Earlier this week, the BBC programme ‘Inside Out’ featured allegations about the working conditions of employees at Sports Direct. I have no idea if the allegations are true, but they are truly shocking all the same. An off the scale accident rate. A draconian approach to discipline. High levels of stress. Even a suggestion that employees were urinating in the distribution warehouse, as they were too fearful to take a bathroom break.

Here’s the thing. Regardless of what is or isn’t happening at that particular organisation, our labour market, our workplaces, are full of contradictions. Disconnections.  And we know that such workplaces do exist.

For every far sighted organisation thinking about the future of work, there is another wilfully embracing the past.

For each coffice based, location independent worker, there is another sitting at their desk existing within a culture where preseentism is hard wired.

For every PowerPoint deck extolling the virtues of employee voice, there are employees who are quite simply, silenced.

For every workplace talking about engagement and empowerment, there is another living and breathing the principles of scientific management. The ghost of Taylor haunts us still.

For every HR Manager who wants to dial down the bureaucracy and empower their people, there is one somewhere else writing a 45 page policy document that restricts and constrains and penalises.

For every intellectual conversation about authentic self, there is another employee consciously hiding who they really are because they see no other option.

For every company promoting employee wellbeing, there is another than simply doesn’t give a shit.

We have employment laws designed to protect us from the worst of employers, but many somehow find themselves outside of these protections, or simply unable to afford them.

These are the contradictions that exist for many, every day.

In a week where the Prime Minister has talked about fighting for equality in employment (despite the fact that his government has done much to push it backwards), let us not forget that true equality employment is about more than nine protected characteristics (even though we have much work to do there, still). It is about being able to go to work and know that you are going to come home safely to your family. It is about going to work and being able to be who you are. It is about having the ability to challenge an employer who treats their people poorly, without fear of retribution. It is about being able to be genuinely sick, without being dismissed. It is about having some confidence that you will get some work that week. It is about a workplace in which people actually matter, and are not merely resources to be used and abused.

This, today, is the challenge that we face.

Can HR lead the way?

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