Fixer: Is ‘cosy’ deal with ex-staff fair?

28 Jun 2017 By PM Editorial

PM's Fixer Samantha Sales tackles readers' big issues

Our head of HR left the business – a specialist software firm – last year to join an employee engagement consultancy. Now, our HR director has announced that this consultancy will be starting a major project for us, led by our former colleague. I asked whether the work would be tendered out to other suppliers and was told that was ‘not required’. It all sounds a bit too cosy to me, but is it actually wrong?

The idea of a formal tendering process for all services is more common in the public sector, but isn’t normally necessary in private companies. Of course, it depends on the scale of the work and the nature of the business – some publicly listed firms have strict rules on procurement, for example – but tendering can be expensive and doesn’t necessarily mean you get a better result (you only have to reflect on some public service contracts many of us experience).

The type of arrangement you’re describing goes on a lot, and I can understand the logic. This person is a known quantity who understands the business and can get to grips with the issue immediately.

But where I share your concern is in the potential lack of objectivity they will bring to proceedings. And whether they are the right fit or not, I can’t see any harm in sounding out other suppliers – it might give your HR director a different perspective on the problem and it will certainly help the company benchmark the price it’s paying.

It might be too late to stop this deal going through, but suggesting informal conversations with other engagement consultancies or experts could still be valuable. At the very least, it will help your HR team work out what success looks like and give you some good connections. From my experience, many consultancies are more than happy to help you reflect on a problem, knowing it is all about building relationships for the future. 

Equally important is how this individual is managed – the project needs to be run as a supplier relationship rather than anything cosier. And if part of your objection is that you feel someone internally (possibly you) should be looking after the project, you should raise your concerns around that aspect of the deal rather than your former colleague’s comeback.

Worried by his wandering hands

One of our managers is quite a character, and likes being tactile in the office. This generally involves an arm around the shoulder or a playful massage. He seems to be hands-on with both genders and nobody has yet made a complaint, but it has been remarked on to me several times and I feel as HR leader I should act before it does become an issue. I don’t doubt he is well-intentioned, and I don’t want to play the bad guy. So how do I broach the subject?

I’ve had a similar situation with a senior manager in a client company who was extremely tactile with people (of both sexes) in the office. Some people liked it, some didn’t. But it reached a point where I felt I had to ask him to be careful who he locked in his embrace.

 At first, he was dismissive and told me: ‘That’s just the sort of person I am – everyone likes a hug.’ But I persuaded him that not everyone felt the same way and that he needed to consider other people’s reactions rather than just his perspective.

Today, it’s less of an issue for him, but having been there I understand what a difficult position you’re in. It’s easy to overreact to a bit of harmless hugging but, equally, if you don’t act and his behaviour does spill into something more serious (or becomes part of a complaint against the firm) people will question why you didn’t act. Those who don’t like to be touched at work often find it hard to speak up, but the fact that it’s been remarked on is a sign it’s reaching critical mass.

I wouldn’t tell him others have commented on his behaviour, but I would raise the topic gently, saying: ‘I know you want to be warm with people and I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I think you should be aware of how people might react when you do this.’

Ask him to consider whether people play along with his hugs or are actually recoiling. He might not realise how often he is doing it – but hopefully he will take your comments in the right spirit. We all know that how we each build relationships is different: this is just another aspect in the complexity of human behaviour.

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