The Inhuman Side of Human Resources

“So the plan is to put that nurse at risk and possibly make her redundant? Who’s going to tell her? It’s alright for you in HR, but I know her really well and she’s going to be really upset with this.   So what support are YOU going to give her?”

….and so went the conversation earlier today when I met an HR non-believer – you know the type  “I don’t like HR, I don’t trust HR”

I smiled and gave my usual response…..outlining all the support mechanisms that have been put in place, including the support that the line manager (the HR non-believer) would be providing.

But the point is that my HR non-believer thinks that HR professionals don’t care.  That we don’t have empathy for the staff who are significantly affected by the current round of cost pressures;  or the staff who have submitted grievances because they have been bullied & harassed;  or the many other unpleasant and distressing scenarios faced by staff.

It’s a theme I’ve been thinking about for a while…. ever since I read Redundant Public Servant’s post on language in letters written by HR professionals – such as  “at risk” letters.

The other weekend I discussed with @pinkwizard_uk how difficult it can be both emotionally and mentally dealing with a heavy workload of employee relations cases.  And just yesterday I was chatting with a member of my local BNI chapter and he asked me how did I cope dealing with “depressing” issues all the time?

The content of our work can make us feel depressed, we experience feelings of despair and sometimes we will want to cry.  But we have to pick ourselves up and find a way through it.  And for that reason, many HR professionals develop survival techniques.

We have to learn how to distance ourselves for our sanity;  we become numb due to the level of emotionally difficult situations we face;   we learn that the best way to rectify a bad situation isn’t to fire-fight on a case-by-case basis, but to change things at a corporate level.

So, it’s not that we don’t care: we do.  We are just trying to manage our own mental health whilst trying to ensure that we meeting  legislative requirements and not compromising our organisation in any way.

Ever since the new year I have made a conscious effort to ensure that there is a person-centred approach to my HR practice.  I try to understand the perspective of the employee and work with my Trade Union colleagues where I can to ensure that the approach and direction is sensitive, yet aligned to business needs.   Without doubt, it’s a balancing act, but it’s important to get that balance right.

But this issue isn’t just an HR one:  A few months ago I drafted a letter for a manager.  We were closing down a particularly distressing investigation into bullying and harassment.  I gave the manager a  “standard” letter and then started to discuss with him what could be added to personalise it, for example to acknowledge the difficulties that had been faced by the individual member of staff.   The manager didn’t want to add anything personal. He stuck to the template and did not deviate from it in any way, despite my reasoned arguments to the contrary.

A couple of weeks later I overheard the employee who received the letter say “It was a horrible letter….I bet HR wrote it and he just signed off”.  And whilst that’s true, it’s not the whole story.  But who’s going to believe me?

The F word

It’s recently been reported that a former interim chief executive of an NHS Trust was unfairly dismissed for sending a high volume of inappropriate emails, including personal ones, and not taking action when receiving inappropriate emails.

The Employment Tribunal felt that the emails were “largely innocent; at or below the level of seaside postcard humour”.  It went on to highlight that over a two year period, the emails contained 12 expletives and the f-word appeared six times.  As such, the Tribunal felt that this reflected language “in common everyday usage throughout industry, commerce, voluntary organisations and public authorities”.

I have never used the F word in an email.  And those who know me, know that I don’t shy from verbally expressing my anger by using expletives (but not quite as fluently as Gordon Ramsey).  But I think a line is crossed when it’s written in an email.

Equally, I have never seen an email in over a decade of working in or with the NHS that contained the F word.  And if I did, I’m not sure what I would do.

So I’m not so sure I agree with the Tribunal’s opinion that using the F word six times in two years in an email is a reflection of everyday usage in business.

Am I wrong?

The Impact of the Equality Act in the NHS

 We all know that the Equality Act 2010 received Royal Asset on 8 April 2010 (blah, blah) and that it replaced 9 major pieces of existing discrimination legislation (plus 100 other instruments) with one single Act and also introduced new law.  But what does it specially mean for NHS Trusts?

  1. We need to start using new language:  “protected characteristics” is the new phrase to represent the different diversity strands:   age, disability, gender reassignment, marital and civil partnership  status, pregnancy and maternity, race, colour, nationality, ethnic origin, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.                                  
  2. The Act harmonises the definitions associated with equality (ie: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment & victimisation).  Although it isn’t advisable, some HR departments include the different definitions in their policies.  Therefore, if you are one of these Trusts, you should review your policies – ideally taking out the section that provides the definitions, but otherwise updating them as appropriate.
  3. From next April, there’s a requirement to publish data relating to gender pay.  Whilst it may seem that Agenda for Change has already embedded equality into the system, it is worth taking a look at the average pay between men and women per pay banding.  You might get some interesting results!
  4. One of the most challenging areas will be to determine how best to implement the use of positive action in recruitment.  I think that this subject is so broad (and new) that a separate blog post should be dedicated to this.  But for now….spend time thinking about it and built it into your “Inclusion” action plan.
  5. In terms of Tribunals, there are two new points to consider.  The first is the new freedoms for Judges to make recommendations that will (apparently) benefit the wider workforce, not just the claimant, where the Tribunal makes a finding of unlawful discrimination.  Let’s hope that Judges are up to date on current thinking in relation to health-care management and clinical practice.  I envisage this area will be a minefield.
  6. And secondly,  The introduction of dual discrimination:  outlawing discrimination on the basis of two (and no more) protected characteristics (eg an asian woman can claim race and gender); This will make ET cases more interesting.

All Trusts need to keep a look out for the CEHR‘s new Employment Code of Practice and take action as appropriate (and again, another blog post will be coming once that’s published).

And on a serious note, the spirit of the new legislation is to ensure that organisations, such as the NHS, demonstrate they have a real commitment to equal opportunities not just by having in place a policy but also by demonstrating that the policy is actively implemented, monitored and reviewed, and that responsive action is taken;  How many Trusts can say they have “real commitment”? And that’s where the real challenge lies.