Toxic workplaces, talking about race, is AI better at HR than you? Key takeaways from day one of the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition

As anxieties build over the future of work, delegates were told they have a crucial role to play in managing people and organisational transformation

Credit: Andrew Ferraro

Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, said there has never been a more important time for the people profession.

Speaking at the opening day of the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester, he said: “I know people have played buzzword bingo with me in the past when I’ve said things like ‘there’s never been a more important time for our profession’ and I’ve been saying it since the start of this job just over 10 years ago. But I profoundly believe it.”

There was an underlying uncertainty in the air as the unknown consequences of AI and global shocks dominated talks.

But despite the challenges that workplaces face, it was also highlighted as an opportunity for HR to show leadership and ensure that people are put at the forefront of decision making. 

Here are five takeaways from day one:

1. Toxic workplace cultures kill people 

During the session ‘How can leaders deal with toxic workplace culture?’, author Susan Hetrick said it “kills” people. “It wrecks the lives and wellbeing of those individuals who are affected and it damages that reputation,” she said, adding that “toxic cultures do not come overnight”. 

Deviance can become normalised, she said, stressing that HR needed to support staff to speak up, take whistleblowing seriously and leave no ambiguity in the expectations of behaviour from employees. 

Hetrick outlined the way organisational cultures can slide into chaos, as “ambition to be the biggest, the fastest, the best creates pressure to deliver”.

She urged HR professionals to call out toxic leadership behaviours and be prepared to “hold a mirror” to individuals, no matter how senior they are, as one of the key enablers of toxicity is a narcissistic leader, emboldened by a senior team that chooses to look the other way.

In particularly drastic situations, she added, she had brought in actors to literally demonstrate unacceptable conversations to those who were guilty of them.

2. AI could replace HR – but only if you think HR is there to perform ‘back-office functions’

Cheese said in his opening speech that AI was the official acronym of the year, but it was also the acronym of the opening day at ACE. 

At a session entitled ‘Can AI do HR better than you?’, Natalie Sheils, chief people officer at Mosaic Group, warned that it could replace HR – depending on what your definition of HR is. She said if your understanding of HR is that it is merely there to perform back-office functions and admin, then "AI can do that". However, she said HR's influence stretched far beyond this.

“HR is strategic. It’s about helping the business grow,” said Sheils. “It’s about helping the business navigate being a dynamic organisation and having systems that help the organisation thrive as it navigates this era of change.

“So AI cannot do that better than us, but it can certainly free us up, open us up, unleash us so we can give the best that we can to our organisations.”

3. Evidence-based practice is just what we do in our everyday lives

Speaking during an Evidence Live Lab session, Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, said HR needed a more pragmatic, less intimidating formulation of evidence-based practice to work with than the one often presented to them. “When we [academics] present it to HR practitioners we’re not starting where they are,” he said. “The analogy is cookbooks. We’re attempting to present a Michelin-starred cookbook… when what we need is ‘Jamie’s five-ingredient, 30-minute meals’.” 

Briner pointed to the CIPD’s four sources of evidence (or lenses) and six ‘A’ steps of applying these (asking, acquiring, appraising, aggregating, applying and assessing) as a great place to start.

Also speaking during this session was Jackie Westerman, head of leadership development for the content division at the BBC. She said it was not just that HR professionals were being presented with a too complex way of approaching evidence-based thinking, but that the amount of data now available to them meant they found themselves “in this ultra-processed-food era of information”. 

She said: “It’s packaged in a really shiny way and we’re bombarded with it. But it’s how you use your critical insights to really understand that data coming through.”

4. Most people are still uncomfortable talking about race

In a session in which she shared some shocking instances of racism encountered by herself and others during their careers, Barbara Banda, leadership and executive development consultant and author of The Model Black, described how the biggest barrier to achieving better racial diversity, progression and inclusion was still many people’s inability to talk about race comfortably.

She explained how, after a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry and then in the business school world, she finally “came out” and “became ‘one of those blacks’ – you know, the ones that make you feel a bit uncomfortable and talk about race”. This was all spurred by her daughters entering the world of work and reporting managers’ inability to broach the topic.

“People don’t have the language, they’re worried about saying the wrong thing,” she said, adding that white people not seeing themselves “as having a race” contributed strongly to this sense of taboo.

Banda described the “invisible cultural practices” in every workplace that nonetheless dictate who gets to behave in what way (so “who is allowed to thump their fist on the table… who is allowed to wear a hoodie…”) and detailed the impact this has for Black senior leaders, including self silencing, squaring (someone making themselves seem more white) and softening (either of voice or intellect).

However, she was keen for people not to leave the session disheartened. “We’ve made really good progress, but there's more that we can do,” she said, recommending some key questions HR practitioners and leaders can ask themselves, including: what does whiteness mean in your organisation? What are some of the unwritten rules that exclude people who are not the majority? And how are we understanding the lived experiences of other people?

5. Take an intersectional approach to menopause in the workplace

“It’s not just a female thing,” said Vicki Bawa, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at BAE Systems. She highlighted that many transgender people will still experience menopause and that they needed to be included in the conversation.

Bawa also noted that a key part of her efforts at BAE Systems, a company with a male-dominated workforce, has been to better engage and educate men, many of whom may also be impacted by their partner’s experience.

She said many male employees wished they had known their partner was having this experience and said “maybe I can do something for my daughter; maybe I can do something for my sister”.

There is a lack of awareness and education surrounding menopause in many cultures, Bawa said. She shared her experience of trying to ask her mother for advice: “The conversation we had went along the lines of ‘one day you have your [period] and then you don’t, and you just get on with it’, and that was the end of the conversation.”

She added that if you’re an ethnic minority, you’re likely to hit the menopause earlier than if you’re caucasian white, perhaps in your 40s compared to your 50s, something many may not be aware of. “It is important to reach out to all our populations,” said Bawa.