Can we give employees too much information?

I went to see a nutritionist this morning as I wanted some advice on my diet.  I spent 90 minutes talking about managing blood sugar levels, the impact antibiotics have on the gut, how the kinesthetic approach to  food tolerance testing works, and how stress impacts the digestive system.

This afternoon, I can’t remember any of the science behind her recommendations, but all I know is that I’m to abstain from all caffeine (coffee and diet coke feature a lot in my diet), eat more nuts and seeds, go wholemeal, eat a little less red meat and a little more white meat.

In my case, it doesn’t really matter how much of the science  I do or don’t remember, I’m clear about what my actions are.  But is this always the case with employees who are going through some kind of formal procedure?

I’ve been supporting two friends recently as they have been under threat of dismissal (one for gross misconduct, the other due to redundancy).  It’s been interesting being on the other side of the fence, seeing how hard it is for an employee to navigate the formal procedures we use in HR.

In the redundancy situation there were so many different options for my friend that it just confused the issue.  My cynical mind thinks that the organisation used my friend’s confusion to their benefit, trying to persuade her to take a voluntary severance (VS) over what appeared to be a clear case (to me) of compulsory redundancy.  Obviously, the VS package was the cheaper option for the organisation.  The more questions my friend asked (following our conversations), the more information she received. Even for me, it felt like wading through treacle at times.

In the other case, the employee hadn’t realised what the allegations were that had been made against her when she was suspended.  Having reviewed the documentation she received, they did inform her – but she just hadn’t heard or understood.  Despite being supported by her union, she was given very little information on what was happening to her, what the next steps were, and how she could best prepare.

When I’m talking to employees I try to give them the full picture , including the worse case scenario.  If employees are going through organisastional change, I tell them from the start of the process that it might end in redundancy.   I inform witnesses in disciplinary investigations that their interview notes or statements might end up being public documents should the case get to an Employment Tribunal.  I think it’s important, so that employees can prepare themselves and make the right decisions based on the long-term view.

But how much do employee’s really take on board when we bombard them with this information at a difficult and stressful time in their employment?  Whilst we might follow-up any conversation in writing, do employees really read the finer details?  How much more should an employer do once it’s met its legal implications?

There is the argument that employees have their trade union representative who can support them in such instances.  However, in my experience, the quality and experience of the union support is variable.  There are some great union reps, and others who I feel miss the point and confuse the issues – and it’s the employee that suffers.

Another approach is to keep on re-iterating the key information to the employee(s) concerned.  I could be wrong, but I’ve never heard of an employee tribunal being lost due to an employee being given too much information.

In the centre of all this is the need to consider each employee as an individual.  Each employee reacts to their situation differently.  In cases of gross misconduct, some staff show remorse whilst other don’t when faced with similar scenarios.  The threat of redundancy can be a positive or negative experience for employees -depending on their personal circumstances.

What I have learnt over the years is that it is impossible to pre-judge an employee’s reaction to redundancy or other dismissal situations.  I’ve also observed that employee’s will tell us when they’ve “got it” and will keep on asking questions when they haven’t.

And if an employee is still asking questions…….. the organisation hasn’t yet given them enough information.

A Post About Faith Restored

I’ve written before about my journey, and how after 10 years I was a jaded NHS senior manager.  I tried and failed to be made redundant (how ironic in today’s climate). Instead, I resigned and went free-lance. I haven’t looked back since.

Over the last few years I have worked with a range of NHS organisations.  My blog has related my frustrations with NHS bureaucracy, and my dispair of disengaged HR staff who deliver poor service. 

About 8 months ago I heard of an opportunity at Kings College Hospital, London.  I was keen to get inside this high-profile organisation, who are known for being leaders in their field, including their approach to workforce intiatives and their “can-do” attitude.

However the timing was off, and so I couldn’t throw my hat in the ring.   A couple of months later I got another call and I was subsequently successful in being offered the opportunity to work a number of challenging and rewarding projects.

My first impressions are still vivid in my mind.   Whatever stone I unturned, there was a reasoned, well-thought through approach or response to how or why things were done in that particular way.  I wasn’t just looking at good practice – but excellent practice. 

I’m used to working with HR teams on their journey to improve their performance, moving them from mediocre to average.   But at Kings, I was faced with a different challenge.  I was out of my comfort zone, and I liked it. 

The most striking aspect of the Workforce Directorate is their attitude to team work.  It’s a stable team, with several members of staff having long service.  This hasn’t led to a culture of nepotism; there are friendships, but there aren’t any cliques.  All relationships are highly professional and everyone looks out for each other. 

Another key element is the fact that there isn’t a  blame culture.  Staff are willing to stand up and be accountable for human errors.  And in the same breath, they take a proactive, pragmatic appraoch to sorting them out.  No-one is afraid to make a mistake, which in turn leads to a more engaged and productive workforce.

My final observation was summed up by Tim Smart, the current Chief Executive at the staff’s Winter Diversity Event earlier this week.  He talked about how Kings is seen as an exemplar;  he is regularly being asked to speak at events to talk about the Trust’s approach to becoming “effortlessly inclusive”.  He highlighted that that Trust is still on its journey and there is still a lot of work to be done.  So it was important to recognise and be proud of all that the Trust has achieved to date with the acknowledgement that there is still much to be done.   And this gives the staff the drive, energy and passion to keep on improving performance.

I think over the last few years I have been searching for the Holy Grail.  And at Kings, I think I’ve found it.   

If I was 10 years younger, without kids and lived 10 minutes away, I would glady apply for a job at this Trust.  As it is, my personal circumstances are different.  But instead, all I can give is this post: a tribute to those within that Trust and for the fabulous experience I had working with them this last year.

When redundancy is a waste of public monies

The climate has shifted and across the NHS everyone is using the ‘r’ word: nobody doubts that there will be compulsory redundancies and many organisations are still flirting with the idea of voluntary redundancies.

I recently had an interesting debate with an HR colleague on the ethics around redundancy in the NHS.   Primarily the debate centered around the  impact and consequences of the following NHS redundancy rule: employees are not allowed to undertake any paid work in the NHS for 28 days after leaving an NHS for redudancy reasons.

So in essence, a Trust could make a Band 5 nurse – Jane Blogs redundant at the end of December only to find her re-engaged on another ward, in a permanent post from 1 February.

Jane in the meantime has had a lovely month off work, taken advantage of the bargains in the January Sales, has been able to pay off her credit cards and a sizable chuck of her mortgage with her £40k redundancy monies.

About 5 years ago I erroneously thought there was a bean-counter at the DH who checked to see if anybody breached their redundancy terms by commencing work at another Trust within their 28 exclusion period.  I believed that some central department would then attempt to claw back the redundancy payment.

The reality is Jane Blogs could get a job down the road at another Trust the day after she is made redundant. If the first Trust doesn’t know about it – then they won’t be aware of the breach.  And so no attempt is made to reclaim the monies.

This is without doubt a loop hole and good HR departments ensure a robust debate takes place within an organisation to ensure that appropriate consideration is given who they are (potentially) making redundant.

But a new reality has emerged amongst the PCTS and the GP consortiums. It transpires that the GPs don’t want to employ any PCT staff under Agenda for Change terms and conditions. So they are telling the PCTs that they are to make these staff redundant and then the GPs will re-engage these staff on their own (and most likely less favourable) terms and conditions.

Without doubt this is a waste of tax-payers money.

As you will know, I’m not in favour of added layers of bureaucracy. But this time I hope that the DH takes the appropriate action and puts some sort of mechanism in place that ensures that millions of pounds aren’t wasted on inappropriate redundancy payments.

What do you do if you’ve been made redundant & can’t get a job?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed a new trend – “the professional volunteer”.   I’ll explain:  As the recession starts to have an impact on the public sector, more staff are facing the reality of redundancy.   Some individuals are finding that it’s not so easy to get another job after having been made redundant as there are less vacancies out there.  

Instead, they are exploring different options to maintain their skills or even upskill whilst looking for work.  A number of high profile organisations are now being approached by keen professionals who want to offer their services for free in return for the opportunity to gain further work experience at a middle-management level – “the professional volunteer”

For me, to make any arrangement like this to work, there needs to be a win-win outcome.    It’s clear from the “professional volunteer’s” point of view that they will benefit from such an arrangement if they develop new skills or understanding of an organisation / sector, which in turns enables them to secure a job.

But from an organisational point of view it is less clear.  Any new member of the team (whether it’s a volunteer or a paid member of staff) requires time and attention as they start to learn about the organisation and settle in their role:    An organisation makes an investment with their new staff in order to ensure that there’s a postive outcome at the end.  Therefore, for an organisation to take on a “professional volunteer”, the individual must add value to the organisation through the work that they are doing. 

There’s an additional complication – how do organisations gain an understanding of the level of competence of the “professional volunteer”?  At present, these individuals are approaching organisations through informal routes. There is no rigourous testing of their skills, abilities or values.  Firstly, organisations need to be cautious about ensuring that the appropriate checks are undertaken.  Secondly, organisastions need to esnure that the “professional volunteer” is not there just to be an additional pair of hands, but is given a role that is appropriate to their skill set.

And what happens when the “professional volunteer” is offered a job?  What arrangements have been put in place to manage such eventualities?  Whilst an organisation does not want to limit the opportunities for the “professional volunteer”, they also want to safeguard themselves against being left with a half-completed project.

Lastly, there is the moral argument that such placements should be paid some level of remuneration (expenses at least?).  

This concept is still in its infancy, and I believe many organisations are still trying to decide on how to manage this emerging development and find answer to these questions.

The NHS Temperature Test

It’s been a few weeks since the White Paper was published. There was nothing in it that was a surprise to those of us working in the NHS and reading the trade journals. I recently reflected upon my conversations following its publication and as a result, I decided to do a totally unscientific survey on how staff in the NHS were currently feeling about job security.

My methodology? The NHS is a glorious institution: if you don’t work in the NHS, you know a family member or friend who does. It is through these loose social networks that I have been undertaking my research. I have traveled to the South Coast, to the heart of Berkshire, 100 miles north of the M25 and of course, central London.  I have also undertaken a literature search by keeping an eye on what’s being said in the Health Service Journal (who have run articles about redundancy every week for the last 3 weeks).

My conclusion is that staff are falling into four  key themes:

  1. Many staff are already working in an organisation that is facing significant financial pressure, and where major organisational change was already on the agenda.  Those staff working in acute Trusts mainly fall under this category
  2. Staff with significant service are taking the pragmatic approach that at least they have a substantial redundancy package to fall back upon.  The HSJ has run an article every week for the last 3 weeks preparing managers for this.
  3. Senior staff within PCTs (both clinicians and managers) recognise their value and the fact that many of the new GP consortia will require their skills.  They see the long-term position of job stability, just with a change of employer.
  4. Junior staff are showing higher levels of anxiety, as they are less clear about the future plans and how it relates to them.  This is understandable

There is one particular anecdote from my survey that I wish to share which highlights some of the above points:  Jane (fictional name) is the Head of Pharmacy in a PCT.  Since university she has worked her way up through the hospital system.  When she reached a glass ceiling, she moved into her local PCT.  In the last three years she has saved the PCT millions in reducing the drugs budget and she knows there is potential for more.  But with the White Paper she won’t be given the chance to see this through.

Jane has achieved her savings through working with the GPs.  She knows the different personalities, and how some are more progressive and forward-thinking than others.   Because of this first-hand experience, she knows how difficult it’s going to be to drive efficiencies into the drug budget for her patch when it’s devolved to the different GP consortiums.

The GPs need her expertise, and so Jane knows she’ll get a new a job working in one of the consortia.  She also has great belief in her abilities.  And in the back of her mind, Jane is aware that if it all goes wrong she has 15 years service and that equates to a substantial redundancy package.

Today, Jane continues to work hard, and like all NHS employees, as she wakes up every day knowing that she wants to deliver the best possible healthcare she can for her patients.

There is anger and fear about the proposals, but’s the subject of a different post in the future.

Government Cuts: A view from the inside

Earlier this week I was at St Pancras Station when another woman struck up a conversation with me.  By chance would have it, she was a senior HR professional working the civil service.  On our 25 minute journey home we covered a lot of topical issues including the subject matter I blogged about earlier this week: the fact that the Govenment is looking at making 40% cuts in their budgets.

These are some of the challenges that my colleague in the civil service is facing:

1. The demographic of the workforce:  45% of the staff are aged between 50 and 60, combined with a length of service of c.30 years.   The cuts will enable the organisation to shed some “dead-wood”, but there is also a risk of loss of organisational memory and technical expertise.

   2. Another impact of this demographic is the cost of redundancies.  Most will be entitled to the full-payout, and in this organistion that’s equivalent to three years pay!  The organisation has already taken considerable steps with the unions to negotiate a reduction, but I understand that goverment is frustrated by the delays in this process.  So, they have halted the negotiations and instead have announced that they are going to pass a piece of legislation to reduce the redundancy to the equivalent of a year’s pay.  But it will be some time before this will become a reality.

3.  A third impact relating to the demographic of this workforce is the lack of flexibility.  Many of these staff have been based in a local office, perhaps 10 – 20 minutes from their home for 20+ years.   Many of the local offices are being closed as part of the cost savings, and the organisation is now asking them to travel 30 – 40 minutes instead.  These staff will still have a job, but they are resistent to the change.  A considerable amount of time is being spent responding to staff’s queries and questions relating to the relocation (Will I have a car-parking space?).  Whilst on the face of it these are minor questions, they matter to every individual who is affected.

4.  The attitudes of the senior team:  they hold a belief that HR will find a job for everybody eventually.  But my HR colleague keeps telling them that this is highly unlikely.   The culture needs to shift from being a “welfare” workplace and until that happens the staff on the ground will hear mixed messages, causing greater anxiety and lower productivity.

5.  The organisation is already working to make 10% savings year-on-year for the next 5 years.   My concern is the approach to making 25% or 40% cuts is different to that when an organisation is looking to make 10% cuts.  There needs to be a firm decision about the level of cuts that need to be made, otherwise time could be wasted “tweaking” the edges instead of investing time and energy making significant cuts.

I’ve only touched on the top 5 challenges in this blog, and naturally there will be many, many more.  The lady on the train was energetic and spirited about the challenges that lay ahead and I admire this positive approach.   She’s got a rough ride ahead.