It's the job, stupid!

Blog posts

5 Oct 2015

Peter ReillyPeter Reilly

Bill Clinton won his presidential election on the slogan ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ and may be the HR profession should adopt the same approach but substituting ‘job’ for ‘economy’. The importance of the nature of work and its neglect by the HR function has struck me several times over recent weeks. For example, I attended a meeting of the European Organisation Design Forum where Kirsteen Grant from Edinburgh Napier University reported under-utilisation of employee skills in the organisations she studied. For me, her significant finding was that whether employees have meaningful and rewarding work, and autonomy and empowerment in what they do, is an important factor in generating organisational high performance.

Following that, I had conversations with IES colleagues on the part HR was playing in service reconfiguration in the NHS. Was HR engaged in thinking about ‘productive wards’, patient safety or optimal A&E processes? We were concerned that HR might not be involved, having noted the function’s absence in projects we have undertaken on the drive for higher staff productivity and better patient care. Further to our own conversations, what these projects also demonstrated was that, whilst job autonomy enriched some people’s work to the benefit of the organisation, in the case of others, having well-defined and structured work was essential to performance: standardised effort was more important for patient care than innovation.

Finally, I read an article in Compensation and Benefits Review which contended that intrinsic motivation is undervalued compared with extrinsic, despite good evidence that the former significantly impacts performance. The article was particularly relevant to the argument here when it contrasted employee views on motivation with HR’s views. Using research from the Society for HR Management, the top three ‘underestimations’ by HR (ie the difference between HR’s and employees’ views on the importance of ‘job aspects’ to job satisfaction) concerned the job itself, variety of work, and autonomy and independence.

 This reminded me of research we carried out for the CIPD that showed that, in answer to a question on how decisions are taken on work organisation, just over half of organisations believed it was a line manager matter, just over a third said it was a shared responsibility between the line and HR, and in nine per cent of cases the thinking was that HR should take charge.

 What these various sources of evidence tell me is firstly that the nature of the job is very important to employee satisfaction with work and this impacts organisational performance directly through levels of staff motivation and indirectly through staff retention. It also tells me that job design and role specification directly affect productivity, often through greater autonomy but sometimes through the presence of good controls and role specification.

However, too frequently HR sees work (its content, design and staff appreciation) as none of its business nor especially relevant to its role. If there is interest it is seen through the employee engagement lens that risks imagining a simple connection between employee satisfaction and organisational performance. In practice, this leads to arguing that organisations should seek all ways of maximising employee engagement. This approach neglects the fact that organisations must manage task allocation and levels of discretion in a way that optimises performance not just in ways that make staff happy. Whilst naturally being mindful of the need to recruit, retain and motivate colleagues, organisations must also direct activities, manage risk and ensure task completion.

The good line managers achieve this balance between staff satisfaction and team performance and HR should strive to do the same with Ulrich’s role descriptors of employee champion, change agent and strategic business partner all covered. We neither want heartless HR that shows no humanity (a charge I heard the other day in connection with a major change programme) nor do we want HR to be so soft and fluffy that it ignores the point of the business (making money, serving the public, etc).