Do you trust HR (to deliver good work)?

Blog posts

25 Jun 2019

Duncan BrownDuncan Brown, Head of HR Consultancy

Part 2: Rebuilding employee trust through strategic people management

In his presentation at our IES HR Director Retreat, now IES board member and Kings College Emeritus Professor David Guest expertly summarised the wealth of research evidence that a comprehensive HRM strategy can have a hugely beneficial impact on organisation performance. But he also highlighted that this depends on establishing an open and trusting, genuinely wellbeing-focused, two-way employment relationship, a psychological contract of ‘reciprocal promises and obligations’ which underpins and is more significant than the formal written contract. And as he puts it ‘psychological contracts rely on trust’.

If this particular HR corner does need turning, or ‘re-turning’, back towards a more multi-stakeholder, employee-focused, trust-based approach to people management, then at our Retreat there was plenty of research and practical evidence of this good work being very much in evidence, at least amongst the IES HR network members.

Wide-ranging employee wellbeing and engagement strategies were the norm in our research case studies, for example at the London School of Economics, where a comprehensive programme to support students and their mental health was then applied to staff; alongside of the evidence of improved HR metrics and analytics, to demonstrate the impressive financial gains of significantly reducing high employee attrition rates  at Revolution Bars. One director cited groups of female employees coming forward after dignity and diversity training programmes to challenge long-serving ‘bully bosses’ who were subsequently disciplined.

Most impressive of all perhaps is the comprehensive people strategy at Anchor Homes espoused and practiced by CEO and ex-HR director Jane Ashcroft, in a sector where enormous financial pressures and strict regulatory standards can encourage low skill/low pay/low autonomy, ‘bad job’ strategies, on occasions with disastrous results for patient and old people’s welfare. Jane’s strategy is the opposite, with an emphasis on internal staff development and promotions, high involvement and communications, through a variety of formal and informal channels, including their own workplace social media tool.

Putting fairy tales and philosophies into practice

But perhaps there is still a need for employers and HR, Aladdin-like, to put out their hands and place the restoration of employee trust as an explicit priority in more of these strategies. Only then can they really deliver the type of employment relationships founded on good work, trust and ‘delivery of the deal’ that David Guest describes from his research, that are required if we are ever to close the engagement and related productivity gaps against many of our international competitors.

The Dalai Lama believes that “To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust". Too many management and HRM strategies over the past three decades have been based on power, competition and financial incentivisation. Employee cynicism, disengagement and distrust based on their experience of ‘fairy tale’ HR and supposed total reward strategies has been the result in too many workplaces, explaining the UK’s poor productivity performance.

For William Morris, the difference between good and bad work (and performance) was straightforward:

‘One has hope in it, the other has not. What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing? It is threefold - hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality’.

Do you trust me on that?

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.