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?

QTWTAIN – the HR version

You may have come across the concept of Questions To Which The Answer Is No. It comes from Betteridge’s law of headlines that states: ‘any headline that ends in a question mark, can be answered by the word no‘.  There is even an annual award ceremony for the best examples of the tradition.

So I got to thinking. What are the HR versions of QTWTAIN? Here are mine…… but I’d  love to hear yours too.

Should we write a policy for that?

Probably not. Especially if whatever it is, is a one-off occurrence or relates to one individual. Most of the time, a conversation will be just fine. Resist the urge to turn everything into a document.

Should I raise a grievance?

Not unless you have already explored every possible way of resolving the situation; grievances polarise people and are rarely constructive experiences.

Should I discipline him or her?

Not unless it is a gross misconduct offence, or as above, you have explored other ways of dealing with the situation. Discipline should be the last resort, not the first step.

Should I change the name of the Human Resources team to something else?

Nope. I dislike the term as much as many people, and am acutely aware of the importance of names and labels. But a Snickers still tastes like a Marathon.* Only change your name if you are going to change other stuff too, like what you do and what you stand for. Otherwise, what is the point?

Should we link pay to performance?

No. It doesn’t work, and may well have unintended consequences.

Should I do an annual employee engagement survey?

Not unless you are going to genuinely commit to doing something with the content, and finding other ways of listening to your people too – and definitely more regularly than once a year.

Should some of our benefits not apply until the end of our probationary period?

No. If a candidate was good enough that you wanted to offer them a job, then offer them everything. What message do you think it sends if you make them prove that your hiring decision was right before you offer them what everyone else gets?

 As part of this restructure, should employees have to re-apply for their own job?

No. Never. I can think of few more crappy things to do to your people. If someone is doing a job well, then they shouldn’t need to apply for it. If they are not then they need that a whole different type of conversation.

I have an employee who is not really performing. Shall we make their role redundant?

No. This isn’t a redundancy situation, it is about performance. So let’s deal with it appropriately even if that is more difficult.

My employee has a body odour problem. Can you tell them?

No. You can.


*Note to younger readers (Gen Z and below, probably). Snickers used to be called Marathon.

The demise of the performance review?

I feel like I have been blogging about the problems with performance reviews for years. This subject is nothing new to HR professionals. But all of a sudden, it is the latest hot topic, with companies everywhere getting rid of ratings, finally seeing the light about stack ranking, or getting rid of their review process in its entirety.

Where I work, we removed ratings two years ago. And not particularly because of the neuroscience angle, but because they didn’t drive anything or link to anything. The ratings were just there. Part of the accepted process. Best practice, probably.

We have a rule in our HR team. A test if you will. If we can’t articulate the reason for something that we do simply and to a non-HR professional, if we aren’t doing anything with an output or using a particular process or activity to help us improve things or make a decision, then we consider getting rid of it. Ratings failed the test.  Instead, we replaced a quite structured performance dialogue with a coaching style approach.

Ratings lead to nothing much at all in many organisations. But their very presence looms large over the meeting all the same. Becomes the focus of the discussion. A point for debate or conflict.

The feedback after we removed them? The reviews were harder to do. Because they changed the nature of the conversation. There was less structure. Not quite so much of a form to follow.

I’ll take that particular version of harder.

Here’s the thing. Performance reviews, as we typically implement them, are flawed and long overdue an overhaul . But in challenging this particular problem, let us not jump on bandwagons, or create conversation vacuums.

You can’t just remove performance reviews, you need to replace them with something better.  Ideally, something that specifically suits your own organisations, its leadership maturity, your particular culture and your unique challenges. When you strip away where reviews go wrong, the underlying principles, the underlying needs are unchanged. Employees want, need, deserve feedback on their performance. Employees and their managers need to have honest dialogue about how things are going now, and what needs to happen in the future. Employees desire personal growth and development, and that too needs discussion.

If you want to remove reviews or change reviews, make sure it is because it is the right thing to do and not because someone else is doing it, everyone is talking about it.

What you replace them with, needs to be tailored, just for you. And merely changing a process will not solve any underlying problems, that is just treating symptoms rather than causes.

So before you kill off the performance reviews over at your place, there are two questions to ask.

Firstly, what is it that is actually broken that needs to be fixed?  And secondly: is our culture, are our leaders, ready to make this change?

Killing annual performance reviews is currently big news.  But I can’t help but think the rumours of their demise are greatly exaggerated, for now at least.

A change worth making?

There have been plenty of HR related headlines of late in the mainstream press. In the last week or so there has been the Amazon expose into their alleged awful culture. Dubious practices from restaurant chains relating to the deduction of tips from their waiting staff have been all over social media. And we have seen the predictable indignation about proposed employment law changes, this time relating to the impact of the living wage on care homes, making breakfast television.

Many of these headlines are not news to those of us involved in people stuff. Unite for example have been campaigning for some time against restaurant chain Pizza Express and their practice of deducting an admin percentage for tips paid for by credit card. There has been previous publicity about the scientific managementesque working practices at Amazon’s distribution operations. And as I have blogged before, when any  employment law change provides new rights or benefits to employees, there is usually a queue forming to discuss how it will irrevocably damage industry. Only what this often really means is that it is going to impact our profitability. This of course is at the heart of most crappy treatment of employees. Profit before anything else, no matter what the cosy corporate values might suggest.

It used to be said that today’s newspaper stories were tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappings. In our social world, it doesn’t even take that long before we have moved on to the next tweet, the next blog post, the next subject of online outrage. Timeline gone by.  So whilst the people related headlines may come and quickly go, how does effective, meaningful change occur?

Another often said phrase within HR, is that you get the employee relations that you deserve. This one does still holds true for me. If you treat your people badly, then some of them will leave. Others will respond to their treatment through their absence rate, through the effort they expend (or don’t), or through the comments they make on Glassdoor.

I’d like to think that HR have the solution to these challenges. That we can fulfil our obligation to create better work and better working lives, through our actions and activities in our own particular organisations. But individual HR professionals can only achieve so much.

Where profit is at the heart of how we treat people, maybe impacting profit is our greatest opportunity to make a difference. Our primary ability to influence and impact how employees are treated, might simply be the choices that we make as a consumer. If you don’t like the fact that your regular supermarket doesn’t pay the Living Wage, shop someplace else. If you don’t think restaurants should deduct a share of the tips from their waiting staff, then eat somewhere different instead. Buy your Christmas presents from a company with a better reputation.

I’ve said before that I believe the employee experience flows into the customer experience.  Maybe it is time for the customer to help out the employee in return.

Just a thought.

Old wine in new bottles?

I’m increasingly finding myself interested in the idea of employee experience.

But I’m testing myself. Testing that I am not falling for old wine in a new bottle. Testing that I’m not about to jump on a new bandwagon, as the last one departs unlamented.

Many HR professionals now accept employee engagement isn’t that thing that we thought maybe it was, hoped maybe it was. We know now that the hard evidence isn’t there to support the ambitious assertions. That it is neither our ticket to a seat at the table (sorry) nor to the often fabled increase in financial performance. We know too, that there are lies, damned lies and employee engagement surveys.

The engagement rhetoric promised much but delivered less.

But we are familiar with the term. We refer to it more often than we do employee experience. Engagement, as we know, is an outcome. An outcome of many variables. Experience is somewhat different. It is those variables.

To me, it is what I call simply, the people stuff. It is each and every interaction that an employee has with the organisation they work for, throughout their own particular journey of employment. From the very first interaction as a candidate, to the final leaving experience. It is every element of the employment lifecycle.

I am a big believer that employee experience flows into customer experience. There’s evidence out there. But it is intuitive too. Who will provide your customers with a better experience? The employee who is having a great experience themselves, or the one who is pissed off about everything from the over enthusiastic office air-conditioning to a mistake in their pay packet.

The idea of employee experience seems to be spreading. As Doug Shaw highlighted recently in this blog post, Airbnb’s Chief HR Officer has now become their Chief Employee Experience Officer. As I tweeted to Doug at the time, I think this shift in language is positive. Maybe it is better for us to focus on our employees as people to whom we should be providing an experience, rather than considering them mere resources.  The labels we attach make meaning.

How else might thinking about the experience of our people change our approach? For me, the engagement debate was impersonal. Driven perhaps by a desire to prove we are commercial types after all, and not so pink and fluffy, we sought to demonstrate that if we could link engaging employees to financial performance we had made our business case for the people stuff.  Employee experience feels slightly different.

We don’t question for a moment the idea that we should, must, strive to provide the best possible experience to our customers. Such a question would barely need asking, but if it was, we would refer the need to retain them, work with them again in the future, ensure that they speak positively to others about us, not lose them to competitors…… The parallels are more than obvious.

Employee experience. Is it an idea that’s time has come, or simply more of the same? Only time, and maybe the bandwagon effect, will tell.

First Impressions


I’m doing some work on induction at the moment.  It got me thinking about my own experiences of being a new starter.

A long time ago, I took a job at an organisation that had a fairly tough employee relations climate.  HR weren’t especially valued for their contribution.  Some of that was around the reputation of former HR team members, but some of it was just a general lack of understanding how the function could benefit or enable.

On my first day, it took until about lunchtime for the HR Director who had recruited me to tell me that she was in fact working her notice.  On day five, she emailed me from home to tell me she wasn’t going to bother working the rest of it, and wished me luck.

The rest of my induction involved being provided with a manual of current HR policies and procedures, along with a key to the stationary cupboard. A meeting had also helpfully been scheduled with every single manager on the site over a two week period.  I shuffled from meeting to meeting.  About half of the time, the other person I was supposed to be meeting didn’t even turn up.  When the meetings did go ahead, I faced a variety of responses, most of which involved a very long list of things they didn’t like about HR.  My personal favourite was the manager who told me that he didn’t see the point in talking to me now.  He suggested I came back in six months if I was still here.  Because most people weren’t.  He actually had a point.  I had four managers in two years in that role; one of them lasted nine and a half days.  He got to lunchtime on day ten and simply legged it.

I learnt a lot about induction at this company.  Mostly how to never, ever, treat a new starter.

Induction is one of those activities that we know is so important to get right, but all too often still manage to get wrong.  We don’t start it early enough, we overly rely on boring e-learning, we provide people reams of barely relevant information to read so that we can tick a box to prove it.  We call the process horrible things.  Induction, orientation, or the truly awful onboarding.  We provide too little of some information and not enough of others.  We think it starts on day one and ends around the end of week two.

What induction really should be, before anything else, is a warm welcome.

If someone was visiting your home for the first time, chances are the first thing you would do is make them a cup of tea.  Maybe offer them a biscuit.  Chat to them.  Make sure they know where the toilet is.*  You wouldn’t give them a written guide to your house and all the expectations you have of their behaviour during their visit the minute they step over the doorstep.  You wouldn’t issue them with documents to sign to confirm that you have shown them how to use the kettle, or sit them in front of your television while you go off to attend to something else in your diary.

I am well aware that there is a big difference in welcoming someone to your home as opposed to your team and place of work.  But there is something too about work and all its facades that leads us to forget that we are simply people. That stops us from behaving and speaking like human beings to other human beings.  That tips us into processes where we need only simplicity.

There is of course a need for some formality and structure within induction.  Stuff that must be done, or seen to be done.  But maybe we could have a little less paperwork and a little more conversation.  Induction should be an experience that leaves people with a great feeling.  That validates the decision to join an organisation.  That, when asked the inevitable question about how they are finding their new job, leads an employee to provide only positive responses. The answer you are striving for is not ‘okay so far’, ‘tiring’ or ‘I’m not sure yet’.  The answer you are looking for, is simply, ‘awesome’.

Like most people stuff, induction is all about how you make people feel.

*Note – this is also very important in any corporate induction for obvious reasons. 

What Shaped Me

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?

10 Ways to spot a laggard at your place

If you haven’t come across the term laggard, it is most often used in the context of the Innovation Adoption Curve, or the diffusion of innovations to give it its more formal title.  The theory seeks to explain how new stuff, like ideas and technology, spreads through societies and culture, and organisations too.

It goes a little like this.  When some new stuff comes out, there are folks that get to it first.  These are the innovators.  They are followed by the early adopters.  Slowly, the new stuff spreads and eventually reaches a critical mass and nearly everyone has it.  Others continue to catch up.  But those who catch up last of all, are the laggards.  Often when the innovators have already moved on to something else.  Different factors impact upon the speed at which all of this takes place.

Take the Apple Watch.  Right now, it is still at the early adopter phase, and you will find it sported only on a few wrists.  But if the theory holds true, it is only a matter of time before almost everyone has a smart watch.  Don’t believe me?  Once upon a time only a few people had a TV.  Then only a few people had a colour one.  Then only a few people had a Sky dish.  And so on.  The question is not if, but how long. Each innovation is different in the time that it takes to complete the cycle.

Every culture, every organisation, has its share of laggards – those late to the stuff. I’ve met my share; I am sure you have too. The reasons behind it are many.  Sometimes it is just being unable to see the need for the new stuff; identify what problem it is solving or what value it adds  When something works and has served you well, then why do something differently?  I was reminded by this recently when watching a drama based upon the first criminal conviction secured by the use of DNA in the UK.  While there was a senior policeman who believed in the science, there were others around him who doubted and favoured the old ways of crime detection. Now, it is simply routine.

So here, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, is a guide to spotting a laggard, at your place.

  1. They still have a 90’s Nokia and are not in the least bit interested in an upgrade.
  2. They say that don’t see the point of Twitter because it is all about people sharing what they had for breakfast.
  3. They think that all social media should be banned on the corporate network as it is nothing to do with work.
  4. They have a PA who prints out their emails for them.
  5. They know the number for the fax machine.
  6. They have used the fax machine. In the last week.
  7. They have a LinkedIn profile, because someone told them they should have one, but it is almost completely blank. Definitely, no photo.
  8. They start many of their sentences with ‘yes, but that will never work here…’
  9. You once sent them an Instant Message, but they didn’t reply as they had no idea what made that funny noise.
  10. There is a persistent rumour that they still have a Betamax video recorder.

I’m joking.  A little.  It is not my purpose in this post to be insulting or belittle anyone, but to wonder instead how we can help people to move on and to learn how.  We live in a world in which traditional stuff is being disrupted, and new norms arise on a regular basis.  Those without digital skills in the workplace will find themselves increasingly excluded.  It is 2015.  It is no longer okay to say that you ‘aren’t very technical’ or you ‘don’t get social media’.  Because this is the world in which we live.

The term laggard does have a trace of something slightly demeaning.  That someone with such tendencies is perhaps a slacker, a throwback, a luddite.  That they will resist all progress or they just don’t get it.  But that ain’t necessarily so.  Maybe they need some help with figuring out what is in it for them.  Maybe the myths or concern about risks have held them back.  Maybe it is a training issue.  Maybe we should take the time to find out.

Whatever someone’s reason for their continued reliance upon traditional ways of working, HR need to help them adapt.  Contrary to the cliché, you can teach an old dog new tweets.  And it is the role of HR to lead it.

Our employees are our greatest asset (ish)

Has there ever been a more trite and overused phrase?

I tweeted this cartoon from Dilbert this morning. The speed of the retweets suggested I’m not the only one who sees the humour and the contradiction within the turn of phrase.

dilbert asset

I actually don’t agree that employees are your greatest asset.  Partly because I fundamentally dislike the notion of people being defined as an asset at all.  But more importantly, because I believe that for most businesses, customers are your biggest asset.  Because without them, there are no employees and there is no business.  That doesn’t mean I don’t see the huge value in people, of course I do.  And I also recognise the critical link between the customer and the employee.

But the phrase has by its overuse, become almost meaningless.  Many people trot it out, but scratch the surface and you often find a big gap between say and do.


Years ago, I worked for a recruitment agency that was fond of saying that their people were their greatest asset.  But what they really meant was the people that bill the most are our greatest asset.  We worked excessive hours, were expected to pick up the phone at any time of the day or night holidays notwithstanding.  The pay was rubbish, and the benefits no more than the statutory minimum.  There was such a blame culture that you were terrified to go on holiday as you never knew who would steal your clients or stitch you up in  your absence.  Did I feel like I was their greatest asset?  Not so much.

To anyone who states that employees are their biggest asset, I would ask these questions.  Are you paying the Living Wage? How is the work life balance of your people?  What learning and development do you provide them? What is your workplace like to be in, every day? What is your turnover like, and your absence figures too?  How do your employees feel about working for you?  Do you live up to this statement all the time including the difficult times?  Does it apply every day, or just on the website?

Calling your people a great asset is an easy thing to say, but distinctly less easy to live up to.

You really believe your employees are your biggest asset?  Then prove it.  With what you do, not just what you say.

That holiday feeling

There is a type of person I will never understand.  Those folks who don’t take all of their holiday entitlement.  I’ve just spent a week in the sun, and am returning to work rested and energised (look out team).  I treasure every day of my holidays, and make the most of all of it.

Many years ago I worked in logistics.  It had a culture of long hours, which for many working there equated to doing good work and having a strong personal brand.  One of the ways that this manifested itself was a very unhealthy, mine is bigger than yours game of ‘I can work longer hours and take less time off than you’.  It was not unusual for me to arrive at work in the morning and see our Operations Manager in the same shirt and tie as the previous day; he simply hadn’t been home and had slept in his office.  The mentality that prevailed was ‘I have to be here or things won’t get done’.  Of course, if this is true, it means you are lousy leader rather than a committed one. It means you haven’t put the right people or the right stuff in place to make sure that the organisation can effectively run in your absence. It creates a culture of checking and completely disempowers people.  Frankly, sometimes it is the sign of an out of control ego, or even a little control freakery.  This particular manager learned his lesson when an injury prevented him getting into work for some weeks.  After some initial confusion due to the many things he had kept to himself, the operation carried on regardless.  And thankfully for everyone else, he then started to loosen his grip and take some time off.

The long hours game is one I have never played.  In fact, I try to do the exact opposite.  I try to be seen leaving at a reasonable time so as to cast a positive shadow that life work balance is good, and presenteemism, well, isn’t.  And if I need to be sat at my desk until 7pm at night, then I believe it indicates I have something of a problem.  Starting with my own time management.

I reckon we have all worked with someone who is happy to tell everyone how little time they take off, or how many hours they work.  I’m sure every HR department has someone who turns up at the end of the year and asks to carry 15 days holiday forward.  Such people should be booked into a time management course pronto. Or marched to a travel agent.  Leaders have an absolute responsibility to make sure that the people that work for them have appropriate rest.

Time off is absolutely critical.  We need space away from our routine and the daily schedule in order to be healthy, to be at our best, to think well.  Excessive hours, lack of rest and slaving at the inbox are good for neither individual or organisation.

Working 15 hours a day does not make you a superhero.  It does not make you indispensable or more valued.  So take your holidays with pride.  Leave at 5pm once in a while.  Take a break. Go for a walk at lunchtime.  Treat these things as non-negotiable, rather than nice to haves.  And encourage the same in those that work for you.

For everyone’s benefit – individual and organisation.



Performance Reviews. What if….

It’s that subject again.  The one we keep talking about solving but so far haven’t managed to.

Performance reviews.

I have some thoughts running through my head about the subject, so I am blogging to help me make sense of them.  Mostly, these are questions I am still thinking through.  Comments, ideas and feedback are welcome.

Take a look at the performance review process in many organisations.  The forms might vary a bit, the language too, but lots of them have fundamental similarities.  There are documents to complete, SMART objectives, a bit in which you talk about personal development, examples to collate, some sort of rating system (apart from where I work – we chucked out that particular poisonous piece of chintz a while ago).  The approaches are similar, but organisations are not.  So why do so many appraisals, performance reviews, annual whatevers, look and feel the same, wherever the place?

What if we designed performance reviews specifically for our own organisation instead?  Our challenges, our problems, our very own elephants in the room?  The futures that we want to create?

When we talk about alignment in the performance management space, normally we are talking about alignment of objectives to the corporate strategy.  We have this quaint little notion that the senior team get their objectives, and then set some for their team, and so on and so on.  Objectives, aligned to the vision and the strategy then cascade like a beautiful waterfall throughout the organisation so that everyone understands their place within it and their own contribution.  But cascades don’t work.

So maybe we should align performance reviews with something else instead.

What if everyone in the organisation had the same objectives?  Or even just one? That we just picked the one thing that was most important to us, at our place, and focused on only  that – with a built in assumption that grown adults for the most part know what is expected of them every day or have job description at the very least, and we can just manage them against that if needs be?

Most organisations have a thing.  Something that people talk about.  If only we could change that.  Maybe the culture is too risk averse.  Maybe there is too much hierarchy or burearcracy.  Perhaps everyone works in silos or the communication is terrible.  What if we changed the process or set everyone’s objectives to work on just that?  What difference would that make, at our place?

For example.  Let’s assume that your particular organisational challenge is that old silo working issue.  A lack of effective information flowing around.  What if the performance review process was redesigned with that in mind?  A requirement that feedback is public, that objectives are shared in a working out loud fashion, that any objectives that are set are agreed by other departments or managers.  What if the review system made it formally everyone’s responsibility and that is what you would be reviewed upon at the end of next year?

What if we stopped doing SMART objectives, because actually formulating objectives tightly is the opposite of empowerment and autonomy.  And perhaps some of the words that SMART stands for are not transformative.  Realistic objectives are nice and safe.  But they might not change your organisation.  Maybe we should set something that isn’t very measurable or achievable and see where that gets us instead.

What if we stopped separating the work objectives and the development objectives and calling them different names and having them within different parts of the form, and recognised that people are whole?  That the ‘personal development plan’ bit and operational objectives bit are intertwined and mutually supporting and therefore should be so in any performance review?

We get criticised when we change the process itself.  Performance review systems and processes often get tweaked, usually to solve a small inherent problem, but without tackling the big one.  Too many managers selecting the middle rating?  Let’s change the number of boxes to four instead of five.  That will solve it.

But what  if we deliberately set out to change the system on a regular basis?  Organisations, culture, technology.   They all change.  Some at a scarily fast pace.  So why not deliberately change your performance management system on a regular basis too?  Not fiddling around the edges, but deliberately changing it in order to respond to those changes taking place around us, with the intent on keeping things fresh, introducing new focus. To make sure that the type of conversations that take place are advancing.

What if we just stopped trying to assign labels to people within a review system, because that then becomes the focus of the discussion rather than the quality of the dialogue?  You are a three. You are green.  You are fully achieved.  Because no rating system can ever capture a year of performance so let’s not even try.

If there is a rating system, what if the employee rated their line manager instead of their line manager rating them?  Or the employee rates the company, the culture, the senior team.  Their own self?  And that was the rating that counted and was recorded.

What if performance related pay meant not operational performance but how much an employee has learned during the course of the year instead?

What would the consequences be?  Intended or otherwise.

What if, what if, what if.

I’m still thinking.


The long and the short of it

One of my team leaves today.  I will admit to contradictory feelings.

On one hand I am, perhaps selfishly, a little sad.  Sad because she is smart, funny, and I have learnt much from her.  But on the other hand I am genuinely pleased and excited for her and her new opportunity.

When someone hands in their notice, especially if they are one of your star performers, there is often a temptation to encourage them to stay.  Perhaps to make a counter offer, sometimes of the financial variety.  It is a temptation that should usually be resisted.  The statistics will tell you that even if the person does decide to stay, a year or so down the road they will be gone all the same.  Because something caused them to look up and look out, and it probably isn’t just about the money.

Most companies recognise and appreciate long service. Certificates are given, awards are made.  Long service is often seen as desirable.  Hiring managers in particular often express concern about candidates who have moved around a little in their career history, favouring those with longer tenures.

I know that some people are not too keen on the long service award.  They see them as rewarding presence over contribution.  Of course that can be true, but not always or even often in my experience.  My own Father spent 45 years with one organisation, a whole lifetime of dedication.  For me, there is something special about working with people for a long time; a level of relationship that develops from shared experiences, shared challenges, shared lunch breaks and team nights out.  I still miss some of my old team for just that reason.  From long service too can come shared history, deep understanding, real commitment.

Most of the time we want to retain our people, and when they leave we seek to understand the reasons why.  Short tenure is sometimes seen as a cause for concern.  Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes it is about a problem in the recruitment process, a poor joining experience or simply a mismatch between individual and organisation.  But sometimes it is simply about people moving on to a new opportunity that fits their personal definition of better, and our changing ideas about the nature of work and what we each want from it too.

For all of the talk about the need to retain your top talent, sometimes it is just as important to let it go, with all of your very best wishes.  As a leader, it is your responsibility to develop the people who work for you and with you.   Sometimes this also means that they will move on to someplace else.  Such is life.

So when people leave, let us understand why, and then wish them well with positive intent.  Buy them a gift, have a cake or two.  Celebrate their time with you, whether it was long and loyal or short and sweet.


I do not usually blog about current events or people from my workplace.  I want people that I work with to be confident that they will not appear in my musings.  I break this rule today with the permission of the individual who inspired the post.  Normal service is now resumed.

Less is More

Periodically (by which I mean fairly often), I find it necessary to have a good old rant blog about policies and procedures.

Here’s the thing.  Almost every people policy I have ever seen is about twice as long as it really needs to be, and plenty of them are full of irrelevant and unhelpful content. Many fall into the same traps, adding little in the way of real value, but plenty in the way of time, and frankly, waste paper.

These are the problems with policies that I see, far too often.

Policy Trap 1                       Stating the obvious.

I once saw a policy that referred to the fact that a company would have a meeting with an employee if certain situations arose.  It then went on to define what amounted to a meeting.  Just in case anyone wasn’t entirely sure.  Or any of the people reading it were five years old.  If it is obvious, then you really don’t need to state it.

Policy Trap 2                       Trying to cover every eventuality

You can’t.  So don’t even try.  If you set guiding principles and empower your managers to act within them, then this should be sufficient.  Consider a social media policy.  If you try and mention every type of platform or activity, or try and think of every way that employees can use or misuse them and then add them to your policy, you will never keep up.  But herein lies a key problem; some people like being told what to do in every eventuality.  It saves them from having to make a decision, or gives them the opportunity to say ‘HR said’.  So amending your policies to principle led ones will force these people out of their comfort zones to learn and think for themselves.  No bad thing.

Policy Trap 3                       Keep on growing

One of the problems with people policies is that they get bigger without you even noticing.  They start off nice and concise, and then a couple of years later you take another look and they are bigger than the Yellow Pages used to be. Something occurs at your place that has never happened before (see trap 2) so it is quickly added it in to the document for next time.  Just stick to your principles.  If you can’t say it in a couple of pages, or better still a couple of paragraphs, then maybe this is telling you something about people stuff or management capability at your place.  Where I work, our Social Media Policy has seven bullet points.  It can be done.

Policy Trap 4                       Having too many.

How many policies do you really need?  I’m betting that the average HR Department has upwards of 30.  Sometimes we write policies that we just don’t need.  For example, if your approach to redundancy is to do nothing more than the statutory minimum, then you don’t need to have a policy at all.  You just follow the law as and when the situation arises.  If when it comes to discipline and grievance you follow the ACAS code, just have a statement in your contract or handbook that says so.  There are some policies that you do need.  Social media is a good example, for no more reason than you might just loose an ET without one.  But you do not need a plethora of policies so large that printing them kills an entire tree.

Policy Trap 5                       Not being flexible.

Rules are made to be broken.  By which I mean that there is a time for following a policy to the letter, and a time to know when you need to be flexible, and either make an exception for good reason, or flex your whole approach to the principle as culture and good practice evolves.  Yes, I mean you, if you are still blocking social media on your corporate website based on a decision taken in 2004.  Over reliance on policies rather than applying common sense and considered thought to a given set of circumstances will turn your people into robots.  ‘Because the policy said so’ is never a good way to start any conversation with your people.

Policy Trap 6                       Swallowing a dictionary.

Plain language is just fine.  Leave the ‘hereafters’ and ‘up to and includings’ to the legal documents.  Write like you speak.  That is all.

Policy Trap 7                       Getting people to sign them.

If there is ever a signal saying ‘we don’t trust you’ it is getting people to sign HR policies.  You might as well add onto the bottom of the document ‘this is so we can prove you read it if we want to discipline you for breaking it at some time in the future’.   First of all, this isn’t necessary from a practical point of view.  If your policies are widely available and signposted appropriately this will be sufficient in almost all cases.  From a HR perspective, chasing all over the place getting people to sign stuff and checking who has and who hasn’t, is work of naff all value and will do your reputation no favours.  Your time will better spent doing something that makes your organisation a more awesome place to work.   Last of all, and perhaps most importantly, culturally, this does all the wrong stuff.

Your people policies and procedures are more than the sum of their parts.  They are not just instructions and guidance and requirements.  They are subtle signals about your culture, windows to the organisational world.

Think carefully about every word that you write in a policy.  What does that clause, paragraph or bullet point really say beyond the simple text, and what consequences will it lead to, intended or otherwise?

And if all else fails, think of the poor trees you can save.

The only thing worse than no recognition

…. is bad recognition.

A good friend of mine works for a very large high street retail company. Last week they gave her an ‘above and beyond’ type award for excellent customer service.

Picture this.

A certificate. Of sorts. A photocopied piece of paper that looked like it had been designed using clipart from Word. It was slightly out of line, as if it had been copied and then copied again, and the colours were all washed out. The date of the ‘award’ was in one font. My friends name in another.

Well, I say name. Because they got it wrong. Both of them. They used a shortened form of her given name that she doesn’t use. And an entirely different surname. It started with the same letter, but that was about it. The person who gave her this so called token of recognition acknowledged that it has the incorrect name. But they gave it to her anyway, rather than take the time to get another printed. As a final insult, the certificate was put in a cheap, plastic A4 frame. Noting that the certificate wasn’t actually A4, but slightly smaller.

My friend showed it to me, and simply said: ‘what the bloody hell am I supposed to do with that?’


What should have been an engaging experience turned instead into a demotivator. A joke. She does not feel appreciated, she feels annoyed.

When it comes to acknowledging and recognising your employees, you don’t have to spend loads of money. You don’t necessarily need fancy gifts or expensive tokens. You don’t even need a formal scheme. Sometimes, a simple a thank you is all that is required.

But if you are going to do employee recognition, then please do it properly. Or quite simply, don’t bother doing it at all.

Wearing One Face

Imagine not being able to be yourself every day.

Those were the words that really struck me from Lord John Browne at the recent HR Directors Summit.

He wrote ‘The Glass Closet: why coming out is good business’. He calls the book his letter to straight CEOs.  It tells his story.  How he was taught by his mother’s example that if you were in a minority that this was a risk.  That the majority could therefore hurt you.  That keeping secrets was the better option.  He hid his sexual orientation throughout his career, rising through the ranks at BP and eventually becoming CEO.  How one day whilst on holiday he received a call to say that a Sunday newspaper was about to expose his private life, after a story was sold by a former partner.  He resigned from his position to avoid dragging the company through a media storm.  He admits to being heavily invested in his double life.  Although he now wishes he had come out publically sooner, recognising that others may have been helped by him doing so, he admits, it simply did not occur to him at the time that it was possible.  It was all about the secret.

We often talk about authentic leadership.  About bringing our real selves to work.  But that narrative often talks of the benefits this can bring to your leadership style, what it adds to the toolkit.  Instead Lord Browne thinks about the converse.  How the constant drag of secrets, compartmentalisation and pretence can impact upon productivity and effectiveness.  The real cost to business. What hiding such a fundamental part of yourself really means for your wellbeing and happiness, the extent to which you can have meaningful relationships with your colleagues, the extent to which you can simply speak freely without watching your every word or worrying that you are going to somehow give yourself away.

Of course when it comes to secrets, it is not just sexual orientation that people feel they cannot share.  I have over the years met many people who are hiding something at work because they fear the implications of honesty.  Sometimes that fear is well placed and sometimes it is not.  I have experience of people concealing disability.  Mental health issues.  Family problems.  Criminal convictions.  Personal problems.  Big fat stuff that they hold inside themselves and carry on doing the day job regardless.  Showing a public face whilst hiding a private self.

Lord Browne spoke of the people he had met whilst writing his book who lived with fear and with paranoia.  That today, in 2015, with protections enshrined in law, did not feel that it was safe to come out in their workplaces.

My first instinctive reactions to this statement are sadness mixed with anger that this bad situation is some people’s every day reality.  But after the emotion comes questions. Lord Browne says that the book is for straight CEOs.  It should be for HR teams too.  There is a point in the book where he interviews someone who works within a large organisation that has an established LGBT network that has executive support. But the interviewee (a banker) claims that it is only ‘for admin staff and HR’.  He suggested that for some roles it was not the done thing to be seen there, in terms of their career.

So here are the questions that for me, the book poses to HR professionals.

At your place, how safe is it to be yourself? I mean really. Not pictures on the website, having a diversity policy and an inclusion programme safe.  But really safe.

If we genuinely believe that authenticity is worth striving for, then how do we create the environments in which our employees feel that they can be just that?  Beyond the initiative or project or programme.  How do we allow people to simply be, just exactly who they are?

No answers, just questions.

It’s my performance review…..

It’s my performance review on Monday.  One of my friends said this to me at the weekend.  The tone of voice was disdainful.  The FFS at the end merely implied.

When you work in HR, people talk to you about their work all the time.  I quite like it.  I especially like to hear from people on the receiving end of the people stuff that I do, so to speak.

I’ve got to fill in a bloody form in advance about what I do.  Shouldn’t my manager actually know that already? And it is called a performance management meeting.  My performance doesn’t need managing.  What am I, 12?


But I wasn’t surprised at anything she had to say.  My first thought was that her manager was probably looking forward to it about as much as she was.  Which clearly wasn’t all that much at all.

Here’s the thing. Lots of HR departments don’t like performance reviews either.  They make us become something that we don’t really want to be; all about compliance.  We monitor how many have been completed, the scores that have been attributed.  But for HR, this reduces the conversation with people managers to being all about the what have you done and the when can I expect.  A percentages game.  And a completed form just tells you precisely nothing about quality, only quantity.  Anyone can do a crappy review.

So in the typical performance review approach, we have something that all of the parties involved have an issue with.  How did it get to this?  I can say with all certainty this is not limited to my friends organisation.  It is everywhere.

Performance meetings, appraisals, annual reviews, 121s.  Call them what you will. They should be a good thing.  Positive. A chance, every so often, to step outside of the operational day to day stuff, and just talk. Talking and sharing. Feedback, learning, what is going well and what is not.  A look back and a look forward.  Not about the form but the person.  A conversation between two people; the most impactful relationship that the employee has on their satisfaction at work.  These are not difficult concepts.  But we have made them so.

So why is the annual review so reviled?   There are many reasons.  Sometimes it is the process itself. It has been made too complex, or includes something as awful as stack ranking.   Sometimes it is a training issue.  Often, I have found it comes down to one simple thing.  We aren’t that good at having meaningful conversations at work.

Oh, we can talk about the agenda and the project plan.  The latest customer complaint and product development roadmap. An update on the financials and just how is that email marketing campaign working out?  Even the price of the coffee in the vending machine. Surface stuff.  Day to day operational stuff.   But personal stuff?  Not so much.

For all the criticisms made of it, to get rid of the performance review, we need to replace it with something better. There lies part of the problem; we haven’t really got anything to replace it with, so we keep plodding on, doing what we have always done. For the most part, what you need to replace formalised performance review processes with, is maturity.  Maturity of leadership, maturity of conversation.

And that is much harder than filling out a form.

HR would be better if….

…. we focused on the many not the few.

Early on in my HR career, an employee took paid bereavement leave after the death of a close member of the family. Only we found out some time later that the person concerned hadn’t actually died.

Once, I dealt with an employee who took several weeks parental leave (a UK statutory right to spend time with a child). Only instead he renovated a house for profit.

I know of one employee who asked to become a home worker, and spent all day most days watching daytime TV, and doing very little actual work.

I’ve dealt with maybe three or four cases of inappropriate use of social media. I’ve been called out of bed to deal with a serious assault. Two cases of fraud. An arson attempt. One employee doing some stuff I really wish I hadn’t had to see on the internet, having found a way through the usual firewalls.

Most HR professionals have a tale or two to tell, just like these, if they have been doing the job for a while.

Only here’s the thing. Note the numbers. Those incidents occurred once or twice. Over many years.

But you know what happened next, in these cases and plenty of others. We wrote some policies. We introduced some new procedures. Banned some stuff and closed some stuff down. Made it harder for everyone else.

Because of the behaviour of the few.

And then the HR department spent far too much time ensuring compliance rather doing something more valuable instead. Filling out forms. Making sure other people did the same. And so on.

I think HR would be better, our reputation would be better, if we focused instead on those many employees not doing all of that stuff I mentioned earlier. When we design a policy, project, initiative. We can take account of the few. Deal with them when needed. But not put them at the centre.

In a series like this, there will I am sure be bigger ideas. More ambition. More impactful stuff. I sure hope so. I want us to shoot for the moon as a profession. But first, we will need to unshackle ourselves. Loosen the ties that bind us to mediocrity.

And focus on the many, not the few.

This post was written for the HR Carnival, collated by super connector Steve Browne. I hoe you are already following him on Twitter. If you are not, hustle over and find him there as @sbrownehr or check out his blog.  

Blogs, Blogs and More Blogs

One weekend afternoon sometime in the summer of 2013, I was sitting waiting in a queue at a car wash. I was idly scrolling through my twitter feed (because I never miss an opportunity) and I saw a tweet from David D’Souza.  He was asking who wanted to be part of a crowdsourced book of blogs. I tweeted him back and said I was in.

Fast forward a few months and Humane, Resourced was published. A book of blogs, from HR writers all over the world.  Entirely crowdsourced, with no funding at all.  No marketing, apart from the social sharing of the people involved.  And it became the number one best selling HR book on Amazon in the UK.  I was extremely proud to have been involved in a small way.

I love blogs and blogging. For me they present a special learning opportunity.  Learning because they are full of ideas, stuff that other people are doing at their place, challenge and new perspectives.  I learn from writing my own blog, from reading those of others.  Special because they are free, streaming straight to the device in your pocket.

The second volume of Humane, Resourced – This Time it’s Personnel is now available.  It presents an opportunity for HR folk. The opportunity to learn something new from people doing the job, the opportunity to have your thinking challenged.  Maybe just the opportunity for one new idea, to take back to your place.  It is also the chance to engage and connect with this truly global, connected, collaborative HR community. Again, I am chuffed to have a post included.

There are blogs on leadership, reward, diversity, change, learning and OD. It’s all about the people stuff.

If that wasn’t good enough, all the proceeds from the book go to charity.  So what are you waiting for? Download it here!  Huge credit to David, Kate and Alison, and everyone who contributed a post.  Number one here we come…..


Choose Choice

I tweeted this Dilbert cartoon yesterday, poking gentle fun at the emerging unlimited holidays trend. Richard Branson announced its introduction across parts of Virgin last week.

dilbert hols

Let me start by saying this is the sort of initiative that I really like. It recognises some important facts about people and work, the first one being that employees like choice. I’m cynical about the generalisations about generations that get shared around, but one simple thing is true – different people want different things from work. Sometimes that is age related and sometimes it isn’t. Flexible holiday schemes, including those that allow you to buy and sell holiday, allow employees to prioritise what is right for them and their own life circumstances. So if you need to maximise your take home pay, you can. If time at home during the school holidays is more important, then choose this over salary. Simple choice.

The other fact recognised by schemes just like this one, is that employees are adults who for the most part can be trusted to behave as such at work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, schemes like this recognise that work is changing. The Monday to Friday thing sat at a desk nine until five thing doesn’t need to be an anymore thing. The old, simple transaction of pay in exchange for work done is rapidly become outdated. Employers want more (think engagement, discretionary effort, energy) and so do employees in return. It’s no longer just about the wage. Corporate social responsibility, work life balance, flexibility…. All these and more come into the mix. The bargain, the balance, is shifting somewhere new.

And on an entirely practical note, initiatives like this are great for both your external employer brand and making you sticky to your current employees. Because faced with the option of working in a place where you can have this flexibility, make these choices, against an employer micro managing your every quarter hour, what would you choose?

Netflix started the whole ‘take as much holiday as you like’ thing. But it’s different across the pond. They don’t have an equivalent of the Working Time Regulations, and you are employed at will. So take a few too many Caribbean cruises and you might just find that your employment status is a flexible as the holiday entitlement. Virgin have confirmed that employees will need to take a minimum level of holiday, which I’m guessing in the UK will align to the statutory holiday amount. Let’s not forget that the legal requirement to provide holiday isn’t based on being a good employer, but on health and safety requirements.

I’m interested to see how this scheme develops post the immediate headlines. How much extra leave will people really take? How will peer pressure impact upon the decisions people make? How will it be managed if there are individuals who go too far, and who take leave that does impact the organisation or the people they work with?

Because here’s the thing. Initiatives like this work well in cultures that are healthy enough already to support them. Virgin CEO Josh Bayliss said that he is proud of the Virgin culture. They trust their people, trust their ability to make empowered decisions, and they are already a big supporter of flexible working. But put this scheme in the wrong culture, and it might have unintended consequences. So, going back to the cartoon for a moment, you could just find there is truth within the humour.

Branson said this about the Virgin plan: ‘The assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel 100% comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!’

This is adult to adult. I really hope that he is right, because if he is, this is one step that moves us forward to a better future of work.

In HR we do love to jump on a bandwagon from time to time. My hope is that we can resist doing so in this case, unless it really fits the culture, at your place.

The Importance of Trust

Mutual trust and confidence. The very heart of the employment relationship. A duty by which both employee and employer are bound. Implied into every contract of employment, running through it like an invisible thread. A breach of which is so fundamental, that it can bring the entire contract to an untimely, immediate end.

And with good reason.

Because it is not just a legal thing, it is a foundations thing. Trust is everything. It is the platform, the groundwork upon which we build everything else in the workplace.

Trust is a hygiene factor.

When we dismiss an employee because they have stolen from us, we do not dismiss them because of the value of the items that they took, but the fact that trust between us has been irrevocably breached. It is legal recognition that some things are so serious that there is simply no way back.

There are some important things about trust that I believe to be true. Firstly, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I will give it willingly. But when it is broken, it is broken. There are no shades of trust, no easy way back following a breach. Trust is delicate. Fragile. What takes time to build can be destroyed in a careless moment. And at work, mistrust spreads.

Failure to communicate. Dressing up difficult messages. Not doing what you said you would do. Lies. Rumours. Poorly handled people stuff. Poorly managed change stuff. Weak leadership.

All of these things impact on the levels of trust within an organisation.

Too many rules. Policies prescribing for every potential eventuality. Micro management. Levels and levels of sign off. Blaming. Excessive emailing. Presenteeism.

All send a clear signal about how much you trust the people around you.

CIPD research in 2013 found that 31% of employees did not trust senior management within their own organisations.

How do you know if you have a trust problem, at your place? How do you know if a third of your workers don’t trust?

An out of control rumour mill. High turnover. Low engagement. Blame culture. Decisions only taken at the top. A lack of creativity. Risk aversion. No before yes. Politics. Games. Disempowerment.

All might be signals you have a trust issue. Maybe not a fundamental breach, but a problem all the same.

So my questions are these.

Do you trust? And how do you show it?