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Employee engagement efforts are failing to tackle cultures of harassment, CIPD conference hears

25 Jan 2018 By Emily Burt

Why a broader understanding of what it means to be engaged at work is required to tackle poor leadership and bullying

The ongoing crisis around toxic work cultures and systemic sexual harassment is an opportunity for HR professionals to fundamentally reshape their ideas of engagement, the CIPD Employee Engagement Conference heard on Wednesday (24 January). 

Employers are missing the chance to use engagement to prevent organisational failure and other catastrophic events, CIPD head of engagement and London David D’Souza told delegates. 

When he asked how many attendees included questions concerning sexual harassment in their engagement surveys, only one person raised their hand. However, there was unanimous agreement among delegates that harassment existed within their organisations. 

“There’s a clear mismatch here, and it has everything to do with organisational culture and engagement,” D’Souza said. “As a profession we need to start thinking of engagement as a broader concept. Ask yourselves: when people come into work, are they worse human beings than they were before? That is at the heart of engagement, and getting it right begins with walking towards the things that are wrong.” 

Laura Palmer, director of HR at south coast law firm Stephens Scown, used her own employee engagement programme to illustrate the ways small changes can bring about big differences in attitude, as she described driving engagement through collaboration using “bottom up” communication.  

Among a series of effective initiatives at the firm, the creation of an internal ‘women in law’ network had meant that female employees, largely underrepresented at senior level, felt they were more likely to be heard. 

Women were given the opportunity to come up with initiatives for greater organisational equality – such as producing a workplace maternity policy. 

However, implementing significant change can be an uphill battle, particularly without leadership buy-in, D’Souza warned. “If there’s a bully, a harasser or a poor leader in your organisation, you tackle that first because, while the concept of engagement can sometimes be superficial, employee experience within the organisation runs a lot deeper.” 

Elsewhere at the conference, Andy Hermiston, deputy chief fire officer at Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service (GFRS) – which operates in a sector that has suffered deep cuts – described significant changes to the composition of his staffing body after addressing a culture of poor organisational management. 

“In 2014, we ran on a very militaristic and transactional management structure,” he told delegates. “We had poor cultures around organisational development and decision-making, and were being led by commanders, not managers. There were no people management skills, and we were not delivering on public expectations as a result.” 

Controversially, the implementation of an aggressive programme of change led by an independent cultural audit saw a 33 per cent cull in GFRS’s senior managers. Early retirements increased 700 per cent. The number of disciplinary dismissals also went up initially, all of which Hermiston described as “necessary steps” to tackle the organisation’s “cultural stagnation”. 

“We faced a lot of strong resistance to strategy and low morale among the top team and members of staff, but demanding discipline is part of engendering change,” he said. “It was evident people did not have the skills to manage through the changes that were yet to come, so our programme of change needed to be high impact. We wanted to cause a shock.” 

HR professionals must be prepared to take bold steps if they hope to engage with the significant changes facing the British economy, conference chair Cathy Brown warned. 

“We are seeing escalating change in so many areas, and it is having an impact on the way we operate. Of course, there’s the looming element of Brexit, but this is just another symptom of broader changes in tech, talent and society,” Brown said. 

Speaking of times of crises, she said “navigating through those periods of change is not just about finding new ways of just keeping up, but making sure we adapt, understand and accommodate that change without making our behaviours at work worse”. 

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