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?


Remind me, what’s the purpose of this?

Some weeks ago I published a post on the draft Equality Delivery System (EDS).   In brief, the EDS is a  a new framework that Trusts will use to measure how well they have embraced and embedded equality and diversity.  It was due to go out for consultation in November, but I have recently been informed that it’s postphoned until the New Year, although no reason has been given for this.  Pilot sites will start working towards their EDS in April 2011, with full-roll out in 2012.

The current framework of the EDS has been designed by individuals working either in PCTs or SHAs.  In my view the framework, as it stands in draft format, is not transferable to acute or mental health Trusts.    And this an issue, because we know that SHAs and PCTs aren’t going to exist in the very near future, so what is the point?     I understand that this is a question that is being discussed behind closed doors at some trade unions and professional bodies, who (reassuringly) share my views. For us, the consultation will be crucial, as it will be our only opportunity to significantly influence this initiative.

As I began to think through the implications of the EDS in conjuction with the White Paper, I recalled the following:  an ex-colleague of mine, who is now a leading figure in Equality & Diversity in the NHS, recently went on record saying a recent survey had established that c.34,000 GPs have a poor record in terms of their attitude towards diversity.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t around last week when I called to see where this figure came from.

It’s well documented that there is a genuine worry about the commissioning capability and capacity of the new GP consortia.  And there is quiet concern within the Equality & Diversity community about that the capability & capacity of GP consortias to run organisations who believe in equality and the concept of being “effortlessly inclusive”.  And to be clear, this isn’t just a workforce issue, but applies to patient services too.  (Ironically the White Paper is about reducing health inequalities). 

Am I taking it too far by thinking that the EDS has been designed to ensure that the GP consortia embrace and embed equality & diversity?  I think so, we’re not that visionary in the NHS.

Sometimes I feel that the NHS is like a tanker that has invested so much in trying to drive an initiative forward that it can’t change direction mid-course.    The EDS is such an iniative.   I heard a great quote recently when I was talking about the EDS with a leading Equality & Diversity specialist.  She described it as a “piece of furniture”: It sits in the corner of the room, but it looks out of place and nobody wants to use it.  That is exactly the opposite of what we should be striving for.

How to ruin staff side relationships

FlipChary Fairy Tales had an intersting blog post last week on the CIPD’s position to ban union strikes.  The blog makes reference to a CIPD comment that staff side relationships in the public sector are the worst they have ever been.

This got me thinking, as I have to work with a lot of local and regional representatives on a day to day basis around the country.  What I have observed is that the staff side relationships depend on the culture and philosophy of the leaders in the organisation, and primarily the HRD.

This is my list of things that I consider are behaviours or actions that ruin or sustain poor relationship with the unions.

1.  Refuse to compromise, ever.   And avoid all use of pragmatism.

2. View all TUs with suspicion and let this impact your behaviours with them

3. Being unable to justify the business reason for an organisational change, particularly the radical ones.

4. Use language that is too subtle for the message to be heard.  When the change is then announced, it comes as a surprise!

5. Don’t listen to staff.

6. Listen to staff and don’t take action.

7. Listen to staff, make promises and then break them by making a U-turn decision.

8. Take an aggressive approach to policy negotiation, the management of sickness absence or disciplinary issues.

9.  Fail to give the TU’s the “head’s-up” when a significant change is about to be communicated.

10.  Fail to recognise the value that some TU reps bring to the table.

I’ve always advocated good relationships with staff side.  Perhaps it’s because my Dad used to be Chair of his local staff side committee and is now an active TU pensioner?  Perhaps it’s because my uncle was an old-guard Labour MP?  In reality, I think it’s more down to my belief that it’s beneficial to the organisation if the HR Department acts in a way that is fair, listens to it’s staff, is honest and transparent.

We’re going to have interesting times ahead if we continue to demonstrate inappropriate behaviours.  When times are tough, we need to the support of the unions, and alienating them will just make our jobs harder.

Thoughts on NHS Restructure – Part 1

After a brief hiatus, I felt that my first post this week should be about restructure – it’s the topic that everyone has been talking about non-stop since the publication of the White Paper.  From Executives to the Healthcare Assistants to the external suppliers.

Many Trusts are now also feeling the impact of the recession.  Reality has finally hit the NHS, whereas it affected the general population some time ago.

Last week, I was chatting with a Full Time Officer from a professional body.  I found myself completely agreeing with their position:  after years of working to establish levels of staffing that will provide a minimum of safe, clinical care, Trusts are now looking to reduce staffing levels as they need to to save money .   All the hard work over the last 5 – 8 years looks like it’s going to be washed away.

I reflected upon the time I was working as  a Director in a PCT when we were faced with a significant financial savings plan.  My full-time officer-colleague was working in the same patch at the time.  However, as none of her members were represented in my organisation, our paths did not cross.  But she remembers the pain.  We made radical cut-backs in staffing and overhauled how we delivered clinical care.

My managers at the time kept telling me that their service re-design was based on best practice and current research.  The front-line staff strongly disagreed, their biggest issue was with the heightened levels of risk they were required to work with on a regular basis.

For my part, I steered the organisation through a reduction of the workforce by one third (400 staff) with only one Employment Tribunal claim (the manager refused to take sound HR advice).

My Full-time officer – colleague was surprised to hear that there weren’t more ET claims.  My response:  we technically got it right from an employment law point of view – but it doesn’t mean we made the right clinical decisions.

And so back to the issue in hand:  There’s no doubt that we are entering a period that will see a series of radical cutbacks in the workforce.  The good Trusts will do so in accordance with the legislation.

But that’s not my point (or that of my full-time officer-colleague).  The point is that patients are the centre of our business.  We have to make cuts, there’s no disagreement about this.  But if the balance between cost savings and clinical care tips in the wrong direction, it is the patient that suffers.

Does Your Relationship With The TUs Represent Good Staff Engagement?

The local TU representative (staff side representative) carries the enormous responsibility of being an advocate of the local members of his department or professional group.  In an ideal scenario, your staff side rep should be able to reliably inform the Trust on what the local members think of proposals and service developments.   It is not uncommon to “test the temperature” around a new idea by running it past (informally) the local staff side rep first.

In organisations (and I mainly refer to NHS Trusts) where there is a sense of trust between management and staff side, this relationship can be dynamic, collaborative and very constructive.  Where there is little trust, the organisation can find itself with a dysfunctional and disruptive workforce.  I have been struck this week by how important staff side relationships are.

Let’s take Job Evaluation:  The NHS has a national, bespoke system called Agenda for Change.  Implemented in 2005, thousands of managers, HR staff and staff side reps were trained in this system.  It’s not a perfect system, but it has helped to reduce the potential of pay inequity and attempts to bring transparency to a creative art form.

Although there is national guidance, I find that with each Trust I work with there is local interpretation: this ranges from how each factor is scored to how the process is carried out.    For example:

  • The Trusts where there is poor staff side relationship, the process is long and drawn-out. 
  • In other Trusts, management have worked with staff side to streamline the process. 

In one Trust, the time it takes to evaluate a set of 10 posts is 8 times longer than another one!  This has an obvious impact on productivity and carries a significant cost to the organisation.

The key to driving efficiences lies with the local staff side.  There needs to be an element of trust between all parties with any radical changes to an established system. 

The Trust that has significantly stream-lined its process has high staff engagement.  The staff trust the process and their local representatives to ensure that the right outcome is reached.

On the other hand, the Trust who has a long, labourious process has poor staff engagement.  The local staff side are fighting to protect the status quo as they fear that the staff may be disadvantaged if any efficiences are built into the system.

Job evaluaton may seem a dry topic to reflect upon in relation to staff engagement, but the underlying outcome is money.  And money matters to staff.  If staff are engaged  they will allow their local staff side reps to work collaboratively with managers.  This can only result in a win-win for everybody.

I’ve written about Staff Engagement before, and my views haven’t changed.  It’s important to recognise that staff engagement permeates through-out all elements of the organisation, and it all starts with the Trade Unions.