Why HR is like childbirth

I’m currently working with a group of final year HR students at Liverpool John Moores University. Our module for this term is strategic HRM.  Last night we were looking at organisationl culture.

I always find culture a fascinating subject. There is plenty of theory and research available.  There too are many models to help us think about the types of culture that exist.  It is a highly relatable subject, as we have our own experiences of it.  It is something that we instinctively understand because we have lived it.  Everyone who has had a job can tell you something about organisational culture, even if they don’t use the official terminology.

Most of us have had our own experiences of a good culture or a bad one – whatever that really means. We know about people who fit in to the prevailing culture, and people who do not.  We understand instinctively the impact that culture can have upon us at work.

After we had talked about the proper, academic theories, we turned to discussing our own experiences. We talked about organisations that we know, either through working there or because they have a brand profile.  We discussed the extent to which we believe culture impacts behaviour and behaviour impacts culture and whether any of those models are ever really 100% accurate.  Our conclusions were that they were not or could not be.  Nothing is ever as clear cut, as simple as a theory might suggest.  They are just frameworks for understanding.  The context, the reality is always more complex.

This particular group of students are all working whilst studying. One student noted how much this helps put discussions like this in context and wondered how much harder it might be for those studying full time, straight from A Levels, with much less work experience.

And then the analogy of the night. One student reflected on her experience of ante natal classes.  The narrative she experienced there was linear, neat.  It will be like this.

Our conclusion? Practicing HR is like childbirth. It’s messier in real life.

Don’t be like Dave

During one of my interim contracts a little while back, I was introduced to a HR Partner. Let’s call him Dave.

Before I met Dave for myself, I was firmly told Dave was great at his job. He was a well thought of HR Partner, valued by the management teams he supported.  He was always at his desk by 7am and his phone was ringing straight away.  His management team knew that they could rely on him to be there. Dave was in the office until late every day, putting himself out for his client group.

Dave was great.


Sooooo…… lets unpick that a little.

First of all, let’s look at that definition of great. Sometimes, HR people are valued because they are innovative, bring good challenge, are highly knowledgeable, credible and professional – they work as true partners. Sometimes they are well liked because they, let’s face it, do other people’s jobs for them.  Very early in my career I received a complaint about my attitude – because I refused to tell an employee that they had a body odour problem and told the manager it was his job to do it.  So great might mean great….. or it might mean you need to answer your phone at 7am because the managers re over reliant on you.

When I hear about someone working very long hours on a regular basis, I want to know why. There are a few possible reasons, in my experience.  There might be a workload or resourcing issue – they simply have too much to do.  They might be struggling or have a learning or development need.  Maybe they are finding it difficult to manage their time.  They might be, as in one situation I have known, avoiding going home.  It could be cultural – this is what gets recognised, valued and rewarded, and hence this is how you climb the corporate ladder.  As one cynical FD I used to work with commented, they might also be covering something up.  In the case of HR in particular, it could be that the managers within the organisation aren’t enabled to make decisions – or aren’t sufficiently capable.  Instead they are deferring to HR, avoiding their responsibilities, or they simply don’t know how to do them.

There are many reasons that contribute to individuals working long hours. ‘Great’ is rarely one of them.  It’s our skewed perceptions of work and commitment that contribute to this belief.

We need to decouple work from being in an office, working well from working long hours.  These are organisational beliefs, not truths.


It’s that time again…. #cipdace

It’s nearly that time of year again. That time when the great and good of the HR world descend on Manchester to attend the annual CIPD shindig.  There will be learning, networking and probably, cupcakes.

To be honest, if there aren’t cupcakes then I’ll be making a formal complaint to Peter Cheese.


I’ve taken the opportunity to do a roundup of the best free and fringe bits over the two days.

Free events:

Tuesday pre event networking evening: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/culture-club-pre-cipd-networking-event-manchester-tickets-50168092114?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

Tuesday evening – LGBT event – how to make your workforce more inclusive. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/creating-an-lgbt-inclusive-organisation-cipd-lgbt-social-2018-registration-48834560485?aff=efbevent This one includes nibbles and drinks (no specific mention of cupcakes, please check with the event organiser if this is as critical to you as it is to me).

Wednesday evening – event on race at work https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/embraceace-drinks-reception-tickets-49288822194?ref=eios&aff=eios with a promise of canapes.

Thursday morning – Fringe event on flexible working   https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/making-flexibility-a-reality-for-all-breakfast-camp-cipd-ace-2018-tickets-50684184761?aff=ebdssbdestsearch Note – this one includes breakfast and is being delivered by yours truly and the super awesome Rachel Burnham.


Anyone can just go and walk round the exhibition and go to the free learning sessions.  Register here. 

There’s some great stuff on the free learning programme – day one and day two alike.

I hope to see you there in November.  And if you see any cupcakes as you make your way around….. make sure you let me know. 

The 6th Element

Last week I shared my 5 Elements of a Flexible Organisation presentation at the CIPD / ACAS Flexibility for All conference. I blogged about it in advance, hereDavid D’Souza from the CIPD tweeted me to say that he believed there was a sixth element; technology.

I reflected on what he had to say, and my own use of technology as a flexible worker.

When I’m working from home, or just generally working on the move, I use the following technology:


Phone / conference calls (old school)

Wifi (obvs)

Lync (mostly just the instant message facility)


Laptop / iPhone / iPad.


Nothing exciting or radical in that list.

I also use Slack, for communicating with project teams, and Yammer for communicating with, well, anyone that is listening. But most of these tools are used equally in the office too.

When it comes to the technology needed to work flexibly, most of it is already there. If it isn’t on the corporate network, it’s free to use or download.  On the hardware side, many of us already own it – whether it’s the organisations or our own.

So the issue isn’t so much one of availability or needing new stuff, but capability and default ways of working.

I’m currently doing work in an organisation where meeting face to face is the default – even though many of those people meeting face to face are located across multiple buildings. Many meetings therefore involve a ten minute walk there and back for more than half of attendees – multiply that over the many individuals and many meetings and many working days of the year, and that is a whole heap of ineffective time.  There are of course times where meeting face to face is best, but there are just as many occasions where a quick phone call or a discussion in a Slack group would achieve just the same.

Capability is another important issue. It  might be 2018, but I still come across plenty of people who tell me that they ‘aren’t very good with technology’ like anything other than an email is some sort of devil’s work.  I’ve asked to Skype into meetings to save me a four hour journey to be met with surprise and outright refusal.  I know plenty of people who simply refuse to use tools like Slack because it is ‘too hard’ or they ‘don’t have time’.

I don’t have time is my favourite excuse. Because it rarely means someone doesn’t have time.  It means, for varying reasons, that they just don’t want to.  Maybe then I’m not even talking about capability, but desire.

The technology acceptance model tells us that there two primary factors that influence decisions about whether technology is used (when and how) – perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use.  The good old diffusion of technology model highlights the time that new technology takes to go mainstream – part of which is attributed to individual motivation.

My takeaways from these models (and that is all they are, they aren’t perfect) is that, scratch the surface, and attitude is a key factor at play.

And so, in conclusion, yes, technology is an element of a flexible workplace. But sometimes it’s not about new kit or fancy applications – just choice in using it and working a little differently.

Just like flexible working itself.



5 Elements of a Flexible Workplace

Today I’m speaking at the CIPD / ACAS flexible working conference. I’m going to be sharing what I believe are the five, key elements of a flexible workplace.

Together, these elements will lead to a culture where flexibility is truly embraced for the benefit of employees and the organisation alike.

1              Flexibility for all (or as many as possible)

When I say flexibility for all, I recognise that there are some jobs where introducing more flexibility is easy – in theory at least. There are of course some jobs where it is more challenging if not impossible, such as those where a physical presence is required at set times.  But with creativity and open minds, flexibility is often much more feasible than it first might seem – or some believe.  Too often, the stereotype of someone wanting flexible working is a mum returning from maternity leave, or a new parent.  This stereotype is extremely limiting.

Flexibility is about inclusion at its widest sense. It is about tackling the gender pay gap.  Despite what I have said about us challenging the stereotype, we also know that many parents want flexible working – and this includes senior roles. Less than 10% of quality  jobs are advertised as flexible.  If we want true representation throughout our organisations, then we need flexibility throughout the hierarchy.

Because employees want flexibility and that demand is not matched with supply, this makes flexibility a talent issue both in terms of acquiring it and retaining it. A survey by HR Magazine in 2013 showed that a third of people would take more flexibility over a 3% pay rise.  If you offer people the flexibility to work how they want and when they need, this is a clear retention strategy.

Flexibility is also a wellbeing issue – the stress of long, difficult commutes takes a toll on work life balance.  This isn’t about parents, this is about everyone. Flexible working can also open up our workplaces to staff with disabilities.

2              Acceptance of flexibility in all its forms

Flexibility doesn’t just mean working part time or working from home one day a week. It isn’t a family friend benefit.

Work can be flexible in time and place. Where and when the work is done.

There can also be flexibility in the how.

We don’t have to work in an office, we can work wherever we are inspired.  The park, the library, a co-working space, a coffee shop.  Where the role permits, we can organise our own work.  Use different technologies to complete it.

3              High Trust

For flexibility to really work, you need trust.

There is no place for the belief that if you can’t see someone doing their stuff then you can’t manage their work. If you have to have someone in your eye line to make sure they do their work, you’ve got bigger cultural issues to address.

You have to trust the people you work with, unless you have a very good reason not to.

But many organisations are riddled with blame, arse covering, and presenteeism. All too often we reward the latter.  It is seen as commitment and graft.

Whenever I have introduced flexible working the issue of trust has come up in a roundabout way. Usually through the questions about how people will be managed and measured.  My answer is often flippant.  Manage them on output, not time at the coalface.  Desk time and productivity do not go hand in hand.

enabler 2

4              Enabling and supportive managers and leaders

Managers who understand the benefits – and that they exist for both parties.

Managers who get that flexibility is a talent issue, an engagement issue, a wellbeing issue.

Managers who recognise that flexibility will help them keep good people.

Managers who don’t see flexibility as a pain in the ass to be managed and seek reasons to say no, but see it as an opportunity.

A senior leadership team that does the same.

Managers who are open minded to try stuff.

Managers who work flexibly themselves.

Managers who don’t search for barriers that don’t exist, or bring their personal opinions to the table.

Managers that are trained.

5              Good Policy

A good flexible working policy is one where there’s no gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

Good policy isn’t a document that explains how to say no, but encourages innovation, working together to find solutions, experimentation.

Good policy goes beyond the statutory minimum.

There is stuff around the policy like guidance and good advice on how to implement and trial new ways of working.

A good policy is one that easy to read and understand, and there’s a place or a person for more questions.

A good policy has an encouraging, welcoming tone.

Together, these elements will create a culture in which flexible working and flexibility can thrive for the good of both people and organisations alike.

Together, our challenge is to create them.  And there has never been a greater need for us to do it. 


Can we talk about Jane?

In recent months my coaching clients have been almost exclusively women.

Superwomen most of them.

But they don’t feel like it.

Let me tell you about Jane.

Jane isn’t one woman, she is many. One of many facing similar issues.

Most of the Janes have children. Some their own, others are step-parents.

Some of the Janes don’t just have children but other relatives to care for too.

All of the Janes have jobs. Some of them work full time, others part time.  Many of latter have often found however, that whilst their hours and pay have reduced, the work certainly hasn’t, and nor has the size or the needs of their teams.

Some of the Janes have flexible working – but often it is precarious, on the whim of an individual manager. Some of the arrangements are formal, others are of the ‘please can I work from home tomorrow’ variety.  Without this little bit of flexibility, often begrudgingly given, the house of cards would fall.

Most of the Janes are, of course, doing a whole heap of the emotional and domestic labour of their family lives too. Carrying the mental load of remembering birthdays and school PE kits and food shopping and getting the ironing done.

Some of the Janes have senior roles, big teams, plenty of responsibility.

Some have partners who are genuinely sharing the domestic and family load, others are very much on their own with it all.

Many have hobbies and interests that have fallen by the wayside as they juggle and juggle.


They come to coaching to talk about their work life balance. To talk about their wellbeing.  They feel that they aren’t (delete as appropriate) exercising enough / being a good enough manager / developing their career at the pace they wanted to / finding any time for CPD / not getting to the school events / eating properly / spending enough time with their children, parents, siblings or friends / networking / reading books / being a good enough mum,  partner, step-parent, daughter /  giving their children healthy enough food.  They believe they are too unfit / relying on childcare too much / not coping / forgetting stuff / not delivering on their objectives / failing to have it all.

Here’s the thing all the Janes have in common.

They think it is them.

They don’t realise it is structural, societal, organisational.

They don’t realise that their company or their manager could be more flexible or the work could be organised differently and that would make them more productive and their lives easier along the way. That they don’t have to take all on all of the emotional labour even if they have been conditioned to believe that they must.  They don’t realise that it’s the organisations that is at fault with its presenteeism and its obsession with 9-5, face to face.  They don’t know that they don’t have to have it all, do it all, that it is okay to say that you are tired and need a break. They don’t know that you can just say screw the ironing and go to work in a crumpled shirt.

The strive for perfection is a heavy burden. The shoulds, the musts, the ought tos and the got tos.

The Janes don’t realise that I listen to them in awe as they balance and juggle and strive. As they manage families and relationships and careers and teams and all the day to day fuckwittery of life.

As a coach, my biggest challenge is not to over empathise, to over identify. Not to stand there and shout ‘Yes! Me too!’.

I so want these women to see and stand in their own power. To see their own awesomeness. To realise that it isn’t them, it’s the system.

So to the full time women and the part timers, the single moms and the married ones and the ones in between. To the biological moms and the step moms, the organic moms and the frozen fish fingers moms (because that is all they will bloody eat this week).  To the carers for relatives and the team leaders.  The senior managers and the newly promoted.  To the women navigating the school drop off and after school club pick-ups and still remembering to do the Tesco big shop on your phone on the train.  To the women studying into the evening or working a side hussle.

You are awesome. All of you.

And remember, even Superwoman occasionally needs a day off.


In other news, I searched for an image on the site I usually use for a hero, to accompany this blog post. It only gave me pictures of men…..

Commute Off

This tweet from the DWP yesterday gave me the hump. It appears to be an old post that has somehow resurfaced.  The premise, and that of the accompanying link, is that if job seekers would only travel a bit further (the just ‘try a bit harder’ merely implied) they will open up the opportunity of so many more job vacancies – and you will undoubtedly be paid more if you commute into the big city too!


YES! You too can spend your life in a car or on a dirty, unreliable train. You too can spend all your money on travelling!  Increase your stress levels!  Spend your time wondering whether you will get back through the traffic or the rail chaos in time to pick your kids up before nursery closes and they hand your children over to social services!  Have no time at all for activities that are important to you! 

But you know, money.  And dedication.

I do a 90 minute commute, and it is no fun at all. It is expensive, and I spend a lot of time waiting for delayed trains, standing in packed carriages with my face in a stranger’s armpit, and generally grumbling about it.  Sorry not sorry.  My commute stops me from getting to the gym, and means that there is often a pressurising mental list of life stuff that doesn’t get done.  I do it because I like my work, but that is a privilege that not everyone has.

Instead of suggesting people just get on their bike, why don’t we do something more radical instead? Like realise that cramming everyone onto the same packed roads and creaking public transports systems all at the same time isn’t helping anyone.  And embrace flexible working, technology and new ways of working, so that we can have both a job, and a life?

Just a thought.



Making flexibility a reality for all

On the 28th September I am delighted to be co-hosting a joint Manchester CIPD / ACAS conference on a subject close to my heart; flexible working.  Our key note speaker, CIPD CEO Peter Cheese, will address the subject of making flexibility a reality for all.

According to a recent Xpert HR survey more than half of organisations have experienced an increase in flexible working requests over the last two years.  These organisations attributed this increases to more supportive organisational cultures and changing workforce demographics.

Flexible working is often categorised as a family friendly benefit; something that’s all about working parents or perhaps carers.  But there is more to flexible working than going part time and formal requests following maternity leave – and it is valued by a much wider range of people than we might expect.

Flexible working is also about employee wellbeing, talent acquisition, employer branding, employee engagement and retention.  Flexible working is an opportunity.  More and more organisations are seeing the benefits and embracing it.  Only this last week PwC demonstrated how they are taking flexible working to ‘the next level’ by introducing a scheme through which staff can choose their working hours in a response to increased demand for flexible working patterns.  Their own research found that 46% of people say flexible working and a culture of good work/life balance are the most important factors when choosing a job.  This isn’t all that surprising when we stop and think.  Perhaps it is more of a surprise just how many organisations are still attached to traditional working patterns and upholding all the old barriers to more flexible approaches.

I believe that flexible working is essential for organisations in order to attract and retain a diverse pool of talent, at all levels. Along with a flexible working strategy it is key to inclusion, plays a part in reducing the gender pay gap and can improve workplace wellbeing and productivity.  Last year CIPD Manchester held the Big Conversation about work and families.  Through those discussions, we learned that there is much to do to enable parents and families in particular get the flexibility they need to fully contribute to the workplace whilst also raising a family. There is still too much getting in the way, too much ‘banter’ toward those that have to work flexibly, too much manager resistance. Stereotypes still thrive.

If you want to explore how to make flexible working work for you, hear case studies from those who have already had success and take away practical tools and tips, then why not come along to our conference as we attempt to move beyond the stereotypes and embrace better way of working.

You can find more information about the conference and book your ticket here.


Who wants to work in a office like this?

This article landed in my Twitter timeline today.  A countdown of the UK’s coolest offices. Apparently (as I could only bring myself to read some of it), the list contains offices with rotating fairground rides, reggae rooms and living jungles (whatever they are).  I am betting that there is also a mix of zany colours, bean bags and maybe a football table or two in the mix.


I cant’ think of anywhere I would want to work less.

Cool is all too often style over substance. Personally, I’d rather work for somewhere that has inspirational leaders, a great organisational culture, decent tech for me to use.  I don’t need clouds painted on the ceiling (yes, I have seen this with my own eyes); I need somewhere that I can think.  I want to work somewhere that will help me to develop, cares about my wellbeing, allows me to be creative and contribute.

A fairground ride will not make any of these things happen.  It won’t impact productivity for the better, create employee engagement, inspire people to be their best or achieve their objectives. If you are lucky it might create a laugh or two in the workplace when it’s first launched.  It will no doubt provide for some fun Instagram shots for the social feeds.

But to me, it just feels like the modern day equivalent of putting up a sign that says ‘you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps’.

If you have money to spare in your corporate budget, I’d suggest that there will always be a better, more impactful way to spend it than installing a slide or a drum kit in the office.  (Memo, you are not Google, and neither is anyone else but Google).

As my friend Neil Usher said, cool is dead.

We don’t need more gimmicks.  We need better workplaces for all.

We can be heroes

My Other Half says that I only have two speeds.  Full on, or dead stop.

He is, in this and many other observations, quite right. I like to fill each minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. I find sitting still a waste of time that could be spent doing stuff and more stuff. But just occasionally, like when I am on holiday, I stop still. I like to sit, chill, read, be. I immerse myself in books, mostly of a deeply unchallenging nature.

This last week has been spent in stop mode. Total relaxation.

Whilst doing so, I caught sight of a Twitter article referencing some senior leader or other who works 150 hour week. I didn’t read any further –  there is already too much glorification of busy to read more. What I do know, is that our brains and bodies aren’t wired for that sort of schedule no matter who we are or what we do. Get past  a number of hours each week, a number of days without rest, and we will decline in our abilities and our performance.

I’ve worked with many a leader who doesn’t know when to stop, when to recharge.  Who believe, or at least acts as if they do, that if they aren’t around the stuff won’t get done, that others won’t manage without them. At best, this is misguided. At worst, it is completely disempowering to the people around you.

We can be heroes, or we can be real.

Rest, is critical.  For some, it is a week in the sunshine. For others, perhaps a digital detox.  Maybe the recharge from time spent with family or friends.  Out. Of. Office.

Time from which we can emerge, renewed, re-energised, ready to take it all on again anew.

And that is how I feel today. Rested,  restored, ready.

Look out world.

Things that annoy me number 572

Last week a story was doing the rounds on social media.  Over on LinkedIn it was described as ‘uplifting’, ‘inspirational’, a ‘lovely story’ and ‘heartwarming’. 

It’s an American story, but I’ve heard similar tales in the U.K. too. 

A Florida based teacher is undergoing treatment for cancer. He had used up all of his sick leave and still had several rounds of chemotherapy to go.  He appealed for help and colleagues a plenty stepped up and donated their own sick days to make sure he had what he needs to get him through. Now that is absolutely awesome. And it is heartwarming when people, without the desire for anything in return, do something for others in need. 

But where is the employer in this positively framed story?

Inspirational? Uplifting? 

I call BS. 

The employer, and any other that allows this kind of system, should be utterly ashamed. 

Ghandi said that the true measure of society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. The same can be said of employers.

How you treat your sick, disabled, pregnant or otherwise vulnerable workers defines you.  It’s not about employee benefits and wellbeing initiatives and learning opportunities and all that other employer brand and engagement stuff. It’s about doing the right thing.  And from time to time this means sticking your neck out for someone in need, going above and beyond the policy and saying to hell with the precedent you might set. 

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.


The most successful people I’ve met….

You might have seen it in your timeline. The original post or the subsequent take-downs.

‘The most successful people I’ve met…..’ and so on.

I can’t remember the specifics of the list.  It all blurs into a vacuous fog.

As meaningless as these sound bites of content are, they just won’t seem to go away. Maybe there is something inherently appealing in the idea that we can reduce this complex life stuff to a simple list that we can all do.  A magic get your shit together potion.

The idea of success is often tied up with money, status and power. If we follow this notion through to its conclusion, Donald Trump is one of the most successful people on the planet.  Indicative perhaps, that you can be both highly successful (as some would define it at least) and still be a deeply terrible human being.

If there was a success spell, a simple way to have it all, we would have to start with understanding the answer to the question. Just what is success anyway?

For me, the answer to this question has shifted over time. How I defined it as a teenager, a young adult, and onwards, has naturally changed. There was a time for me when success meant having my seat at the table.  There was a time when it meant how far I could run.  Another, when I could wear a size eight dress.  More latterly, simply living the life that I want to lead.

Success is of course, contextual and deeply personal.  For some, it is a job title or a qualification or money in the bank.  It might be material stuff; the car, the house, the shoes, the handbags and all of the fancy holidays.  For others, success means a life well lived, a child well raised, a fine wine well drunk.  Success might just mean getting up every day and facing it and surviving it.

My own definition of success, for what is it worth, is this. Success is to love and to be loved.  To have health and fitness, and to wish the same for those around you.  To be able to pay the bills at the end of the month with a little left over for some fun on the journey.  Good friends.  Laughter.  To make a difference at work, even in a small way.  That one person might read this blog and enjoy it.

Because despite all the content clickbait and the likes and the shares and even the mockery of the same, I do know this.

The only person who can really define success, is yourself.


Commuting Woes

If you follow my Twitter feed, you will know I spend a fair bit of time complaining about the trains.   I live in a large City, and commute to another one not all that far away.  If you look at the timetable, it should be straightforward.  Only it isn’t.

The train station car park cannot cope with the volume of vehicles, meaning that parking spills over into the local streets where cars are sometimes vandalised. The walk from car to platform adds 15 minutes to an already long journey.  Sometimes the train is on time, sometimes it is not.  When it is on time, it is often over crowded, sometimes dangerously so.  I have lost count of the number of times I have travelled much closer to a stranger’s body than I would like.  Tempers often fray.  Even when the train does leave on time, it rarely arrives the same, congestion on the lines leaving you to queue to get into your chosen station.  Often, I do get to work okay.  Getting home again can be something else.  Often, you will find me standing on a platform wondering when, if, a train will come to get me home at anything like a reasonable hour.  And don’t even get me started on the cost of this daily nightmare.

My woes are far from unusual. They are not limited to my train line, my city, my workplace, my life.


My Twitter timeline talks of people who are on warnings at work. Examples of those who have actually lost their jobs due to continued lateness.  Parents who cannot collect their children from childcare.  Stress.

Only the train that runs an hour or so later, will be mostly empty.

There are some roles that require an individual to be in place at a particular time, and flexibility isn’t an option. For them, the misery will endure, for now at least.  But all too often, those who are cramming themselves onto over –priced, over crowed public transport systems, could do something different.  I have lost count of the number of stories I have heard where a role can be undertaken with greater flexibility, but there are too many barriers put in the way.  Technology isn’t utilised to best effect.  Managers just don’t like it – their personal beliefs and opinions overriding possibilities  Inflexible working practices.  Just doing what we have always done.  A refusal to experiment.

In many respects I am lucky. I love my job. I have a degree of flexibility and plenty of trust to work when and where I need to.  But there are still days when I stand on the station platform and wonder… how much longer can I do this for?

It is long overdue time for us to consider the impact on our people of so many of us undertaking stressful, expensive commutes. The wellbeing impact, the financial impact, the inclusion impact, the talent and engagement impact.

Work doesn’t have to be this way.  And if HR don’t lead the way, who will?