A Tale About An Unemployed 17 Year Old

Let’s call her Emily.

8 months ago she was successful in being offered a place on an Apprenticeship scheme in an HR department in an NHS Trust.

Emily had a bright outlook on life and took a positive approach to her work. She quickly learnt the role and worked well with her team members. Everybody liked her and she was doing a great job.

In 4 months time, when her apprenticeship ended, the Trust was going to offer her a job in their HR team. In 4 months time she would have some vocational qualifications under her belt.

But Emily decided she didn’t want to work in HR. She wanted to be a Maternity Healthcare Support Worker (MHSW).

So her boss – the HR manager – arranged for her to shadow a Maternity Healthcare worker (MHSW) for a week, instead of coming to work in the HR Department.

The idea was that when a job came up in the next couple of weeks for a MHSW, Emily would be in a great position to be successful in obtaining that role.

On the first day of her shadowing she didn’t turn up. She’d changed her mind over the weekend and didn’t want to be a MHSW.

In fact, she had decided she didn’t want to be an Apprentice at all anymore.

So, her boss – the HR manager – called her to a meeting. She even asked Emily to bring her mum.

They sat and talked about Emily leaving the Apprenticeship Scheme. Emily liked her work, liked the team, but she would not change her mind. She didn’t want to work in HR, she didn’t want to be a MHSW…..and she didn’t know what she wanted to do. All she knew that she did not want to continue on the Apprenticeship scheme. She wasn’t bothered about getting the qualifications. She wasn’t bothered about the almost guaranteed job at the end of it all. In four months time.

Her boss called the Education Provider, who also called a meeting with Emily. But they were unable to change her mind.

So now, Emily is at home. Unemployed. And a statistic.




A post about why I get out of bed every day

A few weeks ago my husband and I had dinner at my father-in-laws.    During the evening, the conversation turned to a discussion about the fact that when you’re retired you wake up every day and you can decided exactly what you do or don’t want to do.  But the main point was that when you’re retired you don’t HAVE to go to work.

To give you some background, my father-in-law dedicated his life to academia.  He invested in his pension scheme and a few years ago retired at the age of 60.  To say he is enjoying his retirement is an understatement.  He bought a boat, stripped it down and built it back up again.  In the summer, when he isn’t holidaying in Greece for a month, he goes sailing.  In winter, he works on the boat.  He regularly hosts and enjoys cooking fabulous food for his friends.  Needless to say, my father-in-law and his wife have a great social life.

But my argument round that dinner table was that I believed that when I wake up every morning, I am doing exactly what I want to do now.  I’ve worked hard to build my career and now I work as a freelance consultant.  This means that not only do I get to choose what projects I get to work on, I also get to choose how and when I want to take time off work to pursue other activities (like spending the summer in Spain with my kids).

Presently I’m working on 5 projects.  Each one is very different to the next and are interesting and challenging.  I’m not saying that these projects aren’t without frustrations, because they are.  But for me, the frustrations and how I overcome them are part of the learning experience.

A few days later I was participating in a very difficult meeting with some  trade union officials.  I sat there and thought  “I don’t want to be here”.  And with my father-in-laws words from the previous weekend echoing in my mind, I began to think “Why am I here? I don’t need to be here, I could do something else much more enjoyable.”

I must admit I came out of that meeting with a look on my face like “a bag of spanners”.  Two hours after the trade union meeting had finished I was briefing the Director of Operations and the Director of Finance on how the meeting had gone.  I concluded my debrief with some strategic advice – both short and long term as to how they should manage the situation which turned into a very productive debate of the issue.     It was this meeting which turned what potentially was a disastrous day into a good one.

That evening I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about planning financially for retirement when I had the sudden realisation that I had 30 years of work ahead of me.  At first I felt shock (I don’t know how I’d miscalculated it, but I previously believed I only had 2o years of work ahead of me!) But then a bubble of excitement grew from the pit of my stomach.

I consider myself to be experienced in practicising my profession and I am able to earn a good living as a freelance consultant.  I realised that 30 years would give more experience, more opportunities to learn and hone my craft, to get better at what I love doing.  I was excited about the potential of my future.  

It may be interesting in 30 years for someone to draw attention to this post and ask “Was it all that?”   But to be honest, the answer doesn’t really matter.  I’m enjoying the here and now.

I’m not Tony Blair

Yesterday at the Labour Conference Ed Miliband made the announcement that He’s not Tony Blair.  This morning, I witnessed Ed Miliband being questioned by BBC Breakfast on that statement. There’s many reasons why it was important to make that statement, but I think one was missing from the BBC breakfast debate this morning.

A few years ago, I stepped in to do an interim position for a couple of months whilst the post was recruited to. Everwhere I went, I was introduced as “This is the new Dave”.   Even the CEO, who greeted me on the first day with “You’re the new Dave. He’s a hard act to follow”.

At first, I played along with it, as it meant that people easily understood what I had been contracted to do.  However, things came to a head one day when I was sitting with the Chair of  Staff Side (the Unions).  We were trying to find a pragmatic way through a difficult employee issue:

Chair:  “I hear what you’re saying, but if Dave was here, we would have done it this way.”

Me: “But I’m not Dave”

Chair: “No…..but one day you have the potential to be like Dave”.

In another time and place, I would have taken that comment as a compliment.  I had known Dave for years, but not well.  We had crossed paths many times and I had been able to follow the work he had done and talk to him about particular issues that we were all facing.   In my opinion, he was then and he still is one of the best HR practitioners in the NHS in London.

HR, like politics, is an intangible discipline.  There’s more than one right way to do it.   Different HR practitioners have different strengths and skills.  We use this to our advantage to get successful results, and we all will take a slightly different approach.  That is what I was trying to get across to my staff-side colleague that day.   I was proposing a different approach to Dave, one that I felt I could successfully achieve.

So when Ed Miliband is claiming he isn’t Tony Blair, it’s not because he doesn’t value, respect those that have gone before him.   It’s because he’s trying to establish his own identity, his own way of doing things in a manner that he feels will yield results.

Please note, this post does not represent in any way my views on politics.  It is merely an observation on a statement made by a politician.

“HR Told Me To Do It”

I was at a wedding this weekend and I was able to catch up with my friend  Donald.  He’s a fairly senior manager in an NHS Trust and years ago we briefly worked together.

Naturally, I asked how things were going and, unsurprisingly, Donald started to tell me about a “transformation” project he was working on.  In essence, he needed to make cuts in line with his decreasing budget and was trying to restructure his team.  He described his frustration because his plans weren’t running as smoothly as they should be and ended his story with

“….and in the end, I just did what HR told me to do.”

I think I was a bit blunt in my response – I blame my northern roots.   But it transpired that Donald didn’t actually understand what HR was advising him, so he thought it would be quicker and easier just to do what he was told.

There lies several issues with this.  As advisers on HR matters we need to ensure that managers understand what we’re advising.   I frequently ask managers whether they are “comfortable” (my exact words) with my advice.  Because if they aren’t, they won’t do it.

But more importantly Donald is accountable for his actions.   It is tough going through restructure, but employees will respect their manager more if they “own” the process.   And lastly, I don’t think Donald would come out of an Employment Tribunal with his dignity in tact if he uses the “HR told me to do it” defense.

So this Monday morning, I hoping Donald is going to pop into his HR department.  And for me, it reminds me once again how important it is that we, HR practitioners, explain complex policies and procedures in way that is plain and simple.

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 strange relationship of HR & Finance

One of my blogging rules is not to write about a current client.  The only time I’ll break this rule when I’ve got something positive to say.  And this blog is just that.

Over the years I’ve worked with a number of different Finance Departments and a range of good and not-so-good management accountants.  I would describe my relationships with this department as good, but distant.

For example:  I’m used to drafting proposals underpinned with my own financial workings and then asking Finance to sign-them off.  9 times out of 10 the financial accountant spends a short period of time working through the numbers before approving the paper.  The exception comes when I’ve made an erroneous assumption on a particular financial element, but after a brief tweak, the finances are back on track.

However, I’ve been through a huge learning curve recently with one of my clients.  I’m working on a range of projects for this client, all centred around cost savings (what a surprise!).

I first same across Diana – a senior finance manager-  in my first week with this Trust.  One of my major projects involves a significant level of financial data.  I approached it with “you do your bit…..and then I’ll do mine”.  Diana instead challenged this and proposed a way of working that was more integrated “we’ll do this together….go to meetings together, challenge the data together…and propose a way forward…..together”.

I have to admit, I didn’t get it.  Whilst we had a project plan, my behaviour wasn’t one of “working together”.

But Diana is tenacious and driven.  She kept popping up everywhere.  Emailing me about wanting to meet for 15 mins to check on the status of the project and talking about other projects that I was working on.

“Karen, whilst the last status report you wrote on x was good, it was superficial on the financials.  Before you start to draft the next report, come to me first.  I will help you draft a more robust project from a financial point of view.”

“Karen, whilst I understand what you’re trying to achieve through x, I think that my team will be able to help you producing a one-page document that will succinctly (and in more detail) demonstrate the point you are making”.

And so it went on…..until I had that lightbulb moment.  Diana wasn’t being difficult.  She was trying to ensure that as a Trust we were delivering quality information that crossed both the HR and Finance disciplines.  And when that moment happened I emailed Diana to tell her that I “got it”.

The next project came along and we worked together with the service manager.  In two weeks we had developed a robust options paper.  It took less time that if we had worked on the project seperately, at a distance.

Another project is on the horizon – and we’re both syncronised in our approach with the manager on how we think we can help them achieve the outcome in a way that is efficient and robust.

I really wish I’d worked with people like Diana on other projects that I’ve been involved in, in the past.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to close down a workplace nursery? (a decision which still hurts me, but at the time I had no option as, according to my financial understanding, it would never break-even).

So now I know what it feels like to work in an integrated way with Finance – and I’m going to bring this learning to my next client, my next project.

My thoughts on the ConnectingHR Unconference

I admit it…..I was the one that was jealous – the person who @RobJones_Tring was referring to at the beginning of the day. I’d followed previous tweet-ups and unconferences via my twitter stream.  I watched interesting conversations unfold, could feel the energy in the room and the connections being made.  The day after I would sense a different “vibe” on twitter amongst the attendees.

Without doubt, the fact that many of us connect on an almost daily basis via Twitter influenced the flow and energy of the event.  For example:

1.  There was no need to network (which I hate).  Some conversations started with “What do you do?” but many also began with a question relating to a tweet someone has recently made.    We moved from a virtual relationship to a real one seamlessly.

2.  There was no “positioning” or game playing between attendees.  There’s no point…..we were all in the room as we like each other’s company on Twitter and the unconference was an opportunity to turn our 140 character debates into something more.

3.  We would used our knowledge of each other to propel debates forward or to seek clarification on certain points.  It felt safe to do this, and this was based on trust and respect developed prior to the event itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you had to be active on Twitter to enjoy the event.  I just think the fact that relationships developed on Twitter prior the event help generate the incredible energy that we all felt.

And what did I get out of the event?   My main learning is that whilst technically HR theory & practice is the same wherever you work, it is the sector or industry that influences how HR is operationalised.  For example:

1. On performance management:  I sat back and listened. During the discussion the idea of doing away with a formal performance management system was mooted.  One drawback?  It’s linked to reward.   And that’s where we’re different in the NHS: we don’t link performance management to reward.   And that’s perhaps why, for years, we didn’t really push our organisations to undertake annual appraisals.  This has changed recently and whilst the quantity is up our new challenge is quality.

2.  On flexible working:  this discussion explored trust, the nature of management – employee relations and about looking at work outputs as opposed to time served.  In the NHS, the majority of our workforce have to cover a 24 hour service.  Even if they get all their work done in their 8 hour shift, they have to remain “on-duty” in the event of any emergencies that will require their clinical support.  For the NHS, flexible working is more about finding a way to offer these staff an off-duty (the rota) that supports a work-life balance.

3.  On theory vs practice:  It was heart-warming to hear so many HR practitioners talk about their evidence based approach.  One participant talked about how he enjoys reading the links from People Management articles, and how it enables him to more fully understand the topic being discussed.  I often get down-hearted as I meet NHS HR practitioners who don’t understand how theory underpins their practice.  When I coach NHS  HR teams I spend time exploring this concept and what they can do to increase their theoretical knowledge and how this relates to their practice.

Having said all that, from the discussions held today I firmly believe that there are concepts that I learnt about today that could cross over to the “dark-side” (ie the public sector).

And what would I like to see next time?

1.  Biscuits (and I’m happy to bring my own!)

2. A way to capture all the references that participants made.  Lots of people talked about journal articles or books that they had read.  I now want to read them….but I can’t remember the exact details or even who made the reference.

At the end of the day I feel inspired and I enjoyed the experience.  I’m sorry I didn’t stay until the very end (and once again I think I missed out!).    My thanks goes to Jon and Gareth for organising such a great event and to everybody else who helped facilitate the day.  Here’s to the next one!