Recently, Tony Jackson wrote a blog post titled ‘what shaped me’. He invited others to contribute to the theme. I reflected on the subject, and I found myself returning to one example of what shaped my views on the role and responsibilities of HR.
So here goes.
Once upon a lifetime ago, I’m in my first ever proper HR job. Previously, I’d worked in recruitment. I’ve got my CPP as it was then, and am just starting my next level of CIPD study. It would be an understatement to call me inexperienced.
We have an applicant for a Warehouse Operative vacancy. The work is in a huge warehouse, that also has a small outside Yard. Most of the Warehouse Operatives work indoors, but there also is a small team outside. Occasionally the Operatives rotate around inside and outside work, but not much. The applicant declares a disability that gets worse when working in cold temperatures, and tells me that he wouldn’t be able to work outside in the Winter. Could he still apply he asked me? The hope in his voice built in. Out of work for a while, he thought his age and his medical condition were deterring potential employers. He still had plenty to give, he told me, if someone would just give him a chance.
I didn’t hesitate. It was a reasonable adjustment after all. He came in for interview, he got the job. I think I made a note on his application form about his medical condition. I can’t honestly remember if I checked the adjustment issue with the management team. It seemed so straightforward, so uncontentious. For a few months of the year, he couldn’t work outside when there wasn’t that much work outside anyway. And several hundred other people available who could do it instead. It just never crossed my naïve mind that it would be an issue.
Until a few months later when there was a cold snap and he said he couldn’t go outside and uttered the words ‘HR said it was ok’.
HR got her arse kicked. The Operations Manager was practically foaming at the mouth. He made a formal complaint about me to my manager. I had over stepped the mark. Who did I think I was? It was his job to make these decisions not some girl in the office. The guy had got to go. He didn’t have time to organise work around what people liked and disliked and inconvenient medical conditions. He wanted him dismissed. Got rid of.
My refuge was to quote the law. The Disability Discrimination Act as it then was. That really didn’t help matters all that much. My manager supported me, to a point. He confirmed that I was right, technically at least. I stood my ground and I argued and I reasoned. I waved case law around, and average tribunal compensation award figures. And in the end, the guy kept his job. We continued to make that small reasonable adjustment, and it had no operational impact whatsoever. My relationship with this particular manager however, never recovered. I simply became one of ‘those’ HR people. Who in his mind quoted law and policy and stopped him doing what he wanted to do. I’m not usually that sort of HR person. But right then, for that issue, it was a reputation I could live with just fine.
What was it about this incident that shaped me professionally? It was my first ever experience of casual discrimination. I wish I could say it had been my last, but I can’t. On a practical level it made me realise that the reasonable adjustment wasn’t a HR decision and I should have communicated a heck of a lot better. Not to mention the fact that quoting legislation at people doesn’t resolve issues. It made me acutely aware of the balancing act that HR faces; more so perhaps than any other function ever has to.
Finally, this incident also made me realise that as a HR professional, there is a time that you need to stand up and be counted, and fight for someone who cannot fight for themselves, even if there are consequences to you. Because if we don’t, who will?