My Advice to Sports Direct

Mike Ashley and Sports Direct have been in the news again today. I’ve already written on this subject for the HR Magazine.

This morning, Ashley said that he wants to work closely with HR and the recruitment agencies that supply their Shirebrook warehouse to address some of those highly publicised issues.

It is often said that you get the employee relations that you deserve. I have always believed this to be true.  How you treat people directly impacts on how they behave at work and how engaged they are. If you treat people like you don’t trust them, then they will know it and will probably behave in a way that supports that viewpoint. And then someone will create a draconian policy. It’s a downward spiral.

The other thing that matters when it comes to employee relations is simply how people feel about where they work. It is all about the ‘felt fair’.  Do I feel, that overall, my employer is treating me fairly?  This, in essence, is that thing we call the psychological contract.

These are the two beliefs that always guide my principals when it comes to the people stuff that I do. So just in case Mike Ashley needs a little more HR advice, here is what I would tell him to do:

  • Pay the Living Wage. Yes, it will add to your costs. But you will get a more stable and committed workforce in return. You will have better retention, spend less time on recruitment and have higher levels of engagement and motivation. I know, because I’ve implemented and seen it first-hand. You don’t have to pay the national minimum wage – it is your choice.
  • Keep temporary staff and the zero hours contracts for the peaks in demand. For Christmas and the short term needs. If you are worried about exiting poor performers, don’t be. Employment law will still allow you to do this. But a more stable workforce with increased job security will work for you and for the people that work for you. It will improve your productivity, retention and engagement. Do I need to go on?
  • Train your managers in leading people, in having good conversations with their teams, in how to manage without forms and big sticks. How to coach and give feedback and manage performance. This stuff isn’t hard, it just needs some investment.  You have the money.
  • Wellbeing. It matters on multiple levels. It sends a message to your people, can help your absence rates, can increase your engagement levels. You get the picture. Create a culture in which the wellbeing of your people is a key consideration and make sure your managers know it and live it.
  • Oversee every people practice that your employment agencies are operating. Are they fair? Are they treating people the same as your permanent workforce or are they creating a two-tier workforce? It isn’t good enough to say that it is up to the agencies how they manage their temps. They are on your site, working ultimately for you. So manage it.
  • Review all of your people policies. Strip them down. Stop using them as something to hide behind, as a way of managing people. Keep them for guidance only. Ensure that they support your vision, support good people stuff.
  • Employee voice. You have a union. You have a committee. Use it. Listen to your people. They will have ideas. They will share and contribute if you let them and create a culture in which they feel their voice is valued. Just one more way of increasing engagement.
  • Get round the table and sort out your union relationship as a priority. Playing out this adversarial stuff in the media is not helping the people on the shop floor and they are the people that matter most.
  • Kill your six strikes policy. Now.

Good people stuff, good employee relations.  They are within your gift.

Social Media – getting HR on the front foot? #CIPDLiverpool

Tonight my chief collaborator Tim Scott is presenting to CIPD Liverpool on our favourite subject, social media. And just ICYMI (as they say on Twitter), here is a blatant self-promotional link to our book on the subject: A new one from us will be coming very soon too so watch this space…

His question tonight is this. In an increasingly social and digital world, where we see new technology emerging constantly, where brands are evolving and taking advantage of all that social and digital technology brings, can HR really get on the front foot? Can we as a function meet the challenge? Can we be sufficiently innovative and agile, or will we just keep on writing all of the policies and become increasingly irrelevant?

These are our thoughts…


There are some truly fascinating developments happening in consumer technology at the moment. Take for example the new Amazon Dash. A generation ago, when you went to buy your groceries, you’d walk into a shop and tell the guy behind the counter what you wanted. He’d get it for you, put it into a bag and you’d pay him. Then the self-service supermarket was invented. We picked our own groceries off the shelves and put them in trolleys and went to pay the cashier. Then came online shopping and when we went in-store we got “unexpected items in the bagging area” and self-scanning. Now Amazon Dash offers a small wi-fi connected button that you stick near your consumables. When you’re getting near the end, press the button and it connects to your Amazon app and orders a replacement. In some parts of the UK, it may even be delivered within the hour.

We’re also seeing companies like Uber challenging what everyone thought they were – namely a taxi service – and moving into food delivery.

Technology is about connecting people and what they want. This might be a refill of shaving foam, or it might be instantly connecting them to their friends and/or the news, media and information they want to consume. Remember how revolutionary it felt when you first realised you could Google anything and pretty much always find the answer. Now you don’t even have to fire up a computer to access that information, it’s on the little device in your pocket. For now. Many see wearable tech as the next bold frontier…

We know that what begins in the consumer world often up in the workplace. This is exactly what the consumerisation of IT, a phrase made popular a few years ago, was all about. People’s expectations of their corporate IT have increased in line with their own experience of using smartphones and tablets, as well as cloud storage and instant messaging.

So what lessons can we learn from the consumer world? Firstly, in 2016 it’s all about speed, convenience and responsiveness. Having food from your favourite restaurant delivered to your home. Companies delivering their products to your door within the hour. Controlling your heating and cooking from an app when you are on your way home from work. It’s also about brands challenging the old ways of doing things. If want a holiday or a hotel, you can still walk into a travel agent, or alternatively you can just check your Air BnB app.

Of course, with these new approaches come new demands. When consumers tweet a brand they expect a response. Fast. And not something auto generated either.

But where is the relevance in all this stuff to HR?

Simple. These will increasingly be the expectations of our own consumers. Can we rise to it?

Over to Gem….

The truth is…. I don’t know. I want to say yes. I really do.

It will require us to think very differently. To move out of our traditional roles of policy creators and enforcers. The role of HR that adds more value is not the reactive one; it is the one that not only responds to the changes taking place in the organisation but is part of them and leads from the front. The part that isn’t off to an employment law seminar to assess the risk and advise accordingly but who is part of creating the future of work.

HR can be a leader and an innovator. But it will need to strive far harder to do so. There are still too few practitioners on social media, leading to some accusations of it creating an “echo chamber”. But there are some challenging voices. There are people that share their work openly. There are those that debate and put their ideas out into the world. But still, there are too few. My own feed, tells me so. I still meet so many HR professionals who ask me how to send a tweet. Or what the point of Twitter is. I have to assume therefore that not only are they not on social media but neither are they particularly digitally savvy. And they may not be up to date with the technological advances that are already here, never mind what is on the way.

So the question remains. How do we get on the front foot? How do we help other HR professionals move outside the traditional and get this social and digital stuff? How do we create a culture of innovation within our own house? For us it is about HR helping HR acquire the basic skills. Digital mentoring… We have learned new skills before – we’ve moved from welfare, to personnel, to HR – and beyond..? It is also about stepping out of our traditional boundaries of just the people stuff. Because it cannot be done in isolation, separate from marketing, from sales, from the consumer brand.

We’d love to hear your ideas about both the future of social media at work and how HR can get on the front foot…….

Please feel free to comment either here or on Twitter using the hashtag #CIPDLiverpool. Tim will be using some of the thoughts we get live in the session on Monday night and we can almost guarantee that there will be a Storify…!

Women, Weight and Employability

I came across this study a few days ago.

Research into the impact on employability of being overweight on both men and women.

Now as a former Big Girl this caught my interest. When I was overweight I never felt that it impacted my ability to do my job, even if it did impact my ability to get up and down the stairs to the office. But who knows what others might have thought about me, what opportunities passed me by unknowingly? What impressions, false or true, others held about me and my size?

Here are the key findings from this and other similar research:

  •  Overweight candidates suffer from bias in an experimental job interview situations.
  • Fat persons are less highly rated on employability than normal weight applicants.
  • Obese candidates were not only perceived to be less qualified than non-obese applicants but were also less likely to be hired than those of ‘normal’ weight.
  • There is a gender dimension to this bias, in that women suffer significantly more prejudice than men – something that appears more pronounced in customer facing roles.

HR types reading this blog will most likely be familiar with the term ‘emotional labour’. The extent to which some job roles require employees to bring their emotions, or at least a reasonable approximately of them, to the workplace.  Think carers or nurses… people who need to show empathy, to engage emotionally on some level with others around them as part of the job.

This report talks instead of ‘aesthetic labour’. The extent to which a job requires candidates to look a certain way or dress a certain way.  Think of the trendy clothes shop.  They want someone who will represent their brand, look ‘right’ in their clothes, and present the right image for them.

Of course so-called lookism doesn’t just extend to weight and body shape. There’s often a debate about tattoos, piercings or hairstyles in the workplace to be had.  And that is before you get onto the whole dress code thing.  (For the record, on that front I’m in the camp that believes if you have to tell people what to wear who presumably as well as holding down a job manage to feed themselves, pay taxes and grow body hair you’ve got bigger problems to worry about.)

We might sit here and tut and say how wrong it is to judge people on how they look, but it happens. We know it does. The report cites other research from 2010 which demonstrated that hiring managers in the retail industry often appoint people with the ‘right look’ to the exclusion of almost all other qualifications and experience.

Every time we interview someone we are making a whole host of judgements – some right and some inevitably wrong. We are impacted by cognitive bias after cognitive bias.  Horns and halos.  Liking people who are like us.  Snap judgements.  Recruitment is inherently discriminatory in that sense.  And of course, discrimination is only against the law if (in the UK at least) if it falls into one of a small list of protected characteristics, including race, gender and the like.

Bald? Fat? Skinny? Spotty? Manchester United Fan?  Grow a straggly beard?

Tough. If I don’t like any of these things I can discriminate against you all I want.

Many years ago I remember interviewing with a manager who was overly taken with a candidate because of how much he liked his shoes. I had to seriously work hard to get him past the brown brogues.

We can’t legislate against this stuff. It’s about attitudes.  It’s about wider societal perceptions, media messages, our so-called ideals of what people should and should not look like.  It’s employment stuff but everything else too.

One of the most interesting things about the research was that only slight differences in weight, for the women at least, impacted negatively on perceptions of employability.  Just a little upward shift in BMI and they were less desirable candidates.  Whether we think we are above this stuff or not, this report indicates that such attitudes are real and widespread.

So what can we do about it?

In truth there is no easy answer. There isn’t any easy answer when it comes to addressing any sort of discrimination, unlawful or otherwise, in employment and in life.  It is bigger than work stuff.  As the report suggests, maybe all we can begin to do is shine a light on the issue, and the challenges that (even slightly) overweight women face in the job market.  So, this blog post is my contribution.

Time for some reflection perhaps, on what our own attitudes and beliefs about overweight people really are.


Brain Space

I’ve been working from home a little more lately. Driven in truth by a practical need.

But it’s working for me. Whereas, frankly, sitting in an office often doesn’t.

We all know the problems with the typical office environment. In almost every organisation I have ever worked the office space itself left much to be desired, in terms of light, air, colour or simply furniture.  They are too, just full of distractions.  The ‘can I have a minutes’, the day to day noise of people getting on with their work or not, those folk just dropping by while they are passing.  Necessary stuff, important relationship building type stuff. But distracting all the same.

But then there’s the air con wars. The which radio station debate.  Trying to get a meeting room. Trying to get a car parking space.  The bloody commute.  And exactly who’s turn is it to make the tea?

Much less useful distractions.

When it comes to where we do our best work, it’s all about what work we want to achieve. A day of transactional stuff, 121s, catching up, working through stuff with others….. for all that type of work face to face in the office is just fine.  A day where I need to think, to write, to coach, to create or to plan…. Somewhere, anywhere else if you please.

With an internet connection we are effective anywhere. The office, the kitchen table, the coffee shop.

As I write this, I am working from home. It’s lunchtime, so in a minute or two I’m going to head over and see what is in the fridge. I’m wearing my trackies and a Red Dwarf t-shirt.  No office dress today (don’t get me started on that).  No make-up either.  I did the one minute commute from bedroom to desk.  Music in the background.  And productivity wise I’m winning.  Inbox cleared by mid-morning. Now onto the value add.

Brain space. To think and to do.

This is that most elusive of things. An integration of work and life.  Not just balance but blending.   A luxury perhaps.  The preserve of the knowledge worker, quite possibly.  Something worth striving for, definitely.

But when it comes to work, what counts is what you do, not where you do it.

The pregnancy penalty

If you work in HR, then I reckon you have seen the eye roll. The ‘one of my employees has just announced she is pregnant’ eye roll.  We can be as politically correct as we like, have all the policies fit to print, but this attitude still remains in our workplaces. I know, because over the years I have seen it for myself.

Don’t believe that this happens in 2016?

Unfortunately evidence released this morning proves you horribly wrong. You can find the links to the reports, both summary and full, here.

Discrimination against pregnant workers is getting worse. The situation has actually declined over the last decade.

Sobering reading indeed. If you haven’t got time to read the full 70 or so pages of the report and recommendations, try these headlines for size:

  • Half of women reported a negative impact on their career as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave, including being given lower level duties.
  • Around 20% saying that they had experienced harassment or negative comments as a result.
  • 11% reported being dismissed or made compulsory redundant when peers were not, or were treated so poorly they felt that they had to leave their job.
  • 10% reported that there were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments by their employer.

And finally. This statistic. Three quarters of the women surveyed had experienced a negative or positively discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy or maternity.  I’ll just leave that there. Three quarters.

These statistics should make us angry. Really angry.

There are predictable calls for a change in the law. For justice to become more accessible. For more protection for vulnerable groups.  For tougher rules around, inter alia, health and safety protections.

All laudable aims and suggestions.  But making it easier for women to take action when they experience discrimination  is dealing with the symptoms and not the causes.

Because fundamentally, at the heart of it, this is about attitudes. This is about mind-set and beliefs. It’s a short term view thing. It is a long overdue change thing.

I recall a discussion, not all that long ago, with a senior business leader about the gender pay gap. His belief?  It exists because women choose to do lower paid work when they have had a baby.  It’s a lifestyle choice apparently.  Yeah, because we all lack ambition once the pregnancy test reads positive.

That, right there, is part of the problem. Crappy, outdated attitudes.

So what do we actually do about it? Legislation will take us so far, but it is only part of the journey. It will help only some of those that need it.

The role of HR, the role of leaders, when it comes to tackling this problem is critical. We have to be prepared to openly challenge other people every single time we see one of these attitudes, both inside and outside our workplaces.  We have to be prepared to make a stand when we see that particular eye roll.  Which, just should you be wondering, should never, ever be done in my presence. #justsaying.


Social Media and the Candidate

Last week, research published by Monster and YouGuv found that 56% of employers admit that candidates’ online profiles influence their hiring decisions. Here’s a link to a CIPD blog post on the subject.

The survey goes onto to say that fewer than half of job seekers are conscious of how their online reputation looks to potential employees, with just 28% also stating that they are influenced by what they read about potential employers on sites like Glassdoor.

Should it be a surprise that employers have turned down potential candidates due to their social media profiles? No.  Not really.  You can have all the ethical arguments that you want about whether recruiters should or shouldn’t check this stuff out.  But back in the real world, they just will.  And if you are careless about what you put out there, then it will come back to haunt you.  We live in a social and transparent world and there is no escaping this fact.

As to the other statistics….. if you are looking for work and you aren’t conscious of your online reputation, might I politely request you join 2016. And to anyone not checking out a potential employer on anywhere but their corporate website, the 90’s called and they want their recruitment process back.

Here’s the thing. Social media is both a threat and an opportunity. This applies to organisations, brands and employees alike.

Your social media profile can be more telling than a two page CV or an hour long interview ever can. Anyone thinking about hiring me might as well just read this blog and my Twitter feed.  It will tell you most of what you need to know to make a hiring decision and some more besides.

Get it right as a candidate, and social media can enhance your profile. It can support your personal brand.  It can also help you build a great community from which to learn, and introduce you to a whole new world of global connections. It could be the deciding factor between you and the other candidate.

But get it wrong and it’s a whole other ball game. There are horror stories everywhere about social media.  There are plenty of examples of a careless tweet or post that have got people fired, or even publically shamed.  Anyone remember Justine Sacco?

There’s no such thing anymore as old news. Yesterday’s fish and chip wrapping paper.  What happens on social stays on social.  The delete key solves nothing.

When it comes to social media there are few that will advocate its benefits more than me. Other than perhaps Tim Scott.  And as we said in our book on the subject (blatant self-promotion klaxon), when you are on social media platforms of any description, don’t be an arse.  There are few real rules, but there is plenty of etiquette.

Don’t tweet dumb stuff. Don’t argue with trolls.  Be a nice human.  If you happen to have some dubious views or isms then best to keep them to yourself.  Consider what is private and what is not.  Think before you post. Watch your language. Check our your employers policy on this stuff if they have one, to ensure you know what is and isn’t going to cause you any hassle. Tidy up the past if you need to.

Social media.  Threat or opportunity.  But either way… someone will be Googling.

When culture goes bad

I have been reflecting on the research published yesterday into sexual harassment in the workplace. My co-author Tim Scott recently shared his thoughts on the same research here.

The report, entitled ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’, makes horrific reading.  In 2016.  At all. I’ve blogged previously about the word banter.  It is a dangerous word.  It reduces and minimises and trivialises what horrors some people have to go through just to earn a living.

If you put the word ‘banter’ into a Thesaurus this is what you will find…… Teasing. Joking.  Wit.  Repartee.

Try this example from the report and see if any of those words sound even vaguely representative.

‘On my last day at work, my colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get chance to rape me’.

Or this one.

In front of all his friends he groped my breasts’.

Banter this ain’t.

After reading this report, the questions that are running through my mind are these…..

How does an organisational culture get to this place?

How does this behaviour become part of the day to day?

How does this stuff happen in 2016?

Why, when harassment and offensive language, behaviour and so-called ‘banter’ takes place, do people stand by and watch it happen?

Because whilst some harassment goes on behind closed doors and out of sight, not all of it does. The report says so, and I know it for myself as someone who has both experienced it early in my career, and from dealing with it as a HR professional.

There is no one single answer to those questions I’m reflecting on.

It’s about what is permissible in an organisation. What is acceptable and tolerated.  It is about the behaviour of leaders and the message that sends.  It is about the extent to which it is safe to disagree and to challenge.

Another unrelated article makes a similar point.  The writer reflects on an organisation in which the C word, that most offensive of swear words, is so common place it has become barely noticeable to those that work there.

When you work in an organisation, especially for a long time, it is all too easy to fail to see what might be out of place or downright wrong within its culture. To see beyond what just happens around here and fail to ask if that is actually ok. To go with the flow.

Ask most people what they would do if they witnesses an act of harassment in the workplace and you will no doubt get a reassuring answer. They would report it.  They would help the person being harassed.  They would say something to the perpetrator.  But the evidence from this report, and indeed what we know about how our brains work, is that they don’t or won’t or can’t.

How does a culture go bad? In lots of ways.

Slowly. Incrementally.  One tiny step at a time.  Through poor leadership.  Through lack of challenge.  Through inertia.  Through simply not seeing.  The Ostrich effect.  The bystander effect.

Through all of the biases.

Culture is a boiling frog.

You have two choices when it comes to culture. You are either part of it, condoning or accepting.  Or you stand against it, for something else entirely.

And if we truly want to end harassment at work, then each of us need to stand up and be counted when the time comes.