Stop asking HR to solve all your problems, business leaders are told

CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition hears greater transparency is creating new problems for the people profession

An age of greater transparency and more demanding employees is creating a fresh set of challenges for HR professionals who are often asked to fix broken cultures in unreasonable circumstances, an expert panel has told this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

Speaking on the opening day of the event in Manchester, the assembled speakers said social media and societal expectations meant employees were increasingly willing to call out poor behaviour and toxic workplaces. But all too often, HR professionals were not being given the tools they needed to fix these problems, they said.

Trevor Phillips, the writer and broadcaster who now chairs recruiter Green Park, set the scene for this new paradigm by telling delegates he believed tools such as Glassdoor and other forms of social media had opened up businesses to greater scrutiny than ever before.

“It means people can see the inside of a company for the first time, so your internal culture has to match up to your external brand,” he said. “Most business leaders have not got to grips with the fact that the people who work for them want to be proud of where they work.” 

The UK did not experience anywhere near as many industrial relations as it once did, said Phillips, but instead what he called “low-level friction” caused problems inside businesses. “Business leaders are increasingly trying to pass that over to the people profession but some of these things are not solvable because they are to do with the culture of the business itself,” he added.

He gave the example of a business he later identified as Uber, where he had been asked to assess the internal culture by speaking to employees. It was “riven with disputes and low morale”, he said, but HR was simply told to make the issue better. “Of course, it all fell apart. You can’t chuck this stuff at the feet of HR and expect it to go away.”

Susan Clews, chief executive of Acas, agreed that what she called “disengagement” – which often manifested itself in areas such as increased sick leave, among other things – was a problem for UK businesses. She traced it back to poor management: “Organisations are often reluctant to say things aren’t quite right, but one you acknowledge that, you have the ability to move on and tackle the real problems,” she said.

“An employer’s reputation can be blown out of the water overnight by something on social media, and you can’t put a sticking plaster on that problem. We are seeing companies start to realise they cannot operate purely based on their bottom line. They are starting to look at employee stakeholders rather than just shareholders.”

Delegates heard that the civil service was attempting to tackle some of these issues through taking a more holistic and democratic approach to recruitment. Panellist Rupert McNeil, government chief people officer, announced a new initiative which would ensure strengths-based interviews were deployed across the civil service and key behaviours were identified for all roles alongside technical skills. For all senior appointments, he added, candidates would be interviewed by a panel of employees whose feedback would be vital in the process. 

“It’s about giving managers more power to use their judgement in an informed way,” said McNeil. “You’re requiring hiring managers to be more thoughtful about what they are looking for. You can get the recruitment criteria right, but managers have to be competent enough to do selection. Because as you give people more powerful recruitment tools, they have to be able to use them properly.”

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese opened the conference by acknowledging employees were asking for more from their businesses, a concept which was being encouraged by regulation such as gender pay gap reporting. He said the CIPD was dedicated to helping the profession rise to these challenges, but also said it was vital to begin a discussion in earnest about embedding the right sort of skills in schools and universities that would help build the workforce of tomorrow.

“Regardless of the jobs of the future, what are the skills we all need? They are the fundamental skills of resilience, critical thinking, emotional intelligence… we know we need them but we don’t have the ability to define them,” said Cheese.

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