About hrgem

HR type. Fellow of the CIPD. Writer, speaker and blogger on all things HR and work. Author of the 'Putting Social Media to Work' book series. Believes that HR is all about doing good people stuff. Blogs at www.hrgemblog.com. Tweets as @HR_Gem.

Good enough for jazz


I recently completed an ILM programme in wellbeing coaching. In the days that followed I got to thinking.  How could I take the essence of my learning to help others, beyond the few coachees I could work with at any one time?  How could I help people to think about their wellbeing and their health, and make positive change?  The answer seemed to be a workshop of sorts.  Creating a space in which people could explore how they feel about their wellbeing.  A space to encourage reflection, planning, change.  So I wrote the outline of a workshop.  I sent it to a colleague who helped shape it.  I put a post on our internal network to see if anyone was interested in trying it out.  Within a couple of hours I had an email from someone who is running a team event and would love to try it – the day after tomorrow.  From concept to delivery = 11 days.

My point is this. The workshop might be useful (I think it is, I hope it is).  It might not be.  But we will find out.  The content might not be perfect or polished.  But it is out there in the world.  The team know what they are getting: an experiment.  In return, I will get feedback.  The workshop will then get better for the next time.

I have worked in organisations where this would not be possible. Where I would have needed sign off and a project plan and a formal pilot with a de-brief and a lessons learned wash up.  A concept and a terms of reference and some aims and objectives and so on and so on.

There is so much stuff in organisations that slows down the doing. Sometimes, we strive for perfection when good enough might be good enough.  Other times, it is because of the ways of working, culture, bureaucracy.

In my experience, here are some of the worst offenders.

Consulting everyone

Voice is important. So is collaboration, diversity of thought.  But you can do too much of it.  If you have to get the opinion of every man and his whippet, you will not only slow the work down but risk diluting it.  You can never take into account or accommodate every single opinion and item on the wish list.  Talk to enough people (the right people) to get a range of views, and the push ahead.

Setting up a working party

The first meeting will inevitably be spent talking about the purpose of the working party and agreeing some terms of reference and a reporting mechanism. The second meeting can be used to sign these off.  By about meeting five, you might start getting some actual work done.

Having too many people in the room

Jeff Bezos from Amazon is known for his two pizza rule. Never hold a meeting in which two pizzas can’t feed everyone there.  We all know what happens when we have too many people in a meeting room.  The introverts and reflectors get lost, their voices unheard.  The meeting loafers sit back, taking no actions or responsibilities.  Groupthink kicks in.  Everything. Slows.  Right. Down.

Having too much project bureaucracy

Taking minutes, circulating them for comment, singing them off, apologies, action logs, printed papers…… You might need this stuff if you are doing highly complex work.  Massive projects.  Work were at some point in the future, someone will really need to look back to see what was decided and why.  But you don’t need to do this for everything.  When you have a set of minutes and an action log circulated after a meeting, you can pretty much guarantee that its main use will be someone opening it just before the next meeting to see what they had forgotten they were supposed to do.  Just make sure everyone knows what they need to be doing and crack on.

Sometimes we need governance, structure, data, reflection and perfection. Sometimes we just need to JFDI.  If it’s good enough for jazz, go play.


Do you care?

Today, the Telegraph published this article suggesting that women in their thousands will be forced to quit their jobs to look after ill or ageing relatives if the supply of care workers from the EEA falls post Brexit.  My first reaction was to reflect on the whole misogyny of the headline.  But on reflection, sadly, it is probably true.  Domestic labour and care work, falls, for the most part at least, onto women.  The reasons for this are many, complex and structural.  Women still often earn less than men, so in many families this will be the most economic decision.  Women are already more likely to be working part time as a result of having children so again, such care work will naturally fall to them.  And so on.

But it isn’t just women who face workplace penalties when providing care. Working Families recently published their research ‘Off Balance’, looking at the issues faced by the parents of disabled children.  A few of the findings from the research:

  • 47% of mothers of disabled children are in paid work, compared with 64% of other mothers. There’s a difference in fathers too, but only2%. It’s those pesky gender roles once again.
  • 45% of parents of disabled children describe themselves as working in a job at a skill level below the one they had before they had their child.
  • There is a significant lack of specialised, affordable childcare to allow parents to work, a situation that gets worse in school holidays.
  • 76% of parents had refrained from seeking a promotion, declined a promotion because of their caring responsibilities to their child.
  • Nearly 50% of parents desire a different or more flexible working pattern than the one they currently have.
  • Parents are fearful of the impact of their caring responsibilities on their careers. Real life examples of parents forced out of jobs as a result of their caring responsibilities. Others taking all of their annual leave for medical or other appointments.

It is clear that the parents of disabled children face significant challenges in finding and retaining work, and then progressing their careers. It’s also a fact that more and more people are providing care to relatives, of some degree or another – and this is only set to increase in the years to come.

The Government has committed to introducing Carer’s Leave, that will provide a period of adjustment leave for the parents of disabled children, along with a statutory right to time off to attend children’s medical appointments. I am supportive of this – to a point.  Because it’s not really new legislation that we need, it is new attitudes.

Unfortunately some managers don’t want ‘messy’ staff. And by that I mean people with real, actual lives outside of work.  They don’t want staff that might get sick or pregnant or adopt a child. They don’t want staff with disabilities requiring adjustments, however reasonable.  They don’t want staff who might have to care for an ageing relative or a sick child.  They don’t want staff with depression or anxiety.  For those managers, and every HR person I know will have experienced a few, this real life stuff equals an employment PITA.  We know these managers exist.  They are the ones that don’t want to hire women of childbearing age.  These are the managers who don’t want to hire people with disabilities.  Who resist adjustments or flexible working.

My approach, when faced with these managers, is to ask them to reflect on what they would want from an employer and a manager, if it was their situation, their real need. Sometimes this works.  Often it does not.

We remain locked into the default model of work. Same times, same days, some locations.  Presenteeism.  Where, all too often, individual needs aren’t given individual consideration.  In my experience, most carers don’t actually need all that much.  Some understanding and empathy. Some flexibility.  Some trust to get the job done in the way that works best for them.  Recognition of achievement and contribution instead of hours at the coal face.

Changes in legislation can help. They can provide a lever for those that need it, and a recourse to the law when things go badly wrong.  But it’s bigger than an amendment to the statute books.

It’s the culture we really need to work on.  And then we might really show that we care.

A healthy email policy?


I saw this article today.  There is much good advice in here, but most if it I have seen before – or we instinctively know for ourselves.

But something in the piece did catch my eye. The idea of  healthy email policy.

As someone who has been involved in policy work for a good while, I remember the days when creating an email policy was a big deal. It had the same level of focus that social media policies get today.  I’m sure that when workplaces first introduced desk phones we felt the need to tell people how to use them too.  Eventually, these things become so part of the everyday (or even passé) that the need for a policy wanes.  I reckon there are plenty of email policies out there though, all the same.

A healthy email policy though….. that I could get behind.

We know that email can be a problem. Not the tool itself but how, and often when, it is used. Organisations where the email culture isn’t healthy at all.

Competitive late night emailing. Expectation of immediate responses.  Meaningless out of office messages, because employees feel like they can never really switch off.  The passive aggressive cc.  The ‘confirming our discussion’ ass cover.  And so on.

Of course, it’s not just unhealthy organisational habits, but personal ones too. We jump to the inbox ping, an ingrained Pavlovian response. Our emails are often in our pockets or on our smart watches, following us everywhere, quietly nagging us for a response.  And we do.

So just what could a healthy email policy look like? For some organisations it means banning emails ‘out of hours’ or automatically deleting emails when people are on holiday.  For me, both of these feel too much like treating employees like children who can’t manage their own workloads.  It also risks enforcing the idea that there is any such thing as a ‘normal’ working day.

Instead, a healthy email culture is one where someone does not feel like they have to respond immediately or be thought of as less committed or motivated. Where you can put an out of office on and mean it.  Where, if someone wants to work late at nights or weekend, they do so in a way that doesn’t role model unhealthy or unhelpful habits (just put them in your drafts folks and send them in the morning).  It also means an email culture where sometimes we don’t send one at all and just get up and have a conversation instead.

Do we need a healthy email policy? Probably not.  Instead, we need to start with ourselves by creating our own healthy email habits – and challenging the unhealthy ones we see from our colleagues too, along the way.

Compassion, Competence, Consistency

I have been thinking about what is important when it comes to the people stuff.

Thoughts informed by work I have been doing of late. I have been focusing on the practical stuff.  Guidance.  How to guides.  Frequently asked questions.  Enabling people do the everyday basics.   But basic doesn’t mean less important.  It the foundation of everything else.

As Cary Cooper says in his book that I’ve recently read, management matters.

Leadership, visions, missions, purpose. These things are necessary for all organisations to some extent or another.

So too is the day to day, not so glamorous, routine, management stuff.

Management is about the day to day. Responding to a holiday request, promptly.  Delivering an effective induction for a new starter.  Signing off expenses.  Handling a flexible working request.  Conducting a return to work interview.  Talking about under performance.  Setting objectives.  Providing feedback.  Checking on wellbeing.  Communicating.  Conversations.

In a long HR career I have heard all too many stories of incompetence and ignorance. Managers who just don’t deal with this stuff well, or even at all.  Ignoring holiday requests and expenses forms.  Failing to support new starters or returners from sickness.  Doing the policy thing over the right thing.  No sign of a 121, an objective or two, or some performance feedback.

When you are a manager, you are inevitably judged by the people that work for you. They will look to how you treat people, how you deal with the difficult stuff, how you chair a meeting, the fairness of the decisions you make.  Whether it is failing to address poor team dynamics or individual behaviour,

There is oh so much reading material and advice about what makes a great people manager.  So hey, I might as well add my own.  In my experience, there are three things that people look to.

First and foremost, people want their manager to be competent. To know what they are doing.  To be able to do all of that basic but oh so important stuff – and they want them to be able to do it consistently and with compassion.  Occasionally there can be a tension between the latter two; for some consistency means treating everyone the same in every situation, but there are many times where this just isn’t the right thing to do. Following past precedent and compassion are not always easy bed fellows.   Compassion in management is about meeting people where they are, understanding, support for individual needs and circumstances.  It’s about doing the right thing and not the policy thing.  It is above all, taking a human approach.  Asking always, what would I want from my employer, my manager, if this was me.  It is about kindness. And to quote my friend Amanda Arrowsmith, it is about not being a dick.

Consistency isn’t about always following the policy and taking the same approach.  No one wants to be treated like someone else, just their individual self.  Consistency in this context is about being reliable, showing up as the same person every day, being fair in your approach – to everyone.  Not making decisions that are capricious, biased or unpredictable.

Does this sound obvious?  It should.  It is.  But that doesn’t mean that this is what many employees experience in the every day.

Basic, effective, competent everyday people management is the basis and the platform for everything else.  Competence together with consistency and compassion, are the building blocks for truly effective people management that matters.


Mind the gap


MP Jo Swinson has tabled a bill that would require organisations employing more than 250 staff to publish their family leave policies. Jo describes this as a ‘simple and practically effortless change’.  She notes that this isn’t a silver bullet, but argues that better information is part of the answer.

I agree with her. Because the policy is only part of the story.

Once upon a time, I applied for a new job. Flexibility being a necessity for me, I checked out their website.  There, loudly proclaimed was its status as a family friendly employer.  A supporter of flexibility.  There was the policy and the guidance, and even a handy list of the types of flexibility permitted.  As a candidate, relief.  No need for an awkward conversation during the recruitment process, hoping that your experience and your answers to the interview questions outweigh your need for a just little bit of flex. It was a significant contributory factor in accepting the offer.

On starting, I mentioned flexibility to a colleague. In response, a raised eyebrow and a wry smile.

And so I learned the hard way about the gap between the corporate rhetoric and the everyday reality.

I do support the initiative to encourage publication of family policies. Many organisations do this already – even if some of them don’t really mean it.  I support the notion for perhaps a simplistic reason; anything that highlights the importance of this issue is a good thing.  It may force some organisations to rethink their offer and positioning for the better, especially if flexible working starts to (finally) be understood as a talent acquisition opportunity.  Publication would help to prevent candidates from having to decide between asking the questions and the consequences it may bring.  It brings this discussion to the forefront.

But the policy is only part of the story. The rest of it takes place in the everyday.

And we must focus here, too.

5 steps to managing in a heat wave


It’s hot. You might have noticed.  Unusual weather often provokes a range of advice on how to manage people, just in case common sense fails along with the air-conditioning.

  1. Tear up your dress code if you have one. Replace it with a notice that says ‘no swimwear’ and be done with it.
  2. Give all your staff free ice-cream. Fancy employee engagement strategies can work well, but in my experience food always works better.
  3. Be flexible. Commuting is mostly horrible in the heat, especially for those who use public transport BO boxes. Strongly consider allowing people to work from home or commute outside the sweat hour.
  4. Have outdoor meetings (sunscreen is advisable). No one says you have to sit indoors in a hot, airless office in order to get stuff done.  Better still, have your meeting in a pub beer garden (should there be no health and safety implications of course).
  5. Enjoy it. It will probably be raining this time next week.


Minutes, meetings and minutiae

Have you ever been in a meeting room when the buffet lunch has arrived? It’s a universal kind of thing.

There will be a knock at the door, and in will come mixed trays of sandwiches, all covered in several layers of cling film. Someone will inevitably have ordered tuna, the remains of which will, during the course of the afternoon, warm and fill then room with a questionable odour.  There will most likely be a plastic bowl full of crisps, also adorned with cling film.  Maybe some cake, or, for those organisations hoping to support their wellbeing agenda, a plate of fruit.  A jug of water, or maybe orange juice.  That too, might be covered with the ubiquitous cling film.  A stack of plates, each with an individual napkin in between.


I know you’ve been there.

Eventually, someone will find themselves unable to face any more PowerPoint without sustenance, and will call for a break, much to the delight of everyone else who just didn’t want to the one to say how hungry they were. The trays and the bowls and the plates will be shuffled to the meeting table and the working lunch ritual begins.

And there is my point.  Who gets up?  To move the trays of sandwiches to the meeting table?  To hand out the plates and peel off the cling film and ask who wants juice or who wants water and pass the glasses?

The women in the room.

All too often, in my experience at least.

This article from HBR caught my eye today.

It resonated because earlier this week I’d been asked to attend a meeting to talk about wellbeing. I was the stranger in the room.  Someone barked at me (without any introduction or acknowledgement) ‘are you here to take the minutes?’.  I wasn’t.  The person who was, soon arrived.  It was, unsurprisingly, another woman.

The idea discussed in HRB was something I noticed early in my career, and I have seen a variant of it in every workplace since. White men get the glamour work.  Women and people of colour get the office housework.

The female in the room attending to the domestics. The female in the office washing up the coffee cups.  The female in the office remembering that you are nearly out of sugar and stopping to grab some on her commute.  Filling up the printer with paper.  Doing the stationery order.  Sorting the birthday collection.  Booking the office Christmas party.

Office housework.

Maybe we are so used to this domestic, emotional labour outside of work that we unthinkingly accept it at work too. Or even when we do notice it, we just don’t say anything.

I have for many years, personally and quietly stood against the assumption I will do this type of work. If someone asks at the beginning of a meeting, who is taking the minutes, I never respond.  When the lunch comes through the door, I won’t be the one to get up and do the cling film duty or pass the plates.  I won’t be the first one to fetch the coffee.

I do my bit and I take my turn. I just refuse to be first.  I refuse to make it easy for people to assume that I can and I will.

This stuff isn’t too hard to change.

If you must have minutes, rotate who does them. Do the same for who is chairing or pulling together the agenda.  If there is coffee to be made, rotate that too.  Notice who is doing the routine stuff.  If it isn’t you, get out of your chair.  As the HBR article notes, don’t ask for volunteers for these tasks, because we already know who will and who won’t. Allocate them instead.  The next time you are figuring out who to ask to do a particular piece of work, and a name pops into your head, stop and ask yourself why them. If you see this stuff happening in your workplace, be the one to call it and do something different.

And for goodness sake, next time you are in a meeting and a buffet lunch arrives, eat the bloody tuna.