Monday, 21 May 2012

Ready... aim...

The vaunted Beecroft report, sketchy details of which were released late last year, is due for publication in 2 days' time after an FOI request was submitted by the Labour Party's Business team.

It appears that today the full report has been leaked, as often happens with these things. (Those pesky leaky Government departments, eh?)

The report has been drafted by Adrian Beecroft, a venture capitalist and supporter of the Conservative Party, who appear to be attempting to grant him policy-making rights in return for large donations to the Party. The aim is, apparently, to 'encourage employers to boost economic growth'- the means seem to boil down to making it easier to dismiss employees.

The crux of the report seems to be the caim that we can make swingeing cuts through the dreaded 'red tape' that supposedly plagues British employers (despite the UK having some of the least restrictive laws on employing people.) Beecroft takes a view on ending the mandatory 90-day consultation period for redundancy consultations, favouring a 30-day period or even emergency 5-day period if a firm is in 'severe distress', as well as proposing reform of TUPE rights that workers are allowed to "carry" to new employers when their companies are the subject of a takeover. Add to this a cap on the level of loss-of-earnings compensation for employees who win claims for unfair dismissal and a shift in responsibility for checking foreign nationals' eligibility to work in the UK from employers to the UK Borders Agency, and Beecroft is shaping up to be a contentious and controversial document indeed.

And then there's Compensated No Fault Dismissals, the proposal that appears to be creating more of a ruckus than any other suggestion Beecroft has to make. On the surface this will remove the existing legal barriers to firing unproductive, 'coasting' staff and will shorten the process, saving time, money and resources. However, Beecroft fails to acknowledge that if staff are 'coasting', there are already performance management and legal measures a business can take to liberate employees from their roles if they do not improve. 

Compensated No Fault Dismissals, far from being cute and fluffy and... well, compensatory, threaten to give unscrupulous employers the right to dismiss employees because they dislike them, regardless of length of service or ability. Beecroft recognises this risk himself, and merely states "While this is sad I believe it is a price worth paying for all the benefits that would result from the change." (He's talking about people losing their jobs because their face no longer fits, and experiencing the devastation unemployment can wreak on individuals and families, by the way. It's not merely "sad", but a tragedy for many.)

Reaction to the key recommendations has been mixed, with Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians aghast at proposals that have been variously described as "the wrong approach" by Business Secretary Vince Cable, who has also called the proposals "a nonsense" and condemns any idea that they will stimulate economic growth. Labour's Chuka Umunna damns the "ability to fire at will" which would affect "over 3.6 million employees in the private sector" and has tabled an Urgent Question in the Commons today to ask the Government to establish their intentions regarding Beecroft's report. 

Watch this space. I believe things are going to get interesting.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Our website's undergoing a bit of a rethink. When we launched the current version earlier this year, we made a solemn promise to listen and respond to feedback. The feedback's been patchy, but the message is clear - keep it simple, stupid.

We're up for change, and all the more so for regeneration of something that's already pretty good but can be better, faster stronger, clearer - and more fun.

It's the honest and open responses we've had to the site that have fuelled this, and we are forever grateful to our families, friends, clients and connections for being so supportive and helpful while we tried a few things on for size. It's not been tough because we know all feedback comes from a great place of wanting us to be fantastic, and get our message across in the best way. We recognise we've not been doing that as well as we thought - the consistent comment we've heard is "I'm not sure people really get what you do" - so we've worked at making it clearer.

So many people have remarked that what we offer is a wonderful and potent package of services, and that a simpler approach would communicate that much better. Some have said that we've listened to others who don't get where we're coming from and agonised over things too much so it's clouded our position, and done us a disservice. We've taken that on board and stripped away a lot of the more unhelpful language. We've stopped worrying about a gimmick and realise that clarity is enough. Simply put, we feel it's better now we've cleaned house a bit.

There are a fair few people who love it as it is, and we're sorry, but hey- change is good, and our hearts are telling us to go for this. We're sure it won't be too traumatic when you next visit. (Keep that feedback coming, won't you?)

Setting out in business is a learning curve, and sometimes it's so steep, it's verging on the perpendicular. (Like all the best rollercoasters.)

The new version will launch tomorrow, all being well- we just need new photos of us looking gorgeous... which may not happen overnight. 

Pah. We relaunch tomorrow. Regardless.

Credit to VHR Peg People for the Doctors that illustrate this piece and how we're feeling so well.


Yesterday I attended the Connecting HR Unconference- the fourth such event but the first I've been to. The theme was 'Creating Socially Engaged Workplaces', and promised to deliver ideas on social media strategy, adoption, implementation and development.

I really had no idea what to expect other than knowing the names of a few speakers, and looking forward to meeting several people I've tweeted with but never met face to face... and there's no substitute for that, is there? 

There really are too many to blog about today (but I expect I will in future) but these included Natasha Stallard of Stirring the Source, who has intrigued me for a long time with her wit, 'fairy dust' and promise of 'getting past the mucky layers' to something great. Good too to know I'd encounter Doug Shaw, the man behind the excellent What Goes Around and the enigmatic 'Rick', the mind behind one of my favourite blogs FlipChart Fairytales

I was also excited to see Rocket Launcher Jon Bartlett, who never fails to inspire and amuse with a mix of insight, wisdom, humour and the right amount of cheekiness.

So given I knew I'd be in a room filled with brilliant minds and faced a tidal wave of ideas and creativity, how did I feel?

In a nutshell: scared witless.

Even when you've 'done' HR for a while you know you're never going to know everything, be 'up' on every way of thinking, or understand others' roles in their organisations or businesses. There's little point trying. Faced with a room full of people who have had a bloody good go anyway, I found the best thing to do was contribute when I could, and shut up and listen when I felt it wise to. I think it paid off.

I came away with some incredible ideas and insight, some new ways of thinking and a 'buzz' that's still not worn off. I also met some great people who were both generous with their time and ideas, and for that I am thankful.

Oh, and the minutes were pretty cool, too. 

Huge thanks and congratulations to the organisers, the venue, the artists and attendees

See you next time...

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Get over it

Barack Obama has become the first President of the USA to declare his support for equal marriage rights for gay people. In an election campaign, this is Quite A Big Thing.

Obama has never been vocal about this, but he states that after having discussions with gay friends and family members, gay White House staff and others who know more than a bit about how it is to be gay in America in 2012, he feels he has to speak up in favour. 

I admit I am an Obama fan; I know he came into power on a surge of hope and promises of change and some feel he's not delivered all he pledged to, but he's a visionary who has battled hard to get past old thinking and ways of doing things. It's taken time, but he's never been defeatist or negative, and he's stayed true to his vision. I think he's achieved astonishing things considering he's had to do so in a very difficult political climate.

There are people who now won't vote for Obama based on his stance- but they probably weren't going to anyway, and this has given them a single handy peg to hang their opinions on. Some possibly weren't going to bother to vote at all and so this makes not a jot of difference to them. Others have already decided to back him and this latest news either reinforces their opinion of him as a progressive politician, or they kind of assumed he was cool with this sort of thing anyway, without having to make any kind of a song and dance about it. So his position on one issue that is such a positive step for many and is no threat at all to the rest doesn't influence their decision. They'd rather vote on the issues that stand to have a serious impact on them, their families and their businesses, I guess.

That's the majority of American voters there, or so you'd like to think. Any idea that promotes equality and fairness as part of a much bigger package of ideas and pledges has to be a good thing, right? Isn't that how many have seen positive changes to their lives, regardless of race, faith, gender or ability?

Yes, there is a long way to go. But we've also come so far from segregation, sex discrimination, locking away our disabled or 'different' people, and ignorance about religious belief. Every step has been for the benefit of us all, so why not take another?

The UK Government has quietly dropped the discussion on equal marriage rights in favour of House of Lords reform, as announced in the Queen's Speech yesterday. UK activists are displeased - they feel what the UK press seem to have labelled 'gay marriage' (isn't it just 'marriage'?) is a far more pressing issue than pursuing reforms to the Other Place... a mission that's seen consensus and success elude successive Governments for decades.

Interestingly, when Barack Obama was born in 1961, his parents' mixed-race marriage was illegal in 22 states of the US. Thankfully, the world has moved on and the idea of this horrifies us, as the idea that gay people were denied equality of marriage rights in 2012 will probably appall our children and grandchildren.

By denying equality to one group do we risk damaging our society more?

I guess that the angle I am trying to work in here is that in politics and the business world, it's important to consider the bigger picture when you choose which camp you settle down in; making a decision based on one prejudice may mean you deny yourself the benefits that a candidate or colleague has to offer. Ruling someone or something out on one contentious can lead you to cut off your own nose to spite your face.

Compromise and discussion leading to understanding and agreement is where it's at.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The value in what I do

The other day I met a man in fear (and no, for a change I wasn’t the cause of it, har-de-har-har.)

This man employs people; on a basic level, he equips them with the funds to pay their bills and have nice evenings out in return for their time, skills and labour. But he also recognises that he has a duty of care to them that should be reciprocated all the while he keeps up his end of the bargain. He’ll be fair but he expects them to behave in similar fashion. “Do as you would be done by”, basically. That’s how he sees the relationship.

Regardless of whether HR professionals reading this are beginning to foam at the mouth and are fighting the urge to scream “WHAT ABOUT ENGAGEMENT?” and emit the other squeaky noises we often make when faced with someone who 'doesn't get it', I kind of see his point. There’s a duty on both parties to play nice. His fear comes from the fact that he’s got employees who aren’t. Not one bit.

Confidentiality prevents me sharing the details of course, but the crux of the problem is how much he has done on trust, how supportive he has been- and how some little scamps will abuse that. 

It doesn’t help that along the road key documents have been lost (including one employee’s contract) and key meetings have gone unrecorded. Things haven't been signed off. Conversations that were had are suddenly twisted, half-remembered or denied entirely. Others have been manufactured, and there are some real dirty tricks being deployed.

So, fear. He’s afraid that by not being as ‘up’ on the admin as he admits he should have been he’s been left exposed, and that it will have a drastic impact on his business. He’s afraid that he can’t act to resolve matters without leaving himself open to a tribunal claim. Mostly, he was afraid to admit all this out loud. So what superb and mega-psychological HR technique did I deploy to make him feel secure enough to let it all out? Simply sticking the kettle on, shutting the door and not doing the sharp intake of breath thing as he set out his position created the right space to let him release the tension. (What? I’m not Freud and never claimed to be.)

I love what I do as an HR professional, but sometimes I get a real sense of the difference I can make by doing it well.

What do I hope he took from our meeting? Well, some peace of mind for starters. I hope he feels that he does have some control in this situation, and that those who think they’ve cornered someone have often simply chosen another corner.  When the bell goes, the two parties come out swinging, and that’s about as helpful as rice-paper shoes in monsoon season.

I hope he’s seen that a proactive, realistic HR advisor can put things in place (documents, policies, processes and recording systems) that protect a business and the employees who do play fair. I hope he remembers me when he needs help or guidance. 

But I hope more than anything that he’s not afraid now. If he’s anxious, he knows where to come. The kettle’s on.

The Queen's Speech

Today in Parliament the Queen unveiled a new shocking pink mohawk. Not really, I was just checking you were paying attention. No new hairdo, but she did treat us to a few details on the Bills her MPs and Lords will be occupying themselves with in the coming months.

The key one I will be keeping an eye on is The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill*, which falls under the responsibility of Vince Cable's Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS.)

There are a couple of doozys hidden in the headlines of the Bill, namely the promises to 'overhaul the employment tribunal system, and transform the dispute resolution landscape' and 'repeal unnecessary legislation, cutting the burden on business and citizens.' 

Quite aside from what transforming the dispute resolution landscape really involves (there have been noises about tribunal changes and the opposition to them for some time) what could practically be done to reduce tribunal claims?

I've made no bones about being in favour of introducing mediation for warring parties before any claim can be accepted, an idea that goes back to 2006 and seems to be resurrected every two to three years, resurfacing in 2008. A 2010 study found that mediation 'failed to achieve the anticipated time and cost savings over unmediated cases' - but then it did involve judges, and when you're trying to remove layers and simplify matters, I just don't feel that was the best idea.

In 2011, the then Employment Relations Minister, Ed Davey, announced a pilot scheme for two mediation networks to be set up for SMEs in Cambridge and Manchester. Under the  scheme the BIS has funded mediation training for employees from 24 SMEs in each pilot area,  aiming to resolve workplace disputes early without the need for an employment tribunal claim. The jury is still out, but I am hopeful that training SME staff will be more effective than the 2010 study.

The other interesting point here is the concept of 'binding votes' which will enable shareholders to veto pay awards to top executives, rather like the 'Two Strikes' law Australia introduced in 2011 and which has proven successful in as far as 70 businesses have found themselves being told to rein in their top peoples' pay packages for the first time. If they are told to do so again, all Board members will be forced to stand for re-election to their posts by shareholders. (This works fine so long as a business hasn't purposely sought out majority 'tame' shareholders who wave things through and have no real engagement with the Company.) With Aviva's recent woes and with William Hill shareholders also dissenting, this is an area worth watching. Will this prove to have teeth?

I confess to feeling uncomfortable with the vagueness of exactly what legislation they refer to that is 'unnecessary.' I know the likes of the Daily Mail and Richard Littlejohn will start blustering on about 'elf 'n' safety', but the problem isn't generally with the legislation, but the interpretation and application of it. The UK has some of the world's least restrictive employment laws, and I do feel heartily sick at times when my profession is accused of 'sticking barriers in the way of progress' or being 'the department that tells you what you can't do.'

Nope. That's not how I see it. But then I wouldn't. I love my job. I'm a problem solver, not a problem finder.

So what this last actually involves remains to be seen; no more information has really been made public. I assume they're still pondering the detail. But if 'cutting red tape' means risks to employment rights you can bet there will be plenty more to be said on this subject.


*According to the BIS website the Bill will:
  • Overhaul the employment tribunal system, and transform the dispute resolution landscape.
  • Improve the effectiveness and efficiency of competition enforcement and the competitiveness of markets, by strengthening the regime and improving the speed and predictability for business.
  • Set the purpose of the UK Green Investment Bank and ensure its independence.
  • Strengthen the framework for setting directors’ pay by introducing binding votes.
  • Extend the Primary Authority scheme, reduce inspection burdens on business and strengthen the legal framework for sunset clauses on regulation.
  • Repeal unnecessary legislation, cutting the burden on business and citizens.