Do you trust HR (to deliver good work)?

Blog posts

25 Jun 2019

Duncan BrownDuncan Brown, Head of HR Consultancy

Part 1: The loss

‘Do you trust me?’ asks the dashingly camp Aladdin from his wobbly stallion of a magic carpet, thrusting out his hand invitingly to the sassy, suspicious-looking, terra firma-preferring Princess Jasmine, with no sign of any seat belts, life jackets or CAA flight certification in sight.

Trust. A small word with big meaning – having confidence, belief, faith in the reliability and truth of the other party. It lies at the core of all philosophies and religions. Societies, markets, organisations and families can’t function without it, whatever the enormous amount of regulations, contracts and lawyers that governments and employers seem to be assuming can substitute for it.

Professor Roger Steare found evidence after the 2008 financial crash of an inverse correlation between the greater the regulation, the lower the trust and the higher the risk of immoral, self-interested behaviour that was implicated as a factor in explaining that crash.

According to many social and political commentators, we have experienced something of a ‘trust crisis’ in many of our institutions. Sociologist William Davies believes that in society, science and politics, ‘much of the time the edifice that we refer to as ‘truth’ is really an investment of trust,’ and the loss of trust has produced a crisis in Western liberal democracies, helping to fuel the growth of populist protest and political extremism. Food for thought for an evidence-based and research-into-practice institution like IES.

Trust and the lack of it, in HR and employers, was a key theme that emerged throughout our HR Director Retreat in Brighton last month, where the focus was on our recent research project in partnership with CIPD on the evolution and current state of Strategic Human Resource Management.

SHRM: From tea breaks to zero hours contracts

When I started out as a sideburn-clad personnel officer 30 years ago, the function was often criticised for our lack of strategic business purpose and impact, with an administration-focused service delivery model which could only proffer ‘tea and sympathy’ for employees. There were ‘too many airy-fairies’ in HR according to my first, ex-police sergeant boss. IES was founded by a group of HR directors seeking to gain evidence of the impact of good people management on the performance of the economy and organisations.

Professor David Guest contrasted this more integrated and aligned SHRM perspective with traditional personnel management in an early seminal article in 1987. He stressed that it required high levels of employee commitment, flexibility and trust to ‘deliver the deal’ of high performance working.

An initial reading of the findings from our IES research study might suggest we appear to have gone from one extreme to the other, ‘selling out’ on employee interests in our headstrong pursuit of shareholder, senior management and strategic business alignment.

As the literature review reveals, some academic critics now claim that, as Tony Dundon and Anthony Rafferty put it, ‘the dominant narrative of contemporary HRM emerged within a specific period of capitalism, espousing free markets, the primacy of individualism and unfettered competition’.  This has meant that ‘the function of HR often becomes little more than an administrative minder for investors who demand added value,’ sacrificing longer-term development and investment in people for short-term profits. There is, they claim, a gulf between ‘the person-focused rhetoric and the harsh realities of people management’.

Combined with an over-emphasis on the mushrooming-volume of employment legislation as a driver of HRM strategy and practice, rather than more time-consuming employee engagement focused approaches to improving the UK’s lamentable performance on productivity, it cannot be denied that on HR’s watch particularly over the past decade, we have seen some pretty negative employment trends.

There has been major growth in low skilled/minimum wage jobs, zero hours contracts and outsourcing, combined with cuts in training investment and real pay reductions producing the worst period for employee pay for two centuries (unless you are an executive benefitting from ballooning rewards); and perhaps not surprisingly, also significant growth in associated levels of workplace stress and mental ill health.

Good work and employee wellbeing, or window dressing and air brushing?

Mathew Taylor’s good work report and the CIPD’s renewed emphasis on ‘better work’ and the experience of working lives highlights how much of the opposite we have had over the last decade. Recent employment legislation – the National Living Wage, gender pay reporting, the apprentice levy and the forthcoming implementation of the proposals on ‘good work’  - can all be seen as signs of government and civil servants losing trust in employers and their HR functions to provide the so-called high-performance and ‘good work’ HR policies and practices voluntarily; and so the legal requirements and compulsion to do so (and the penalties for not doing) are being ramped up in the government’s good work plan.

Despite the espoused commitment by employers in their HRM strategies to achieve ‘good work HR’  through the commonly reported strategic ‘pillars’ of employee engagement and wellbeing, it seems in practice to be what the IPA’s Director Nita Clarke memorably referred to at our Retreat as a superficial, survey rather than action- based ‘lip-sticking-on’ approach to engagement. Professor Dame Carol Black, another of our speakers, similarly called out the piecemeal, ineffective, ‘tea and pilates’ approach to wellbeing that she sees in too many employers, that does nothing to address the escalating levels of workplace ill health she so frighteningly charted.

Perhaps most worrying of all is the evidence that employees see through what my colleague Stephen Bevan calls this ‘HR policy:practice, say:do gap’ and no longer trust their employers and us in HR.

Take gender equality. The reporting requirements and associated developments such as #MeToo have encouraged women to speak out and exposed the problems created by HR’s unfettered use of Nondisclosure Agreements. As recent disclosures of unacceptable senior leadership behaviour and the cultures in a number of firms has highlighted, employees have plenty of evidence now to indicate that as the press headlines put it,  ‘HR is not your friend’ and is not to be trusted.

So just how do employers and HR rebuild a trusting, high performance, high commitment employment ‘deal’ in a low trust era with the backdrop of political and economic uncertainty? Our HR directors had plenty of examples and ideas at our Retreat to restore your trust and faith in them, which I will cover in Part 2 of this blog.

Part 2