about some of the dress standards enforced to this day, nothing should be a surprise. Currently Government guidance is that employees, visitors and customers may choose to wear a face covering in any setting – the emphasis is on ‘may choose to’, rather than ‘may choose not to’.

Finally, we should be aware that many people feel a very real anxiety about Covid. Whilst this may be disproportionate to their risk factors, it’s a very real response to the pandemic and is an example of how people move along the change curve at their own speed.

An employment tribunal has already found that a fear of catching and transmitting Covid isn’t a protected belief (in the imaginatively named X v Y 2021), but should this fear develop to a state of anxiety that impacts the employee’s mental health they may be covered under the protected characteristic of Disability.
However, in this case I suspect that demonstrating their anxiety is purely driven by fear of Covid would be challenging for the employee and could only be sustained by refusal to engage with medication or therapy-based treatments.

Helping employees proceed along the change curve will be key to the post-Covid transition and clear communications will help everyone understand expectations and planned actions.

We should also not forget that a new variant of Covid or an entirely new pathogen could quickly result in restrictions resuming. So don’t shred those signs quite yet!

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Training & Development

Turning Tax Into Talent – February 2022

The world moves fast. Yesterday’s priorities are superseded by new initiatives by lunchtime. No wonder then that we buy in the skills we need on a project-by-project basis. We’ve begun treating talent like supermarkets treat fresh produce; just in time delivery with minimal surplus. In the drive for efficiency, we’re offloading the responsibility of developing skills to others.

There are other aspects that have led us to this situation. For most organisations, the idea of restricting a vacancy to internal applicants is anathema, for a number of reasons. External applicants are key for diverse workforces. We want to hire experience from outside the sector. We’re preventing institutionalised groupthink.

However, the public sector has a number of organisations who show us why internal promotion can be better than importing talent. The Civil Service is highly reliant on organisational knowledge to provide the best support and advice to policy makers. It’s an organisation where change is so constant that organisational knowledge and experience expedites rather than obstructs changing priorities.

Another key part of the Civil Service’s success is encouraging cross-function moves. How difficult would someone in your organisation find it to move from one area to another? No, they don’t know much about the area they want to move into, or have the skills to do the job immediately, unlike an external applicant. But they know other parts of your business, your structure, your values and your challenges intimately. They maintain your organisation’s cultural memory. Beyond this, they can tackle challenges with knowledge from multiple aspects of your organisation – becoming the proverbial two heads which are better than one.

Chasing Retention

But if we think about why people leave their jobs, one thing underlies everything. They want more. For some, it’s more money. For others, more challenges; their work bores them. Self-improvement is a motivator for many; the desire to gain more skills and knowledge.

And realistically, some of these ‘mores’ are great opportunities for your organisation. Employees motivated by a desire to solve your organisation’s problems, if only given a chance. People who want to deliver their work to a higher standard, but feel they have to get a job elsewhere to do so.

Employee turnover is so often an HR metric, but how regularly are you discussing this with L&D teams? I suppose a big challenge is switching from a macro focus to a micro one. We speak on an organisational level, but as HR professionals we’re much less likely to have a ‘scouting’ role where we identify talent for new roles – this is left to line managers. And what we often see is line managers who want to keep talent in their teams, as these top players make their role easier.

So the needs of line managers are a challenge – they expect to recruit the best and keep them. Often due to badly thought out KPIs, line managers are forced to make a choice between meeting team targets or developing their employees. Add in performance incentives which often reward teams financially for beating targets and you create a culture where stagnation of talent is the norm.

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New Challenges, Old Solutions

But we’ve got a powerful tool for upskilling our workforces that is being criminally underused. It’s a method we’ve used for decades, but seem to have abandoned in favour of ‘buying talent’ from other employers.

I’m talking, of course, about apprenticeships. And it makes sense for a lot of smaller employers to be wary of taking on an apprentice. There are costs incurred just preparing to take on an apprentice, not to mention the risk of the apprentice dropping out, being entirely unsuitable or simply not fitting into a small team.

But the thing is, nobody says that apprenticeships have to be for new starters. Of course, there are financial advantages to hiring an apprentice, but if your organisation’s only incentive is being able to pay someone eight grand for a full year’s work, lack of development opportunities isn’t the biggest retention issue you need to be tackling. 

Realistically, if you’re looking to use apprenticeships to upskill existing employees you’ll need to pay them at least the same amount they’re on now, whilst also giving them at least 20% of their contracted hours to train and study.

But there are huge benefits, especially when delivering higher or degree level apprenticeships. For certain skills and industries the funding contributions and employer incentive payments can be significant, and the skills an existing employee can gain through the apprenticeship programmes can be quite literally ‘money can’t buy’.

We need to promote the idea that apprenticeships are not just for kids. We’ve reached a point where everyone in the workforce is expected to learn new things, but the idea of a structured programme of education for workers older than 25.

Remember that employees are just as keen to grow and develop as you are to resolve your skill shortages. Internal progression means organisational memories are retained and shared, employee loyalty improves and informal relationships between teams are strengthened.

Taking Action

So what can you do?

One

Identify employees with the potential to fill your skill shortages. Upskilling existing staff is cheaper and more effective than recruiting new employees, and often (when taking into account onboarding and team integration) quicker too.

Employees can enter Masters level degree apprenticeships on the basis of relevant workplace experience. This means they don’t need to have completed a bachelor’s degree, although having the aptitude and commitment to complete a challenging MSc course will be key!

Two

Raise awareness. There will be plenty of people in your workforce who want to learn and take up internal opportunities. New talent may emerge from the most unlikely of places…

Three

Incentivise managers. It’s pretty normal for senior leaders to have some requirement to develop direct reports, but where this is applied to line managers it’s often copy pasted and fails to recognise the very different roles and responsibilities. In a world where line managers are as likely as their team members to need to look outside the organisation for improvement, a few lines in a performance review on talent is ineffective.

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Strategy

Looking Forward – January 2022

As January begins, the outlook has started to look a little less bleak. We’re hearing of a ‘living with Covid’ plan from Downing Street, Holyrood has begun removing restrictions and a sensation of clarity is forming (unless you’re involved with Chester Football Club). There’s a rising confidence that organisations can plan again.

This year will see employers divided into two camps – those mandating returns to the office, and those formalising their agile working policies. I suspect this will correlate with those who hold long and inescapable leases on large buildings.

Talent issues will continue. We need far more assistance from the Government to avoid the visa system becoming an option only for employers with large in-house legal departments. Smaller organisations and HR teams simply don’t have the capacity to learn the rules, so will only recruit domestically.

Inflation is on the increase around the world, and with it demands for pay increases. Your bike to work scheme doesn’t put food on the table, so employee benefits must be aligned with employee needs. Retention, already a challenge, will become even more so.

Whilst we can replace skills, we can’t replace knowledge. The people who know why a thing works, not just how. Passing on organisational lore has always been hit and miss, but remote working adds even more barriers to knowledge sharing. As always, resolving this issue will probably fall to HR.

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New Challenges

As I write this, my phone alerts me that a human bird flu case has been confirmed by the NHS (not now, 2022), but I hope that this year will see Covid slowly disappear from the headlines. HR shouldn’t get complacent though. We should look at the pandemic as an opportunity to improve safeguarding protocols for vulnerable employees; flu hasn’t disappeared and like Covid is incredibly dangerous to those with existing health issues.

2022 should see us picking up where we left off with pay gaps. The gender pay gap has increased and encouraging early work on race and disability pay gaps has, in most cases, fizzled out.

Generational inequalities will increasingly become employer’s problems. Home working is much easier when one has space in one’s home to work, and with large proportions of young people shut out of the housing market we may begin to see migrations from traditional centres of business to places where house prices are lower. This influx of talented, hungry young people may be the missing ingredient which revitalises communities long seen as left behind. Whether this is powered by remote working or employers following the talent and investing in up-and-coming locations remains to be seen.

2022 will likely be a good year for HR technology vendors. Employers will finally have the headspace to replace systems which couldn’t keep pace with changes to working practices during the pandemic. Start by identifying all the workarounds and bodges users have to do to make the system work – and then create a ‘shopping list’ of features your ideal system needs.

Taking action

Trans issues will become employer challenges as relevant legislation drifts apart between the UK’s devolved administrations. Following criticism of Stonewall and the advice it gave to Sussex University, it remains crucial that processes and procedures are based on up-to-date independent legal advice. If you believe you have employees that may be impacted by the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, action taken now could avoid legal issues later.

Mental health is set to be a major issue. Many people have been living with social anxiety for almost two years, and even for those who aren’t in an ‘at risk’ group of Covid, returning to ‘normality’ will be hard. Like all change, it will fall to HR to support employees as they adjust to living with Covid, both in and out of the workplace. Recruiting Mental Health First Aiders is a good first step, but introducing support groups to deal with what I suspect will be a very common concern may help employees resolve issues without HR input.

As I said earlier on, it’s looking like we can make plans again. To help you plan your diversity agenda for 2022 we’re delighted to offer you our free interactive diversity calendar. Use this calendar to identify events, themes, and activities, then engage senior people, employee groups and key teams.

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Develop your own calendar – use this one as the basis and consult your people to identify other dates you would like to include. Focus on D&I as there are so many dates now that celebrate a wide range of events, situations and people.

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Diversity & Inclusion

Adjusted Attitudes – December 2021

It’s 25 years since the UK introduced reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Part of 1995’s Disability Discrimination Act, these measures made employers responsible for making changes in their workplaces to remove the effect of an employee or candidate’s disability. Reasonable adjustment requirements were beefed up further by 2010’s Equality Act, and now employers and line managers are acutely aware of their responsibilities to people with disabilities.

The Covid pandemic has changed people’s perceptions around health. Suddenly large numbers of people who had never bothered themselves with health or disability issues at work found themselves ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable’, whether because of age or health issues they’d never seen as serious.

The number of people affected, as well as the health and safety rules introduced for everyone during the pandemic, has meant a big change in attitudes to reasonable adjustments.

We’re now in a world where everyone is concerned by health. Not only that, but it’s been completely normalised for individuals to take actions to protect other people. One effect of this is the normalisation and appreciation of workplace adjustments. Employers have adjusted working practices across their employee populations, regardless of whether the employee has a recognised disability.

CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS

I think this, alongside the rise of agile working, is indicative of the changing employer/employee relationship post-covid and post-Brexit. As I discussed last month, employee expectations are changing, and retention is much easier than recruiting. Good talent isn’t easily replaceable and making small changes can have a big impact on employee happiness.

My initial comparator would be with flexible working. When legislation was expanded in 2014 from parents and carers to all employees, employers who’d never considered home working and agile working began to go above and beyond the law, as it proved an important factor in recruiting and retaining staff. Of course, these are also the employers who were able to continue operating without huge problems when workplaces were closed in early 2020.

So I believe opening up workplace adjustments to all employees will become increasingly commonplace. I’ve already seen new starter budgets, where new employees are given a small budget to create the workspace they can work best in. This budget can be spent on things like specialist furniture, such as chairs or standing desks, or tech adjustments like noise cancelling headphones. Being available to all employees means reasonable adjustments aren’t seen as ‘special treatment’, but as a policy that any employee can access to produce their best work.

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A NEW NARRATIVE

This also helps shine a different lens on disability and accessibility. It normalises the idea of different needs, whether they’re because of a recognised disability, short-term health issues or just personal preference.

This helps change the narrative around disability from what people can’t do, to how can we help them do it. It means we can improve attitudes and ensure line managers know they’ll be supported if they hire a disabled employee, not left to sort issues themselves.

My favourite outcome of the pandemic is the end of presenteeism. It never should’ve been encouraged for people to come to work whilst clearly contagiously ill. It’s unpleasant for everyone, and downright dangerous for the vulnerable or immunocompromised.

Now that technical solutions exist for so many roles to be done from home, the main reason for presenteeism is line managers. It’s up to us in HR to make it clear as we head into winter that working from home with a cold is preferable to infecting the entire workplace. Tackling machismo ‘man-up’ attitudes to illness is a long term challenge, but one that should be part of your thinking around both disability and your wellbeing strategy.

WHERE TO BEGIN

There are a few things you can start thinking about today

ONE

Are you up to date with best practice? Is your organisation already actioning initiatives like adjustment passports (which allow adjustments to move with the worker around the organisation).

Employers are doing some great work around disability and accessibility, often with very low cost and high impact. You can identify success from award brochures or simply by putting out an appeal for help on LinkedIn. Most people are more than happy to share how they’re making work better for under-represented groups.

TWO

Change the language. This isn’t about political correctness and banning words, it’s about not highlighting difference. Making a workplace adjustment is something everyone does – changing the height of a chair is a workplace adjustment. In that context it becomes more about ensuring everyone is comfortable at work.

I hate the term reasonable adjustment. It suggests that some adjustments are declined because the request is unreasonable, instead of the real reason, which is often that the employee isn’t worth the financial cost of the adjustment.

THREE

Learn from Covid. You’ve just been through (hopefully) the biggest exercise in adjusting employee’s working arrangements you’ll ever have to do. What went well, and where did existing processes and procedures create problems?

Not only will this help make your workplace adjustments better, but also help with risk management. What happened with Covid is a good indicator of the government’s response to a future pandemic. And pandemics aren’t the only thing that may cause an organisational shutdown or limits to movement – the experience you’ve gained from Covid would be relevant to a cyber shutdown, climate event or other country-wide business disruption.

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Reward & Recognition

Grow Your Own – November 2021

Apparently the word ‘unexpected’ is out. Instead, everything is ‘unprecedented’. It’s a great example of linguistic gymnastics – unexpected presumes a failure to identify a risk, whereas unprecedented suggests no reasonable person would have contemplated it.

But like Alanis Morissette’s misuse of Ironic, a lot of ‘unprecedented’ issues are anything but. It’s simply an excuse for the unprepared and bungling, whilst others sit silently shaking their heads in disbelief.

The ‘unprecedented Great Resignation’ and the ‘unprecedented difficulties of recruiting talent’ are a case in point.

Many employers will have had no such challenges. These employers will have well established pipelines where employees can reach their full potential. Flexible and remote working would have been adopted because employees asked for it, not as a response to COVID shutdowns. The employee perks will be things employees want, not just a way for the top dogs to dodge tax on their hobbies.

For HR, talent issues were only unprecedented if you’ve had your head in the sand.

FORMALISING DEVELOPMENT

A recurring criticism of remote working is younger workers are unable to learn from their more experienced colleagues. But I don’t see that as a problem of remote work, but as an opportunity for everyone to do better.

Let me explain. By now we should all be aware of unconscious biases, and there’s one in particular which is known as Mini-Me Syndrome. It’s where we’re naturally drawn to people who remind us of ourselves when we were younger.

In a work context this means informal mentorships and sponsorship aren’t based on ability, aptitude or results, but simply commonalities between leaders and their ‘favourites’.

Remote working changes that, especially where organisations switch towards result based evaluation rather than observation-based assessment. Remote workers are assessed on outputs, not hours at the desk or informal relationships with organisational VIPs.

That involves taking another look at all our performance and selection measures. Identifying what ‘potential’ gets done, rather than what they spend their time doing. Formalised and structured routes to progression mean everyone knows how they can progress, not just those whose face fits.

Get started:

Use our Question Set to conduct your own organisational survey, including honest perspectives on progression and reward.

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FOSTERING LOYALTY

Q. How do I save money on hiring a replacement employee?

A. Keep the old one.

Sure, jobseekers are doing well out of the current recruitment chaos, but there’s a group doing even better – recruitment consultants (and no doubt rec2rec consultants are doing best of all).

Most employees would be amazed how much it costs to replace them. Especially when they consider how little most employers spend to retain them.

There’s so much we could do to improve retention.

Personal development budgets. Loyalty perks. Increasing existing employee salaries to match the rate you’re advertising their roles at – this is such an obvious one that could solve half the problems we’re seeing in the job market at the moment.

You’re not saving money by keeping employees a few thousand below the market rate, just giving the most able and mobile employees incentive to leave.

A big loyalty issue, particularly in smaller organisations, is progression. A perception exists that one has to leave to progress.

It’s a perception that can be easily addressed. Upskilling employees in the absence of short term progression opportunities gives employees the chance to build the skills you know your organisation will soon need.

Utilising apprenticeship levy funding (especially through degree apprenticeships) ‘locks in’ employees for the duration of their apprenticeship, whilst solving your skill gaps.

WHERE TO BEGIN

There are a few things you can start thinking about today

ONE

Reward doesn’t just mean salary. Many employers use share schemes to encourage emotional investment in business success, ranging from FTSE100 firms like Tesco to tiny tech start-ups. A well planned and relevant suite of perks means leaving a role also means an employee losing things they use every day.

My local council produces an annual, personalised ‘Where does your tax go’ leaflet.  If you can, a similar annual report that shows the market cost of the perks, training and coaching an employee has used demonstrates how much you’ve invested in them – their total reward value, if you will.

TWO

How can a new starter get to where you are? If there’s no internal route to your position, you’re going to have to accept the loss of talent. But you can still keep close to former employees.

The reason employers like professional services firms run alumni programs for former employees is to keep them warm and emotionally involved with the business. They’ve spent a lot of money and time on developing their leavers, and the alumni scheme is a great way to keep a list of top talent who already know their way around your organisation.

Keeping ex-colleagues in the loop about your organisation and the jobs that you’re recruiting for by way of an email newsletter is a low cost, low effort way of staying close to talent, even if they have to go elsewhere to reach the next step in their career.

THREE

Facilitate portfolio careers.

People are working in ways that best suit them, and for many talented people that means side hustles, consulting and freelance work. They’re looking to express their passion for their specialism, try out new things, and help causes or businesses that they love.

Workers with portfolio careers bring a huge number of benefits to the organisations they work in – live experience of other organisations, greater understanding of how businesses work and new ideas.

But too often employers try to contractually restrict the worker’s attempts to do work for another party. They apply blanket restrictions on additional employment to their whole workforce, when they’re only needed for a few senior people.

Employers have already failed once in their attempts to control the workforce (flexible/agile working), and their most mobile and able employees left for opportunities and working arrangements that better suited them.

Whilst a full time role may suit many employees, don’t be surprised if the person you really want for a role wants something else. And bear in mind that the reason they’re the best person may be their portfolio career experience.

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Diversity & Inclusion

Has Anything Really Changed? – October 2021

October is the UK’s Black History Month. Which makes it the ideal time to look back on the impact of almost 18 months of Black Lives Matter being in the public eye.

Race is one of the key areas where the work of HR crosses into social issues. And last year we had a real opportunity to make a long-lasting impact, when racial differences and disparities finally received the attention they deserved from the public, business and the government.

Since then we’ve seen the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities deliver their report. It included a call to finally retire the BAME acronym, which has been used interchangeably with ‘not White British’.

It’s a big step forward which recognises a truth that’s been obvious for years – unequal outcomes aren’t just due to not being white. The BAME acronym has meant both the Indian and Chinese ethnic groups have been labelled disadvantaged, whilst outperforming all other ethnic groups on almost every metric.

And awkward facts keep coming up the further one digs through the labels. Take the disparity of outcomes between Black African and Black Caribbean Brits. Over two thirds of Black African young people go to university, but fewer than half of Black Caribbean young people.

Which means your award-winning graduate programme for young Black grads is probably reinforcing an inequality. Like I said – awkward.

And even the Black African ethnic group is a lazy inference. Black Africans of Somali heritage have little in common with Black Africans of Nigerian heritage.

UNDERSTANDING THE NUMBERS

We know monitoring is important. We know that outside of the urban cities racial diversity almost disappears, or at least changes drastically. That means basing your organisation in Leicester or six miles outside the city boundary in Loughborough has a huge impact on local workforce diversity; there are 4x proportionally more Black people in Leicester than Loughborough.

That means when setting workforce diversity targets your definitions are important. If your aim is to be representative of the local area, does that mean the immediate area, the council area or the entire region?

We saw an immediate response to last summer’s protests from senior leaders. However, it’s actions, rather than words, which let us see who simply put their name on a drafted press release, and who actually meant it.

Last month’s email discussed culture change, and the difference between official and unofficial workplace cultures. Black Lives Matter is a fantastic example of how immovable unofficial culture can be.

Take last year’s report from tech firm EyeCue, who found that the skin tones featured in social media posts from beauty brands got much darker last summer as Black Lives Matter protests peaked, but then trended lighter again into the autumn.

Change was resisted, as it always is. As HR leaders we all know the change curve, and should recognise it applies here just as it does anywhere else.

POWER ≠ CONTROL

Whilst our position as employers gives us influence over social issues, it doesn’t give us control over them. Our initiatives contribute to change. But don’t change things by themselves. And as with all things, individuals go through the change curve at different rates.

We should also remember that whilst every part of your organisation can set themselves diversity targets, they’ll all have very different impacts and timescales.

The marketing department could quite easily switch a large amount of their spend to influencers of colour next quarter. It can pull ads from mainstream publications and increase spending with diverse publications. And it can do this without a single person of colour in its ranks.

HR’s work is much longer term. It’s typically measured in terms of workforce demographics, progression and retention. It looks at trends, not individual actions. Our actions show results over years, not months or quarters. Indeed, if we were to achieve dramatic demographic change in months, we’d have almost certainly broken the law.

We have a number of proven tools to steer change. Blind CVs. Unconscious bias awareness training. Listening to feedback from your employee populations, not just collecting it.

WHERE TO BEGIN

So what can we do in HR that delivers racial equality in both the workplace and society?

ONE

Convert objectors. Most of those objecting to your initiatives aren’t against racial equality, but they are against things like ‘woke nonsense’, ‘overpaid non-jobs’ and ‘wishy-washy workshops’.

You may have persuaded the board to embrace your initiative, but the failure of most diversity schemes is because they’re not communicated properly to those it’s aimed at!

If you have a large and diverse workforce, a one-size-fits-all training programme will miss most of its targets.

TWO

Reach out to the communities you work in, listen and understand. As we’ve already discussed, there’s no one homogenous ‘Black Community’. Black communities in Manchester will have a very different make-up and face very different challenges to Black communities in London.

If you actually want to make a difference, rather than simply ticking off a box for your annual review, your actions need to be tailored and bespoke to every location you operate from.

The great thing about this approach is that whilst there’s a lot of upfront work, you’ll create a playbook of trusted interventions that you can reuse.

THREE

Stop looking at census figures. You wouldn’t make decisions based on ten year old data in any other part of HR, so why are you doing it here? Initial census figures from 2021 are due next March, and will no doubt result in frantic updates to internal representation targets.

So beware of trumpeting results against census figures this year. Instead, begin preparing for next year’s figures, and where you can begin to look at local figures for the areas you work in. Also consider that racial demographics aren’t uniform through age groups, and the working population is considerably more ethnically diverse than the population as a whole.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As HR leaders, we know sustainable change comes incrementally, not overnight. We make a small change, embed it, then build upon it – with an eye to the end goal.

Sir Keir Starmer was criticised for referring to Black Lives Matter as a moment, rather than a movement. But in reality it’s both. We should all hope the movement doesn’t need to take to the streets again, as that will probably come as the result of another Black person’s death. In that respect the Black Lives Matter protests we saw was a moment.

But we should also ensure that moment was a trigger. One we all use to do better. Has anything really changed? I don’t think we should expect end-results yet. But you should have begun taking actions.

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Policies & Procedures

The Culture Cycle – September 2021

Your organisational values determine the employees you attract and recruit.

Your employees determine the culture in your workplace.

Your workplace culture determines your organisational values.

Repeat.

Some say that leaders determine organisational culture. I disagree; even in organisations with the most toxic leadership you can imagine, it’s HR that shapes organisational culture. It’s HR who have the position, the authority and the obligation to challenge where others don’t.

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CHANGES AHEAD

Post pandemic working will bring forward big changes in organisational values and culture. David Solomon of Goldman Sachs was amongst the first to set their stall out.

“It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct” he said, referring to home working.  This is the CEO of an organisation whose junior bankers report ‘inhumane’ and ‘abusive’ working conditions including 105-hour weeks.

Of course, the Goldman Sachs leadership are entitled to build whatever culture they want. No-one’s suggesting they’ve done anything illegal; nobody would describe their junior bankers (whose year one salary is £79,000 before bonuses) as victims of modern slavery.

But the culture they’ve developed and the values they wear very publicly will attract a certain type of candidate. Highly driven, very able and almost certainly ruthless. All perfect qualities for an investment banker.

A quick look to history however shows that having a workforce entirely made up of aggressive, cut throat go-getters could be an issue for the banking sector. They create the sort of culture where Jérôme Kerviel was able to lose Société Générale €4.9 billion.

And this sort of problem isn’t solved by diversity initiatives either. The values – employee – culture cycle is cunningly impervious to such techniques. It’s completely possible to have a highly diverse (according to all the metrics) workforce who all hold the same values. Indeed, for a business like Goldman Sachs, they would neither attract nor recruit people without those values.

OVERCOMING RESISTANCE

As you might be able to tell, I’ve got the utmost sympathy for those who forge a HR career in this sector. But returning to my initial argument, HR can and should still influence the organisation’s culture.

In our Goldman Sachs example, we already know the organisational values being set by the leadership (regardless of whether this is done formally or informally). There’s nothing HR can do about that in the short term. But these values exist because they’re what the leaders believe drive the best results for the business.

You can challenge these with comparators. Not only from the same sector (UBS have just announced they’re adopting a hybrid working approach to become a more attractive employer) but also in other sectors; in our example, the industry that has replaced finance as both the world’s most valuable and vilified: big tech.

Use these comparators to build your case. Your main opponent is fear of the unknown, so you’ll need evidence to convert leaders to your point of view. Even outspoken organisational leaders don’t reach their position by being dogmatic in their views – they achieve their position by being flexible and adapting to new evidence as it arises. 

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

It’s not just the bottom line that matters, even for Goldman Sachs. Solomon’s words are aimed at customers, reassuring them that his bankers will be working non-stop to grow their investments.

But one just has to look at this spring’s ill-fated launch of the Super League to see how organisation’s arrogance can severely damage a brand. And numbers alone aren’t the only consideration for customers. Reputational damage emerges very quickly merely by association, driven by social media. Examples include the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which demands advertisers don’t deal with certain media partners.

That means both doing the right thing, and recognising that the ‘right thing’ is subject to change.

Get started:

Download the Question Set

WHERE TO BEGIN

There are a few things you can start thinking about today

ONE

Pick your battles. Every sector and industry has specific challenges, and some cultures and values are deeply embedded. Whilst the idealist in you may want to ‘correct’ things, ‘the blob’ will always resist… and usually win.

There are three parts in the culture cycle. Recruitment of employees is the area where HR can project its influence and start to produce change.

TWO

Celebrate victories. Changing the culture and values of an organisation is a process that will probably be completed by someone else well into the future; the important thing is you’ve made a difference.

Employee surveys are great indicators of change. Set yourself graduated milestones to celebrate. After all, culture change is a marathon not a sprint and regularly hitting milestones gives both you and the wider business cause to celebrate and evidence of your impact.

THREE

Formal rules can be changed. It’s the informal, unwritten ones that are inflexible. It’s a challenge that occurs often with diversity and inclusion, a specialism which is primarily concerned with culture change.

This is a problem for HR, who aren’t embedded in teams or functions and can’t see that large chunks of the organisation are following a completely different set of procedures. Often this disparity doesn’t show up until it reaches an employment tribunal, where it’ll be written off as the actions of a rogue individual.

That’s not true. It’s simply that the individual hasn’t realised when they needed to switch to the official rules.

Next steps:

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Health, Safety & Wellbeing

HR: Health Resources? – July 2021

If you asked any HR professional at the beginning of 2020:
 
“How do you see your role changing in the next year?”,
 
None of them would have answered with:
 
“Protecting the employee population from a global pandemic.”
 
And yet…
 
HR has been the business area responsible for responding to most of the impact of COVID-19. We’ve been police, lawyers, firefighters, and counsellors.
 
Now, the unwinding of restrictions means HR can start focusing on business as usual. But it’d be wrong to think business as usual, will be business as before.

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HUMANS ARE THE H IN HR

Whilst May’s edition of Shaping Workplaces looked at the impact of the pandemic on working practices, in this one we’re looking at the impact on people.
 
Mental health has always been under-supported in the workplace, but it’s seeing a renewed focus as employers recognise their contribution to their employee’s ill-health.
 
Prior to the pandemic we’ve never thought ourselves responsible for illnesses sweeping the workplace. Equally, our health and safety has looked at accident prevention, and rarely the risks of sedentary lifestyles and job roles. Look at a call centre, for example, where workers are expected to remain seated at their phones outside of breaks (which are inevitably the legal minimum).
 
Could we also be about to see a wider change of attitudes to sickness in general? We’ve always been aware that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, but let’s be honest, we’ve never actually applied that to our sickness policies.

SNEEZY STEVEN

One change we might see is focusing on team illness levels, rather than individual sickness records.
 
Sure, Steven may have an unblemished attendance record, but he’s caused the other twenty members of his team to take 3 days absence each for flu.
 
That’s 60 sick days caused by Steven, and several deadlines missed. Should we really be giving him full marks at his annual review when it comes to attendance? Or should we be discussing his poor attitude to his colleague’s wellbeing?
 
After all, if this occured during the pandemic, Steven’s approach to sickness could have closed down the entire site!
 
But did Steven feel he needed to come in or face penalties? Would he not have been paid for the first three days of sickness? Would he have been unable to survive on statutory sick pay?
 
Many of our policies are so focused on tackling absence at an individual level that they actually cause it on a larger scale. These policies have been caught out by covid – but you can be certain many employers are expecting to reinstate them as soon as they can.

PREVENTING PRESENTEEISM

In a way, certainly for most of my career, we’ve been lucky. We’ve been able to encourage, incentivise and demand presenteeism, and our employees have responded with approval. But that’s changed. In just a year we’ve gone from complaining about having to pick up the workload of an absent colleague to glaring suspiciously at anyone with mild hayfever.
 
And with half an eye on a future pandemic, there’s no way we can go back to policies that encourage people to come in when sick. Which means two things. We need to make sure people aren’t infecting others. And we also need to make sure they’re not getting sick in the first place.
 
Even before the coronavirus pandemic far too many of us neglected our mental and physical health. Our working styles have been causing ill health, in the knowledge that health systems will fix the damage.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR HEALTH?

I can see two reasons why employers are running out of time to change their ways. 
 
The first is the ability of our health systems to deal with career affecting, but not life threatening, illnesses. The NHS, for example, has an elective treatment waiting list of over 5 million operations. Employers simply won’t be able to rely on employees being fixed up and returned to the workforce. We’re looking at long-term restricted duties, an increase in reasonable adjustments and an increase in absences.
 
The second reason is lack of mental health support. Mental health was underfunded before the pandemic, and some of the mental health implications of both the pandemic and lockdowns are terrifying.
 
You may have already seen the new report ‘Out of the Woods?’ from Resolution Foundation. Just one of its shocking finding was that fewer than half of respondents aged under 25 describe their mental health as ‘good’.
 
And we already know that mental health provision through the NHS is severely limited. Set against a backdrop of monumental waiting lists, we really can’t expect public services to deal with all of the impact.
 
Now, our employees have always had failing bodies and struggling minds. They are, after all, humans. But we’re about to enter a world where if the employer needs a fit and healthy workforce, they’ll need to bloody well make it happen themselves.
 
So expect to see increased focus on employee benefits like gym membership and workplace classes to improve baseline health; private healthcare to fix employees faster; access to on-demand mental health support.

Our Partner 

pirkx provide a totally flexible, affordable benefits programme with no minimum contract terms. You can cancel at any time in line with the subscription you’ve taken: monthly, quarterly, or annually.

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GETTING READY

There’re a few things you can get started with immediately.

ONE 

Review your employee benefits package. Private healthcare and support for healthy lifestyles is hugely desirable in a world where NHS support is more limited than we’re used to. It’ll also improve retention, reduce absences and showcase your employer brand.

TWO 

Identify mental health weak spots. We can target and prioritise our efforts on those working in areas most at risk of suffering poor mental health. Mental health first aiders, awareness campaigns and toolkits are all low-cost, high-impact and uncontroversial initiatives that everyone in your organisation can get behind.

THREE

 Go back over all your wellbeing policies to identify discriminatory practices. Be devil’s advocate and approach every line as the most vexatious litigant you can imagine. Most wellbeing policies are written with the best of intentions – you’re encouraging employees to be healthier and happier. But it’s easy to exclude employees with different abilities or needs.
 
Most of the time the solution is as simple as developing an alternative with the same outcome or reward.

Next Steps

Our Health and Wellbeing guidance provides practical advice for line managers and HR when either implementing a new or revising an existing Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

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