HR: the new Labour?

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Is HR the Labour Party of the British workplace?

Divided and self-defeating; full of factions and in-fighting; losing a clear narrative; losing sight of the big picture; leaving people uncertain as to who they are and what they’re for.

You don’t have to make many leaps to see the parallels.

Is HR, as Labour was claimed to be last week, in a “terrible, terrible mess“?

You’d be forgiven for thinking so, particularly as some of the ‘only-just landed for many’ HR methodologies of the last decade (what we might call the cornerstones of ‘new labour/HR’ practice) have been sent down the river this autumn – namely, the Performance Appraisal at Accenture, and the Engagement Survey at KPMG.

Robert Bolton, Lead Partner of the HR Transformation Centre of Excellence at KPMG, makes some compelling points about the trouble with engagement surveys – and the trouble with HR in general, painting a picture of fad-grabbing trend setters who, as they keep changing the language of what they do, repeatedly defeat their message and, as a result, any sense of their meaning or worth (especially to those sat around the top table).

Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, seemed equally as exasperated by the state of play for HR at this year’s Changeboard Future Talent Conference – stating how HR had to make its role clearer to the C-suite in order to be heard.

There are many others I could cite, lamenting the state and fate of HR in the contemporary workplace (but, in the interests of brevity, I won’t).

And you can’t really blame the C-suite, or anyone else in any organisation, for being a little uncertain as to the role of HR when HR itself is so often uncertain. Too often it’s too disparate – split as departments, with split, over-lapping responsibilities (and plenty of gaps to fall into or exploit), and comprised of split churches – the human, the data, the legal, the pipeline, the payroll, the performance, the brand, the culture; the need to pro-act, the need to respond.

It’s all a bit confusing – and leads many to ask “What does HR actually do?”

Unfair, yes. But, if you can’t get your story straight, you can’t really blame anyone for not understanding you.

The engagement survey (that, interestingly, came into being around the same time as the New Labour project in the early 90s) has been a recurrent ‘fad’ for many organisations over the last decade. Throughout the time I’ve worked with them with numerous organisations, I’ve always advised assessing them with extreme caution and have long questioned the effectiveness of engagement data on a number of levels.

My first caution is the most obvious one – the notion of truth itself.

Just how honest are people prepared to be? No matter how much the confidential nature may be stressed, we all know anything we complete online can be traced back to the computer or email account we access it from – there’s not even any point going to an Internet Cafe to complete it (if you can find one, this is).

So let’s say a proportion might be tempted to sugar-coat it. A proportion might also think, well, you asked, so I’m gonna let you have it.

Either way, a slightly skewed response.

Of course, either way, that also depends on the kinds of questions people are being asked in the first place. There are huge limits to how the questions are framed, and, most of the time, little nuance in how you can answer, resulting in broad brushstrokes that don’t allow you to focus in on any finer details. It’s very easy to manipulate the data that way – and, most of the time, people are looking to accentuate the positive (and sweep any alarming negatives away).

Big mistake. Huge.

For me, gloomy soul I might be, but, on analysing any engagement data, I want to (quickly) know all the happy stuff, but I also really want to know (and dwell on) what’s getting in the way of happy.

That’s where action has to come from, essentially.

Action is, of course, the biggest challenge to any engagement survey. It’s one thing doing one. Something else to report thoroughly and honestly on the findings; and a whole other ball game making the culturally or operationally-driven actions that will result in tangible change.

You’re not even through then. If you’re to do it well, you then need to do both the ‘You said, we did’ communications – and, even more importantly, the ‘You said, and this is why we didn’t’ comms too.

Even then, it’s only a part of the picture. It can’t be the everything. The only thing. And you can’t just measure engagement with people or purpose either – you have to have people engaged with task too. I agree with the premise in Agnes King’s article that performance drives engagement – loving what you do first is essential, then loving who you do it with; for so many people, the people they do it with are the ‘compensation’ for the task itself – and that’s not the way to a fulfilling working life.

It’s in the intersection, of engagement with people and purpose, of engagement with task, where you have highly engaged and productive people, understanding what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, who they’re doing it for – and understanding each other, enabling them to work well together.

You only get this from constant dialogue, in organisations that listen and act on a daily basis. You shouldn’t need a survey to tell you if people are engaged and productive – everyone, and anyone, should be able to feel it when they come into contact with you; see it in action between your people in how they work together.

I’ve been in organisations where it is tangible, where pride and purpose and the clear desire in every individual to be really great at what they do, to do it well and do it with good grace, is present everywhere. These places are rare – increasingly, depressingly, rarer.

We keep breaking things up rather than putting things together.

(We’re back to the Labour party.)

I would urge, though, to resist the temptation to throw out the engagement survey altogether (particularly if you haven’t got the resources or scale of a KPMG). For an SME, indeed, for any business, it can be a useful starting point, the opener, not the answer, to a conversation.

Having digested hundreds of them, I must say the free text is always very enlightening and people (okay, it might just be one or two vocal, brave or foolish souls) really don’t hold back (whether they think they’re traceable or not).

The more bespoke the survey the better would also be my advice, and to work very closely with your survey provider to define the right brief to help with what you’re really trying to diagnose. I’d also advise (well, I would do, wouldn’t I?) always following this with focus groups conducted by an outsider (someone like me even!) – who is used to interpreting the data and honing in on what needs further investigation – and can ask the difficult questions without anyone getting too uncomfortable.

It’s amazing. I’d say, almost universally, a universal picture always emerges – and, very often, the tangled tendrils of tension that get in the way of engagement and productivity are felt by all, seen by all, and therefore ripe for cutting away.

Engagement isn’t the answer to productivity – but it is the answer to how people feel about working for you – or the start of an answer at least. That’s valuable. That’s a measure of whether your equity as an employer brand is high or low.

To diagnose productivity, I think you have to balance this up with deep insight around people’s tasks and interactions, the most important being the one with the line manager (data tells us over and over, people join organisations and leave managers).

Good management is the key to happy, productive people. It is that simple. If HR banged that drum alone, and modelled it, they might convince the C-suite to find a new working rhythm that really could get the best out of people. That might put the human back in HR – and put everyone in a higher gear.

Just like Labour, if HR doesn’t get its act together, it risks having no voice at the table at all.

That would be a terrible thing.

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