Why governance is good and being human is ok

Blog posts

24 Feb 2020

Ed Griffin

Ed Griffin, Director of HR Consultancy and Research

I was bemused to read this morning two linked stories about working at the heart of government. One was the advertising of a new HR post in the Cabinet Office as Special Advisers' HR Policy Lead and the other was the suggestion that Special Advisers (SPADs) had been told that if they faced certain personal challenges such as bereavement, then they probably weren’t tough enough for the job.

The HR post job description sets out a new role that interestingly sits within the Proprietary & Ethics team and, amongst other things, is responsible for “supporting the operation of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers (no inferences there then). The BBC reported this under a headline linking it to tensions in Number 10. Stepping back from the hyperbole that social media and 24/7 reporting may lead us to, I think there’s a positive story underlying this.

From a HR perspective we shouldn’t shy away from the idea that “governance is good”; effective governance in organisations has played an important part over many years in helping to create fairer, more inclusive and transparent workplaces. Investing in a new senior management role that could play a critical part in ensuring roles are properly set up, recruited into and that job holders are well supported should be applauded.

Given that these roles play an important part in how the policy that will impact all of us is developed and implemented, it would be reassuring to know that they will be managed with good governance and appropriate controls. I’ve noticed online and in the news recently the implication that if you want to be “agile” (an over-and mis-used phrase if ever there was one) then governance is your enemy.

This strikes me as a dangerous mentality to encourage and we should be careful to show that good governance doesn’t have to be bureaucratic and can lead to better outcomes. I was fortunate to be introduced many years ago to the idea of the “3 Ships” – a way of understanding the role of HR and other professional functions in organisations that made it easier to stand firm when good governance was needed or at risk.

We need HR professionals to be confident in protecting the organisation and not becoming complicit in poor management practice. In my experience this model has helped teams and individuals be clearer and more effective in this important role. The 3 Ships are Leadership, Partnership and Stewardship and summarised below.


  • Using your functional expertise and awareness of good practice and external benchmarks.
  • Confidently introducing new or improved ways of doing things for the organisation.
  • Using your functional expertise to “take the lead” for the organisation in specific areas.


  • A collaborative way of working that builds a shared understanding of the problems or opportunities to be addressed, and the ways to approach them.
  • Requires more of a facilitative or coaching way of working from the internal service provider.
  • Partnership is ideally the predominant way of working with internal customers.


  • Support functions have a role in protecting their organisation in very specific areas, e.g. GDPR, employment law, health & safety, financial reporting.
  • Stewardship is providing the guidance on where the boundaries are for acceptable, safe or legal actions.
  • It’s warning internal customers when they are at risk of crossing those boundaries and the consequences if they do. Sometimes it requires you to say “STOP”.
  • It’s a mode of working that if over-used will often generate resistance and non-compliance.

I’ve also found the 3 Ships to be a useful angle when looking at the HR operating model, something we are asked to do by our consulting clients.

The other story today seems to take us back to a time when “lunch was for wimps” and if things were tough you should just “man up”. Even though I do enjoy reminiscing on some things, I definitely don’t want a return to the days when we may have been expected to leave our lives behind us when we came to work.

IES has been fortunate to play a key part in informing and influencing practice around health and wellbeing at work, helping to reduce the stigma that some employees may have faced and encouraging the valuing of the “whole” person at work. The idea that dealing with bereavement may make us no longer tough enough for a job seems a denial of the experiences that every one of us will need to deal with.

It seems both a naïve belief and one that risks either excluding many people, or creating a climate of fear and inauthenticity. Instinctively, none of those feel like good things for those who will be developing the policy that touches all of us. Much has been researched and written about the benefits of a diverse workforce; anything that risks excluding people needs to be challenged along with the idea that being resilient equates to being aggressive or dominant.

From our own work over the years in seeking to understand resilience, it’s clear that it’s a gross simplification to think that if someone is experiencing something challenging then they may not be tough enough for a job! With our focus on helping to make work better, we advise employers to take the time to understand their employees, look for the evidence of what works and start to think about designing work that is good for people.

If you’d like to find out more about how we help organisations, please email me on ed.griffin@employment-studies.co.uk

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