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?


When is theft a sacking offence?

Back in the day I worked in an HR department of a well-known retail group.  I was young, enthusiastic and it was in this environment that I first learnt how to give advice on Employee Relations.  Working from HQ, I was the “Employee Relations Advice Line” for 2 days week.  Store managers would call with their employee problems and I would provide sage advice on how to resolve them.

I had a range of interesting cases:

  • An employee was numerically dyslexic (Dyscalculia).  She had been in charge of the shoe section for the last four months and in that time they had thrown away A LOT of odd pairs.
  • A cook in one of the restaurants (the one nearest my house at the time) turned up for work with an acute case on conjunctivitis
  • An employee who had brought the firm into disrepute by flashing her bra to the builders on the building site next door whilst she was in the staff room having her tea break.

However, the most common issue was theft.  Employees would be “sacked” for stealing a penny.  Whilst that might be extreme, the organisation took any theft seriously.  If every employee stole a penny every day, the company would lose £22k per day.  Or over £8 million a year.

The other day I was reminded of my experiences working in retail when I was discussing the issue of employee theft with a couple of NHS HR Managers.  The way we manage theft in the NHS is very different.  I think it’s because the type of cases we see, for example:

– a play specialist invented  the day trips and activities she had done with her patient groups and claimed for the expenses incurred.  This went on for two years before management discovered there was an issue.

– another care worker received a number of very large, very generous money gifts (in the form of a cheque) from a vulnerable patient who frequented the clinic on a regular basis.

– an employee who was stealing from her colleagues – £10 from a purse, a stereo, sandwiches from the fridge (can you believe it?)

– a nurse who stole non-controlled drugs to fuel a drug-habit.  (see footnote for explanation of non-controlled drugs)

In all these cases, there is no simple scenario of “one time, x took 2p from the till and hasn’t returned it yet”.  The cases are complex, and often only came to light some time after the initial event occurred.  Frequently initial investigations show that there is limited robust, concrete evidence and much rests on connecting a series of events.

Such cases often turn out to be lengthy and detailed investigations and if done well, reach the appropriate conclusion.  They are handled in a completely different way to how I would have advised a manager working in a shop.  But I think that each case has to be handled according to an organisation’s culture.

On the day of the discussion with my two HRMs, we were debating whether a cleaner who had “stolen” a bottle of industrial size bleach should be sacked for gross misconduct.  She admitted the misconduct as soon as it was discovered, had mitigation and was willing to pay the Trust back equivalent to the amount of bleach used.

Two of us felt it wouldn’t be a “sacking” offence, and the other believed that “Theft is theft”.

What do you think?


Foot note:  uncontrolled drugs are those which are not subject to “control” procedures (eg in locked cabinets, audited etc) by the nursing staff.  These include drugs that you can buy over the counter – eg Paracetamol, or slightly stronger – eg Codeine Phosphate.    

HR Snobbery in the NHS? Surely not!

Over the last few weeks I’ve been  finishing up a number of contracts.  And for some reason, I seem to keep finding myself having a “groundhog day” conversation mainly with my colleagues in the acute sector.

Colleague: “So how’s the freelance market?”

Me: “It’s good, but it’s going to be interesting to see what happens once the redundancies in the PCT start to have an impact.”

Colleague: “I wouldn’t worry about that……HR staff in PCTs haven’t got the breadth and experience as those who have worked in acute Trusts.”

Me: “I don’t believe that. Don’t forget, I spent 5 years working in a PCT before I went freelance”.

Colleague: “Yes, but you’re different, you’ve also worked in the acute sector.”

Me: “So have a lot of HR professionals currently working in PCTs…..”

Colleague: “Yes, but, it’s not the same, is it? The HR professionals working in PCTS today just don’t …….”

And that’s when I realised I wouldn’t be able to change their views and  steered the conversation onto a related subject.

I have been fortunate enough to work across a range of healthcare settings.  I started off in forensic mental health (which was a bit of shock having come from the retail sector); I’ve worked at both small district general hospitals and large teaching hospitals; and I’ve worked in PCTs.   And this was all before I went free-lance.

The fact is, it is different working in a PCT compared to large London Teaching Hospital.  The issues faced by a Health Visitor are very different to those faced by a Midwife.  But equally, there are some similarities.

Personally, I think that working in a PCT means that you have to be more creative.  For example, it’s a lot harder to engage a workforce that spends 70% of it’s time off-site, in people’s homes or in a weekly clinic in a healthcentre.  But the through-put of the weird and wonderful employee relations cases is definitely greater in acute and mental health trusts.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in the NHS HR professionals are judged on two things:

a) how well they can handle medical staff (They’re not an easy bunch: An HR professional needs to be credible and prepared to be robustly challenged on a regular basis. But once you’ve earned your “stripes” they are very loyal.)

b) how many war wounds they have (ie how many complex and difficult ER cases they have managed).

And naturally, an HR professional is more likely to gain experience in these two areas by working in the acute or mental health sector.

This will be an interesting year watching what happens to my PCT colleagues. I know a number of excellent HR professionals who I hope are able to secure new positions on the basis of their competency as opposed to any other ill-judged set of criteria.