Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Why @familyhrguru?

We were talking about Twitter names yesterday, as we were ‘educating’ a couple of colleagues about joining in with the fun. Some Probation Trusts have taken quite a uniform approach to names, whereas others have supported more organic growth – like ours – within reason. This led to one of the usual debates about the capacity in which one tweets, personal or professional, or a bit of both?

I was pondering on this with my boss, Sally Lewis (@CEOLewis), as my Twitter name is hardly linked to Probation, nor to my organisation. This means it doesn’t quite fit the convention suggested in Russell Webster’s excellent series of blogs on Twitter Etiquette either http://www.russellwebster.com/how-to-be-twitterfective-in-10-easy-steps/ I may have started #fitprobationstaff, but I’m not into yoga either. However, colleagues seem to think it uniquely identifies me – a bit like a CB radio handle? (Wow, that ages me!)

So why ‘familyhrguru’? Well if I was being thorough, and bearing in mind I use the term ‘guru’ ironically, it would be ‘family, friends, friends of friends and acquaintances HR guru’! Also, and importantly, I would only have been using it for about the last 2 years, yet I have been HR qualified for over 10 years and working as a manager of people for several years before that.

So what is so different about the last 2 years? Well, not my competence as I hope I am always learning and developing. There wasn’t an overnight change from family member, friend, friend of friend, or acquaintance into highly knowledgeable HR guru! Nor did this group of people I know turn into difficult, lazy or challenging employees …….. What changed was the economic climate.

What came with this economic situation was quite a number of people I know, or people who know someone I know, with job insecurity, problematic situations regarding their terms and conditions of employment, and in a couple of cases, people losing their jobs (for very little or spurious reasons) or redundancy not quite handed correctly. They know what job I do, and so more than ever before, I get approached out of work for my opinion or advice on things. In fact it has become quite an occupational hazard, not that I mind helping others!

There have always been fantastic managers, middling managers and downright awful managers. Equally there has always been a range of great and not so great employers. What worries me greatly is that the current economic situation - austerity, public sector job cuts, and slow growth in private sector jobs – will mean that this situation becomes more common. Not so great practice may become more prevalent as short cuts are sought by poor managers and less scrupulous employers in order to remove  ‘problems’. I hope I don’t, but expect that I will continue to be needed to advise and support my friends, family, friends of friends, and acquaintances.

So to conclude, where did this Twitter name come from?

When supporting one of my cousins with some of her concerns (she is still in work by the way) she said “You’re like our family HR guru.” So there it is. I was quite flattered and the term has stuck.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Blackberries – the humble fruit, not the phone.

I love metaphors. They can provide such vivid and easily understood descriptions. When it comes to creating a market for services traditionally provided by the public sector, metaphors abound. We often hear about ‘low hanging fruit’, ‘cherry picking’, ‘easy pickings’ etc. and usually in connection with a concern that those are the only services the market will be interested in.

I love the fruit metaphor, and over recent weeks have been thinking about a  comparison of a market for public services with the humble blackberry. I say the ‘humble’ blackberry deliberately because it is something we take for granted every autumn. They are simply there and free for us to pick. This means we take their availability for granted and don’t expect to have to pay or to fight too hard to find them. Imagine if they were all fenced in and we were charged by the kilo or very unusual weather prevented an annual crop… Imagine if some of the services we have grown up with and take for granted (such as the NHS, public safety and criminal justice, social care, free education etc.) were suddenly depleted or more difficult to access…

It’s not that simple of course and blackberries vary in their quality and ease of access, as I will describe below and leave you to draw your own conclusions:
  • The beautiful (and pricey) punnet in Waitrose. I don’t know about you, but I am always shocked that these are for sale in the autumn when you could go and pick some for free. However, they are always luscious looking and this is an easy and effortless option, if you can afford it.
  • The juicy, ripe berries at shoulder height. Easy to reach and often available in abundance. Gathering these gives you a feel good feeling – the fresh air, the quality time with the family to pick them, the free food, and the gorgeous fruit crumble for pudding etc. Could this be the way things should be (or used to be)?
  • The juicy, ripe berries just out of reach behind a tangle of thorns. Who is going to pick these? They are great once you reach them, but there is extra cost such as very scratched arms, snagged clothing or possibly even taking a ladder with you. (I won’t get into the attendant risk assessment required to avoid Health and Safety issues!)
  • The very hard to reach, high up berries, the small unwanted berries, the green un-ripened berries, the over-ripened squishy berries; in other words the sub standard berries or the non conforming berries. Imagine that your remit is to pick and find a way to use every single berry – what are you going to do to reach these and to make something with them once you do? What happens if nobody does? Some are dealt with in the way nature intended (bird food) but others wither on the vine (or briar.)
  • The juicy, ripe berries near the ground. We always instructed our children not to pick these ‘in case a dog has weed on them’. So you could call these the spoiled goods, or even the risky goods. The chances of them being tainted with canine urine is probably quite remote, but would you want to take the risk? If you did, and things went wrong – what then? Who would be responsible for putting things right?
I could continue to develop this metaphor, but I’ll leave it here and hope that it has generated some interesting thoughts. This autumn, the home-made blackberry and apple crumble with West Country clotted cream is on me!

Post Script, 21 September, 2014

I've been out picking blackberries today and reflecting on this, my most read blog. The metaphor continues:

  • Many of the juiciest looking ones were very high up and I could not reach them on my own, but wondered if this would be possible with integrated partnership working? 
  • Some had not been picked and were starting to ferment and go mouldy. These won't be any good to any part of the food (provision) chain.
  • A lot of the blackberry bushes were well protected by nettles and other prickly, stinging and thorny briars. Presumably nature has put these together for a reason.
  • This brings me to the whole system. In addition to the blackberry bushes, the briars, nettles etc, there was an amazing array of insect life including dragon flies, bees, spiders etc. and the rather less attractive horseflies (I have probably been bitten - will find out tomorrow). 
These blackberries are clearly part of a very well balanced eco system, that has developed over hundreds of years. I like to think that humans taking just what they need and no more, are part of this whole system. The fruit is definitely set to outlive its technological namesake.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Easier hiring and firing?

It’s a while since I last blogged. Inspiration has been slow to come, but this week, I have been following closely the comments and thoughts around on Beecroft’s ideas for making in easier to hire and fire staff and Employment Tribunal (ET) reform. You would think that as a practicing HR Director whose role is quite ‘hands on’ a lot of the time, I would be over the moon that it is now going to be more difficult for an employee to bring an ET claim (and if Beecroft’s recommendations were implemented, even more so). My job and that of my team could become easier! Even better, we are in the public sector, where it is rarely possible to ‘pay someone off’ or compromise someone out without jumping through a lot of Treasury hoops to show value for the taxpayer! This means we have to follow process very carefully and closely whenever we are dealing with ‘employee relations’ cases. Things can get protracted…

But no, I am not filled with joy. Far from it. I tweeted early last week that there is a difference between making it easier to ‘hire and fire’ someone and making it easier to ‘fire’ someone.  A number of people far more eminent than me have already blogged or tweeted about this. My view comes from my day-to-day work and that of the teams I have led over the last few years and also from my observations of the culture and morale in various organisations.

Let’s start with hiring. Well, it’s not that difficult now (thanks to the economic climate) for many entry or mid level roles, and this has been the case for the last 3 years or so. Some delay and frustration comes from the length of time certain pre employment checks can take, such as CRB, but finding suitable staff is not otherwise hindered. How does easier firing help here?

Now onto what happens during employment.  This is the bit about organisational culture and the competence of line managers (one of my hobby horses). Notwithstanding the reams I could write about the critical nature of this, it is not rocket science to understand that creating a climate of fear and a ‘gung ho’ approach to dismissal is hardly going to motivate staff in a positive way! High performance can be achieved when staff are worried for their jobs, but not for a sustainable amount of time. Anyway, who wants their staff to perform just to spite them, or just until something better or more enjoyable comes along? Plus, if staff are easier to dispense with, what about high turnover and the inevitable impact on service quality? How does easier firing help here?

More on what happens during employment. I am concerned about the potential for situations where the employee and manager just don’t get on, or worse, where a poor/ underperforming/ stressed/ bullying/ misguided/ discriminatory/ inexperienced manager could use relaxed employment rights to dismiss staff too easily. See above about higher turnover and the effect on quality. Secondly, there is the Equality Act to consider – defending an ET case where there is a discrimination claim is not straightforward and losing could be costly! Ultimately there could be reputational damage as an employer and therefore as a provider of quality services. How does easier firing help here?

Finally, on to what happens when things aren’t going so well during the employment. Yes, I am talking about disciplinary, grievance or capability processes. This is where I really might be expected to get excited about easier firing. But no, I remain convinced that tackling any issue early and informally if possible and using simple, streamlined policies and procedures has to be the best option. It safeguards against the potential for dodgy line manager actions and gives a clear framework for all involved to follow. Substituting this with making it easier to fire staff could have the perverse result of destroying hard earned trust and co-operation with Trade Union colleagues, who could find themselves having to resort to delaying tactics, counter allegations or tenuous discrimination claims just to protect their member. How does easier firing help here?

To conclude, what I am supporting can mean that HR colleagues, management colleagues and I find ourselves gritting our teeth from time to time, but this is a small price to pay for fair and transparent processes that follow the principles of natural justice and protect the organisation.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

It's only a name badge

A few days ago, my Chief Executive and I had a very good-humoured debate with our Union colleagues about some of the issues that have been raised since we issued new name badges. These badges attach to your clothing magnetically and simply state your name and that of our organisation, with the logo. They are plain, smart and intended to be worn wherever there are others who may not know who you are e.g. when working from a different office, when greeting service users, when at external meetings, when working with colleagues from partner agencies etc. We all have two, in case one ends up in the washing machine!

The issues raised?
·      Service users may use a member of staff’s name to behave inappropriately and impinge on their private life such as finding them on Facebook. (There are several issues here: the need to use Facebook mindfully and set high privacy settings; the fact that many of us can be found via search engines anyway and that, as an employer, we set up personal safety plans on the rare occasion a member of staff is at possible risk from a service user.)
·      Some of the names are incorrectly spelled or are not the names individual members of staff prefer to be known by. (A joint responsibility for the employer to send the badge makers the right name list and for individual staff to keep their personal details, including preferred name, up to date on our HR system.)
·      Some staff just don’t like wearing badges. (Well, how annoying is it for us all when we have to deal with officials, or anyone in a service capacity, and have no idea who they are?)
·      We already have photo ID badges worn on lanyards or on waistband clips. (These are not always easy to see but can be asked for to verify who someone is at any time.)

But hang on a minute; are we all (including me) missing the point here? Back to the title of this blog –  ‘It’s only a name badge’.

We are working in a public sector service at a time of unprecedented uncertainty, tightening of belts, doing more for less etc. In Probation, we have been waiting months for the government to publish a potentially far-reaching review of the service. We have a lot to think about and to prepare for, and the circumstances are highly complex. We will need to develop skills to do different types of work e.g. commissioning services, making finely balanced decisions between collaboration with partners versus guarding our intellectual property, also defining clearly what our unique strategic assets are etc. 

Just thinking about all this is headache inducing at times. It will certainly need to be done carefully at the same time as delivering a high quality service with fewer resources available to do so, year on year. We may also feel threatened at times for our future roles, and one thing is clear, our future roles will have to evolve. Is it any wonder that something easy to grasp, such as some concerns about the new name badges, generate lively debate? It is a tangible issue, it is about identity and safety and everyone can understand it.

Our role as leaders, will be to make sure that we engage with all staff to help to make future ‘big picture’ issues we will be grappling with, as easy to grasp and debate as the name badge concerns.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Social Media - my HR perspective

I was recently reading again about the HR Manager who is claiming constructive dismissal after being disciplined for putting his CV on LinkedIn, stating that he was interested in ‘career opportunities’ and listing some achievements that had already been published in his company’s annual reports. There appear to be two distinct camps in the HR world – those who want to fully regulate and manage the use of social media by employees, and those who think it has grown organically already and cannot be regulated, but instead its opportunities should be recognised and welcomed.

In my organisation, we are developing a ‘social media policy’ although I am not fully convinced that we need one. We are planning to encourage all staff to have their say and to shape what we do through involvement in workshops to debate ‘social media’ at our imminent staff conferences.

So why am I not sure we need a ‘social media policy’? Well, I think that the issues that could arise are already covered in other HR policies or codes of conduct. I accept that there are differences with other forms of communication – the main ones being the speed of transmission, the size of the potential audience and the fact that once something is on line, it can be hard to erase (but can remain easy to find – sometimes years later.) Having said that, here are the issues as I see them.

1.     What is social media exactly? Well, I use some of the well known applications myself – Twitter obviously, Facebook and LinkedIn. I also use e mail, mobile phone messaging services and texting. There are also a number of applications that are completely alien to me – Foursquare, Digg, StumbleUpon, any virtual gaming worlds etc. My point is that there are so many that if any policy tried to identify them and differentiate from other more traditional forms of communication it would become out of date almost immediately (and incidentally, where does e mail sit here?)

2.     Poor or unprofessional behaviour or misconduct. Many people worry about bullying, harassment and bringing your employer into disrepute via social media. Accepting the note above about speed of transmission, why is this different when done over social media compared to any other form of communication? Whatever media is used, bullying, harassment, breaching confidentiality, insulting or slandering others, putting your own safety at risk etc. are all problematic from an employment perspective and most of them are potentially issues of misconduct.

3.    Protecting yourself, your safety and privacy. Clearly, there are many jobs where the post holders face the public or service users every day, and in many of these, they would be expected to uphold certain standards in their private lives as well as when on duty. Understanding privacy settings and knowing exactly what could be seen by anybody at all are absolutely critical. In most cases this is in order to maintain professional standards, but for some roles, it is important for safety as well – so nobody who you don’t want to, could gain access to your personal contact details. This could go into a ‘social media’ policy but I think it has an essential place in induction and ongoing support for personal safety and awareness.

4.    Using social media for private use at work. There is plenty of research now about how ‘young’ people use social media and would not be happy working somewhere where it is banned. I think this may apply to a number of us more ‘mature’ employees too! Again, I think all the issues are covered in existing conduct and disciplinary policies. It is all about reasonableness and when employees use social media. It is simply not possible to ban – for example most mobile phones can be used to access the internet wherever there is a signal. So if someone texts, or checks their status occasionally during the working day – say at lunchtime – I don’t think this is a problem. Excessive use timewise, or in a way that distracts the individual or colleagues from their work, is of course another matter – probably a disciplinary one. You get the gist!

5.    Using social media for work purposes. This is the exciting bit. In Probation we are on a roll now as more Trusts join Twitter. We are developing a vibrant and stimulating community and sharing ideas and news faster than ever before. Again, this needs to be done within certain parameters, with some focus and in a professional manner (albeit with some personality). I will enjoy my involvement with its ongoing development and look forward to learning from all our staff’s ideas.

To finish, I drafted this blog a couple of weeks ago. I delayed publishing it, as I had hoped to use a fabulous Social Media flowchart that did the rounds on Facebook a few months ago, but do not yet have permission from its author. However, I will end with a variation of the same theme. When deciding whether to post something on in the public domain, ask yourself “Would I be embarrassed if my parents/employers/potential employers/boss/colleagues/children (delete as appropriate) saw this?” If yes, do not post!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

All those public sector perks!

No doubt, following on from the outrage felt by most people about Hester’s bonus, bankers’ bonuses in general, the greed and lack of remorse of Jean-Claude Mas etc. etc. the media will soon turn our attention back to the undeserving public sector employee. After all, councils will be setting budgets soon; Council Tax for 2012/13 will be announced and, if it goes up at all, there will be an outcry about the cost of council workers, their gold-plated pension schemes etc. I’m bracing myself for the next onslaught.

The CIPD published its fourth annual survey of Employee Attitudes to Pay earlier in January, and key findings included the following:

“By sector, 51% of private sector employees have had a pay rise since the start of 2011, 45% did likewise in the voluntary sector, but just 24% of those in the public sector have received an increase.

Among those receiving a pay rise the average (median) increase was 2.5%
The proportion of employees who have been subject to a pay freeze has increased from 24% in 2008 to 48% in 2011. 

By sector, public sector employees (70%) are most likely to have seen their pay frozen in 2011, followed by those in the voluntary sector (48%) and the private sector (42%). In addition, 5% of employees saw their pay cut”.

Yes, ordinary employees across the board are receiving less, but public sector workers on average fared worse last year. That’s OK, you might think, they have loads of other benefits that compensate for pay freezes (or in the case of some councils, pay cuts.) This led me to compare benefits between the public and private sector and see if I could think of any benefit at all enjoyed exclusively by public sector employees. Before I give my conclusion, a disclaimer…

My experience is in the public sector, but I read widely about reward in other sectors and of course, know plenty of people who work for private employers – both large corporate employers and other employers of varying sizes, some of whom seem to offer the bare minimum they can get away with and stay legal. I know less about the voluntary or third sector, so am not including that in my comparison.

So, what benefits are exclusively enjoyed in the public sector, to the point where politicians and the media have no problem in denigrating us?

¨     Final salary pension schemes? No. Some still on offer in private sector, and many public sector final salary schemes closed to new entrants.
¨     Flexible working? No. All good employers employees offer this and appreciate the positive impact on morale. However, just as some roles in the private sector do not lend themselves to this, the same goes for the public sector.
¨     Job security? No. Just look at all the NHS redundancies made in 2011.
¨     Occupational sick pay, more generous holidays and maternity pay schemes? No. Most good employers run reasonable occupational schemes that offer more than the statutory minimum. OK, so some public sectors may not manage sickness absence as well as they could, but this has changed hugely in recent years, and yes, it is possible to be sacked in the pubic sector!
¨     Antisocial hours shift allowance? No. Also available elsewhere, but I concede less so in the private sector and this is in need of modernisation in the public sector.
I could add many more, but the above examples appear to be cited the most by our critics.

I compiled a long list of other benefits, and guess what? I think I may have found some that are exclusively enjoyed by some in the private sector! Usually, this is when times are good, and that’s the trouble, public sector pay and conditions are relatively stable so they appear ‘generous’ in austere times. Here’s my list of benefits most public sector employees can only dream about:

¨     Share options
¨     Profit sharing schemes
¨     First class travel (this may occur in the higher echelons, but the Chief Executives I know in the    public sector travel standard class.)
¨     Private healthcare
¨     Fully paid or subsidised Christmas or other celebratory parties
¨     Conferences abroad (with treats thrown in for partners)

My appeal to the media and others is for balance and fairness. Public sector employees do a wonderful job on the whole and often have to cope with highly complex, unpleasant or distressing situations. Please stop this negativity.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Basic needs, security needs and the ‘back office’.

As promised, here is my blog on why I never use the term ‘back office.’ I prefer the term ‘essential corporate support’, and will say why, but first of all:

I think ‘front-line’ staff in the public sector are invaluable. Many of them do jobs that shape, support and influence society, but with little recognition and currently, lots of government and media derision or ill-thought through pontification on how they could better do their jobs. However, many other staff behind the scenes work in public services for strongly vocational reasons and have a very high public sector ethos. They are giving of their skills to ‘make a difference’ to use a very overused phrase. However, it is predicted by the CIPD’s chief economic adviser that public sector employment will fall by 30,000 per quarter this year. Worrying. Losing ‘front line’ professionals is terrible news for members of society who depend on them (but that is not the focus of this blog.)

Hang on, I’m not too keen on ‘front line’ either as it implies there is a war going on in the public sector… or about the public sector? Maybe ‘service user/customer/client facing/delivery’ roles or even ‘professionals’? Of course, many essential corporate support staff are also qualified professionals, so this is a debate for another day! It does however, support my argument about valuing them equally, and not lumping them together into an anonymous, boring and dispensable-with group called the ‘back office.’

Back to the predicted continued reductions in public sector employment. Could these be these superfluous, paper-pushing roles never needed in the first place? Are they ‘office’ and ‘delivery’ roles (other terms we could use) that will lead to reduced services? Are these roles that are being outsourced to save money, so some of them will still exist but become private sector? All of this has been going on, although I would argue nowhere near as many roles in the first category as the public is led to believe.

So, why do I prefer the term ‘essential corporate support’? Well, as this blog’s title hints, I have been thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and why high quality corporate services make sure that the pyramid’s foundation levels are secure. Basic needs include air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep etc. The next level, safety needs, includes security, order and stability such as steady employment. By essential corporate support, I mean such services as HR, Finance, IT, Performance Analysis, Risk Management, Administration etc. Without those, or with an inadequate level of those services, most ‘service delivery’ staff could not do their jobs effectively.

As it is the service I know the most about, I will take HR as an example. First of all, is being paid on time and correctly a basic need or a safety need? You could argue either or both. Secondly, if one month someone is paid incorrectly, what does this do for their safety needs? I would argue that in such cases it is imperative that they can get hold of someone who knows the organisation, the terms and conditions in operation, and is able to explain what has happened, or better still, make sure errors don’t happen in the first place. The idea of having to contact a call centre operated by an outsourced contractor, and speak to someone not authorised to use their discretion, when feeling anxious about, say an underpayment on your salary, is not attractive. If you don’t get an understandable response, the anxiety, upset or annoyance felt can impact on your effectiveness (as your basic and safety needs are under threat.)

Making sure the data held about all employees is correct, always up to date, held confidentially and then used correctly to ensure salaries are paid takes more work by essential corporate support than many people realise. Not doing this properly, or cutting corners by getting this on the cheap, or cutting back on the ‘back office’ too harshly can end up costing more, when you factor in the time and energy taken to rectify problems – often by more senior (and higher paid) people or by individuals who should be out there delivering the ‘front line’ services.

You can apply the same argument to advising on annual leave, sickness absence, training, professional development, job design, recruitment, terms and conditions, dealing with conduct or capability issues, advising what to do if someone feels bullied etc. The list could go on, but I hope you get the picture. If these activities are not done effectively by essential corporate support, who understand and believe in the organisation, namely HR in this example, what happens? Nothing? Poor service? Disjointed services? Low morale? Whichever of these, employees’ basic and safety needs become increasingly unmet.  

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Which theory describes public sector workers?

Media propaganda about public sector workers not knowing the meaning of real work and counting time until they receive their ‘gold-plated pensions’ has reminded me of McGregor’s theory X and theory Y. This theory is one of the basics of management theory and was originally proposed in his book 'The Human Side Of Enterprise', published 52 years ago. I can’t recall, when learning about this theory, ever noticing the name of the book. I do however find it quite appropriate when, in Probation, we are embracing the commercial approach. In other words, we are encouraging our staff to be enterprising and innovative.

This is against a backdrop of poor public perception of public sector workers, perpetuated by the government and the media. Added to this, we have to demonstrate our value and worth and why we can deliver better services than most of our private sector (potential) competitors in an environment full of rules and restrictions, many of which do not apply to the private sector. Sounds to me like rules and a reputation to match in line with theory X. Just to remind us:

Workforce according to theory X:
Lazy and work shy
Need to be directed
Only work for fear of punishment
Need punitive and restrictive supervision

Workforce according to theory Y:
Find the desire to work natural
Take pride in their work
Accept and/or seek responsibility
Use imagination and creativity
Can be trusted.

I could dissect each of the above statements, but what I want to say is as follows. In my experience most of the colleagues I have worked with, and the workforces in the organisations I have known well (and currently) behave like theory Y and respond best to theory Y leadership. Most public sector workers have a strong sense of vocation, whether they work in service user facing roles or in essential corporate support – I will never use the belittling phrase ‘back office’. (A topic for a future blog.)

Of course, there is theory X and theory Y leadership and workforce behaviour everywhere. Leadership, business strategy and organisational processes affect behaviour and performance, not whether it is a public or private sector organisation. However, I firmly believe that theory Y based behaviour towards public sector organisations and their workers by those in power and the media would be the most positive way forward. It would certainly inspire us to use our natural creativity to find solutions in a positive way when we have an imperative to make less go further.