No ESG means no talent, strained relations between HR and managers, sharpening the saw – key CIPD conference takeaways

Freight trains, saws and flags featured during a thought-provoking collection of talks and panels on the second day of the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition

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Relations between HR and managers ‘under strain’

The key to navigating conflict in HR practice is building a “high trust relationship between HR and line managers”, says Richard Saundry, principal research fellow at the University of Westminster. “But this relationship is increasingly under strain,” he adds. “Inadequate resourcing in HR teams and of managers; increased expectations on and workload of line managers; and increasing distance between HR and managers – both geographical and expertise.” Bridging those gaps and developing trust is essential for better workplace cultures, the Evidence Lab: navigating dilemmas and conflict in HR practice panel concluded.

HR must ‘sharpen the saw’ to tackle conflict

“The notion of conflict in the workplace has evolved over the years,” says Aparna Gonibeed, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Speaking at the same Evidence Lab panel, she said it used to about managing general disagreements, but today it is a “key strategic issue” as HR practitioners deal with sexual harassment and bullying, etc. These all require managing on a day-to-day basis, she adds. Paul Latreille, head of work, employment and organisations subject group at the University of Sheffield, calls for HR to “sharpen the saw” and implement “conflict management systems” – rather than one-off training sessions – which incorporate mediation techniques and line manager development.

No ESG = no talent

“The freight train has started and we all need to hop on.” So says Tina Warner-Keogh, co-founder of gin producer Warners Distillery, talking about the growing importance of the ESG (environment, social and governance) agenda to businesses today. Speaking at Leading the way - how to make everyone care about ESG, she said: “The biggest companies in the grocery space are requiring their suppliers to have these credentials and choosing suppliers based on this. You cannot afford to not do it because otherwise customers will not be buying from you in a year or two’s time. It’s only a matter of time,” she added. 

Joanne Tildesley, head of people, said that the company’s ethical mission around ‘farm-grown spirits made in harmony with nature’ often gets mentioned at interview stage: “When interviewing candidates, what interested them about the business is frequently the ESG agenda. So if we don’t put ESG on the agenda we won’t have the talent.”

Performance management can transform

Performance management inevitably sounds like a negative thing, said Tim Craddock, eastern region HR director at Network Rail. But done properly, with appropriate expectations set and employees encouraged, supported and held to account for their performance, it can be transformational. Craddock told delegates attending Striking the balance between performance management and talent development how Network Rail had invested in and thought carefully about performance management in recent years, avoiding the “crude categorisation” of labelling individuals as high potential and instead focusing on raising performance across the board. “The most critical thing is the attitude and approach you take,” he said. “It should all be part of a continuum and a conversation.”

Make AI an HR priority on Monday 

In a session on the appropriate approach to AI and automation, Rob McCargow, impact leader at Pwc, said AI is a people, cultural and society issue, not just a technological one. He said HR professionals must "plant the flags right in the middle of the conversation," emphasising that if they are not focusing on it today, they should put AI and automation at the top of the to-do list on Monday. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to effectively reinvent work for better, good work, and we risk squandering that opportunity if we don’t design this in well, bottom up, and ensure that we ameliorate those risks,” he said, adding that if those guardrails are in place, “we have everyone as part of the discussion”.