Many of you will be enjoying a return to pre-pandemic normality. I am just loving the revival of freedoms that we took for granted two years ago – seeing family and friends, having the option to travel, not having my glasses steam up when I’m wearing a mask. All the usual stuff.

Returning to normal can be wonderful. For HR, it can be a mixed blessing. Yes, we don’t have to deal with constant crises. We can now offer flexible, hybrid working as the norm. We have made virtual hiring, onboarding and L&D happen.

But on the other hand, we are seeing an unwelcome return of too many of the old ways of thinking. For every company offering fantastic hybrid benefits, there are an equal number of managers who want everyone back in where they can see them. From having to trust people during lockdown to deliver outputs without micro-management, there are numerous sighs of relief as managers feel they can go back to micro-managing their staff.

I think it’s important for us in HR to take a step back and reflect – what did we learn during Covid? What did we learn about managers’ capabilities, the ability of our people to change and adapt, and what did we learn about ourselves? If we can consolidate on what we’ve learned, maybe we can avoid the slippery slope back to old ways of thinking and leading?

We learned that people can change really fast

Imagine having an HR project where the end result would be the majority of our employees working in new locations, with new technologies and in new ways. You can just picture the scale of the project plan, the amount of stakeholder engagement, training programmes and communications. And yet it just happened.

What’s the learning here for us? I think it’s about looking at people and change through a new lens. Instead of our mantra being ‘people don’t like change’ – we need to see change as something we do really fast – if the circumstances are right. ‘Right’ meaning that we make it easy for people to use, give them the space to find their own way of doing it, and have leaders role model the same new behaviours.

Personal choice matters

We all experienced the pandemic in different ways. For people like me, who are lucky enough to have the space, working from home felt like a wonderful relief after incessant travelling. I got to spend time with husband and my Mum (who was in our bubble). Yes, it got a bit tedious at times – not seeing friends, (not the spending time with my husband!) – but on the whole 2020 wasn’t too bad. For others, cramped living arrangements, home schooling and isolation made it all extremely challenging. The return to normal has been equally personal. Some can’t wait to get back to the office, whilst others can’t think of anything worse.

The learning for us in HR is that personal choice matters. One size fits all hybrid working policies are always going to be inadequate. The more that we can enable managers and their teams to have grown up conversations about what works for the individual, the team and the company – the more likely it is that we’ll meet the different needs of our people.

Moments that matter

Even the most introverted homebody will acknowledge that some things are better done in person. Whether it’s brainstorming ideas, celebrating as a team or connecting with someone new, there are times when virtual just isn’t as fulfilling.

We learned however, that it’s important to know which are the ‘moments that matter’? Rather than old-school thinking of 3 days in/2 days out – if we can discuss and agree the moments that matter – when we should be face to face – then we can really get the benefits of hybrid.

The processes that weren’t missed

Quite a lot of our HR processes weren’t missed during the pandemic. Suddenly, our annual talent reviews, performance rating exercises and annual engagement surveys seemed unnecessary or too difficult to do. We turned our long training programmes into bite-sized Teams sessions that worked really well and were so much easier to schedule. Virtual hiring or onboarding meant we had to get creative. We changed our overly complicated mentoring schemes into pop-up sessions. Leadership comms became less formal and corporate. Short and sweet pulse surveys gave us much greater insights at the right time. We got rid of the processes we had been loyally defending as ‘best practice’ since the 1980’s and the world didn’t fall apart. In fact our new approaches gave us credibility and showed HR can adapt at pace. The good news is that many of us are not going back.

We can trust our people

Finally, if we only learned one thing from the pandemic, it should be that our people can be trusted. Turns out they didn’t need the myriad of detailed and prescriptive policies to know how to show up, serve customers and do right by their colleagues.

We should be taking this new atmosphere of feeling we can trust our people and use it to recharge our employee experience. It’s time to take away the rigid policies and replace them with light tough principles that start from the premise of ‘we trust you to use your judgement and do the right thing’. If we take this learning of trusting our people, we can create an environment that is not just passive and compliant but agile and ready to thrive when and if the next crisis hits.

A few of the more traditional leaders I’ve worked with recently have complained about the younger members of their staff. They are upset at what they see as a reduced level of loyalty. In the old days, they say, we were like a family but the younger generation don’t seem to want or respect this. They are too quick to jump ship for another company or they lack the same level of commitment as the older members of the team. I’m not sure whether this is one of the typical generational stereotypes that often get thrown about or whether there is in fact a demise of the concept of our employer being a family. I really hope it’s the latter. We are not our employees’ family. We never have been. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s healthy.

For all of the nice stuff about being a family, the sense of belonging, the long term-relationships with colleagues we care deeply about, the loyalty and pride that we feel, there are several reasons why we should stop presenting the relationship with our employees in this way.

It’s dishonest

The thing about your family is that, even when times are tough, we don’t tend to get rid of them, even if we’d like to! We’re being dishonest when we welcome our employees to their new family because, if we have to – for financial or performance reasons – we’ll discard them. 225 million jobs were lost globally in the first year of the pandemic and whilst this will have been really painful for many company leaders, in the end, they still do it.

It’s unhealthy

Companies that present themselves as a family tend to engage in some practices that are unhealthy for both the company and the employee.

There’s a tendency to see a resignation as a betrayal. One boss I had didn’t speak to me for six weeks after I told him I was leaving. This is so short-sighted. Smarter companies recognise that people leaving is part and parcel of the employer-employee relationship and make it ok for people to do it. In fact, they go further than that. They nurture their alumni and ensure that they can come back – with new skills, fresh perspectives and experiences – that can add more value to both parties than if the person had stayed. Da Vita Healthcare, for example, regularly hire back people from their alumni. Around 15% of new hires have worked there before.

Conversely, it becomes a given that employees will stay with us, that long tenure is the ultimate goal. Think about what we celebrate. We give out awards or extra holiday for long-service, we monitor and reprimand managers with high churn rates, we devise retention schemes to keep people with us. Now of course, we should thank people for their loyalty. But equally, shouldn’t we prize those people who don’t stay forever? Who purposely limit their time with us because they value variety and new challenges?

I once worked with a guy who would only accept two-year contracts because he worried that if he accepted a permanent contract he would start to feel too settled and he would become wedded to his employer. He worried that he could become scared of the prospect of having to leave and find another job. And that this would drive unhealthy behaviours; that he’d be more concerned about clinging to his job than doing a great one. If we stop thinking about ourselves as a family where leaving isn’t ever talked about, we can have healthier conversations about the need to move on, to keep skills and mindsets fresh. Whenever I’ve worked with long-serving employees, there is always a high percentage of them who seem unhappy, resentful almost. Like an unhappy marriage where the couple are miserable but lack the confidence to leave. We need to have healthier conversations with our people about how leaving isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should openly talk about a healthy average time in role to prevent the relationship getting stale. I love the LinkedIn concept of Tours of Duty, where it’s not just acknowledged that you won’t stay forever, but positively welcomed.

Whilst seeing our employer as our family has some negative consequences, I’m not saying it’s a relationship that should be purely transactional either. Of course, there should be warmth and kindness. But being kind is not about pretending there’s a job for life and avoiding difficult conversations. Kindness means having those honest conversations and being truthful about the relationship. I think the ultimate kindness we can show our people is to work with them to make sure they can remain employable in the future, with us possibly, but more importantly, somewhere else. Both the employer and the employee have a responsibility to keep their skills fresh, but more importantly, that they don’t see their future as interminably linked to us. We can work together to ensure they retain the confidence and the appetite to leave.

Rather than relying on an HR policy to help you manage a team who are working flexibly, try asking yourself these questions to make sure you’re getting hybrid working right.

  1. Do I work flexibly – or am I always in the office? What subliminal messages am I giving about where it’s best to work?
  2. Am I being clear about the outputs I want and then giving flexibility about where and when the works gets done? Or am I still managing by overseeing tasks?
  3. Am I being inclusive enough, or are my meetings geared to people in the office/at home? Am I accommodating the different needs and personalities on our team?
  4. Am I having grown-up conversations with my team about hybrid working? Am I being flexible enough, or am I being too accommodating and not pushing back if it causes problems with customers or the rest of the team?
  5. Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development with the people I don’t see very often?
  6. Am I clear on the ‘moments that matter’ for my team? When should we be together face to face? Have I asked them when they feel it’s important?
  7. Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
  8. Do my team members have what they need to be able to work effectively from anywhere?
  9. Am I realising the potential benefits of hybrid to create a more diverse team?
  10. Am I being too inflexible about where my team work because I don’t trust some of them? Could I handle this in a different way, so I don’t punish the many to manage the few?

Our talent strategies are full of movement; plans to promote, to increase responsibilities, to rotate. We focus our energies on building skills and retaining our top talent. But rarely have I seen a talent strategy that tackles the biggest barrier to our talent plans – getting people to leave.

So, why do we need to encourage people to leave, or at least do something different?

Well, there’s a distinct possibility that they’ll get stale if they stay too long in role. They don’t become a poor performer, but their ability to innovate, challenge and refresh can become diluted.

Secondly, because our talent strategies rely upon having space at the top for people to move into. Waiting for someone to leave is frustrating when you’re ready to make that next move. And one of two things happen, our future talent finds promotion elsewhere or they start to get stale themselves – blocking career paths from their juniors in their turn.

Thirdly, we need a strategy to help people move on because it’s difficult to do. They have given their commitment, their time, their loyalty, and their departure should be handled with dignity and respect. What typically happens is that we tend to ignore the issue – until suddenly their exit is essential and urgent. Then we’re trying to negotiate with someone who’s scared, hurt and angry. We end up with bad feeling, disruption and of course, expensive severance pay-outs.

So, how can our talent strategy address this sensitive, but vital area? This short video looks at some options.

When you look at the research into who we trust, there are some challenging implications for HR.  So much of our current approach stems is based around our leaders being the font of all truth, wisdom and credibility.

And yet, the Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that we trust our leaders much less than we trust ‘people like us’.

Marketing cottoned onto this a while back. They’re obsessed with Facebook “likes” or positive customer reviews. They know that we will trust a TripAdvisor review over the hotel PR blurb any day and so they have exploited the rise of social media to ensure that their customers hear great things – from people like them. We in HR have been a little slower to embrace this societal change and to use it to our advantage. If we assume that the Edelman Trust Barometer results are relevant for our employment relationships, then this should challenge us to rethink our approach in a number of areas. If we have “trust in people like us” at the forefront of our minds then maybe our reliance on our leaders for communication, engagement and training would lessen and we would start seeing the value of using our frontline employees far more?

Instead of grimacing when we sporadically click on Glassdoor to check out what our latest disgruntled ex-employee has been saying about us, we might follow the L’Oreal example. They had a big campaign where they encouraged their current employees to write reviews on Glassdoor. This didn’t just result in a 200% increase in the numbers they had on there, but also a much more accurate summary of what it was like to work there.

Whether online or via the old-school paper newsletter, internal comms teams still rely heavily on leader-led communication to broadcast corporate information. When I joined the BBC, I was initially horrified to learn that our version of the newsletter was an editorially independent magazine called “Ariel”. Paid for by management – but free to say whatever they liked as long as it adhered to the BBC’s editorial guidelines. It used to drive me mad that a big chunk of my budget was being spent on a newsletter that would regularly be critical of my latest HR policy announcement. But I eventually realised that it was the one piece of communication that was really trusted. When you have 6000+ journalists working with you, many of whom had the regular emails from Internal Comms on auto-delete, to have a trusted form of communication was vital, even if occasionally uncomfortable.

We have known for a while that referrals from current employees often make the best hires and employee referral schemes have been around forever. But it works the other way too. Who are you more likely to believe about what it’s like to work somewhere? A recruitment advert or a current employee? Equipping your great people with a strong brand message and trusting them to actively promote you either in person or via social media will build far greater belief in your employment brand than a nice careers website.

Some organisations ask employees to help each other onboard. Southwest Airlines, for instance, invites people from all levels of the company, to talk about their jobs to recruits. Whole Foods, the US grocery retailer, actually gets its employees (not the HR manager or the store manager) to decide whether a new starter should stay or not. After 90 days the team is invited to vote on whether to keep the employee; this sounds quite brutal but actually makes a lot of sense given they’re the ones most likely to know if the person is right for the company. Commerce Sciences, a Silicon Valley tech start-up, has a tradition in which the last person to join the team is responsible for creating a starter kit for the next person.

Instead of the parental, leader-led approach to performance reviews, more and more companies are seeing the value of peer to peer review. Whilst getting feedback from your manager is clearly important, understanding how your team members view your contribution can often be even more impactful. The proliferation of employee feedback apps such as Culture Amp and Achievers show that this method is gaining in popularity. But there is also the underused team performance discussion where employees are encouraged to provide feedback to their peers.

Our reliance on the leader as the source of truth is diminishing and smarter HR teams are seeing how their frontline employees can become so much more than simply passive recipients. Engaging your employees as the designers of learning content, as the advocates for your employment brand and the genuine voice of the organisation takes more than just time and creative thinking – it takes guts. Leaders and HR find it hard to relinquish control of the message and methods of delivery. But if we don’t, we risk missing out on a huge, untapped resource that can be so much more effective.

We know we’re in trouble when the thinking behind our latest HR initiative is that “if HR doesn’t manage it, THEY won’t do it properly”. The “THEY” in question is, of course, our managers; the people we trust enough to lead the business but not enough to lead our people! You know, I struggle to think of a time when a new strategy or tactic I introduced as an HR Director wasn’t shaped by a desire to compensate for poor leaders. You know how it goes …

…THEY won’t have conversations with their team members? Let’s introduce a system that makes them sit down once a year to do it.

…THEY won’t tackle poor performance? Let’s make them rate their people via a distribution curve that forces them to put 10% at the bottom.

…THEY won’t reward their people fairly? Let’s design a bonus formula that has a number of different measures so they won’t have much room for manoeuvre.

…THEY won’t tell their people what’s happening in the organisation? Let’s produce a script and insist they cascade this through their teams by a certain date.

Whilst our desire to compensate often stems from a positive intent – to protect and help employees or the organisation – the impact, I believe, is corrosive and damaging for three key reasons:

  1. We often make things worse

Instead of achieving our aims of great conversations, fair rewards, effective communication and so on – the processes we make “THEM” carry out often deliver just the opposite. We have produced cumbersome performance systems with complicated ratings and distribution curves that often make it impossible for managers to simply have a great conversation. Instead of rewards that surprise, delight and motivate our people, we have created bonus structures that dissatisfy and confuse. Instead of effective communication, managers end up parroting sterile scripts that they don’t own. Instead of allowing for differentiation based on personal style, the needs of that particular area of the business or the simple common-sense requirement to use discretion, we push one-size-fits all processes that managers often box tick or try and find ways of ignoring.

2. We create a culture of co-dependency

By continuing to compensate for poor managers we create a co-dependency with HR that is unhealthy. Whilst we might enjoy the sense of being needed, by failing to address the doubts about their abilities to lead and manage their people, we remain necessary and fail to help them develop the judgement and skills they need to do it on their own. In a world of pace and ambiguity, where the ability of managers to make the right decisions quickly is paramount, we keep them childlike and limit their potential.

3. It stops HR from doing what it needs to

Compensating for poor managers places HR in a kind of hybrid role of Chief Super-Nanny/Police/Monitor. Not only does this little for our credibility with the business, it also means that we devote hours to measuring who’s done what or doing it for them. If I had diverted just 50% of the time I invested in thinking up new ways to make managers do things into creating the conditions where they would do it themselves, I would have been a much better HR leader.

So how can we begin to change the focus for HR?

Sadly, there are a lot of poor managers, but maybe fewer than we think if we changed our approach? I believe there are four ways in which we can begin to do this.

  1. Don’t design around the lowest common denominator

If our starting point in HR is about how “THEY” won’t or can’t then our focus will remain on making them or doing it for them. An alternative approach is to use “appreciative inquiry” and to look at what’s working well and re-focusing our energies on how it could be even better.

2. Play to their strengths

The traditional leadership competency framework is dated. Instead of producing a list of behaviours that we expect managers to model, it can be helpful to focus on the unique strengths each manager has and how they can lead, engage and develop their people in a way that works for them and feels authentic.

3. Focus on the impact

Instead of driving and measuring inputs (numbers of appraisal forms completed, numbers of people trained etc) we can set expectations about and measure how we want their people to feel and what we want them to experience (ie: we want you to help your people perform at their best, we want you to help your people grow and learn, etc). If we focus on the impact we want them to have as managers but allow them the freedom to deliver it in ways that work for their people, their authentic leadership style, their business context, etc, then we both challenge them to develop and use their particular strengths.

4. Allow judgement

Finally, we must avoid the urge to create more and more rules and instead learn to back-off. Whilst it can be tempting and reassuring to have everything nailed down so there’s no room for error, it also doesn’t allow for managers to use and build their judgement and so we are stuck in this cycle of co-dependency.

The sad truth is that HR cannot really compensate for poor leaders and managers. At best, we paper over the cracks and at worst, we can create conditions where the better managers struggle to do it well. If we spent more time making sure we chose better leaders in the first place and less time compensating we’d do everyone a favour.

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I was reading in the news today about a guy who had just won a legal claim against unfair dismissal. He’d called in sick complaining of a bad chest infection but had been spotted out later that day, drinking and smoking in a bar. His company fired him but lost their claim that they had been right to do so because, their detailed sickness and absence policies hadn’t specifically mentioned that employees couldn’t socialise whilst off sick.

Apart from despair, what should our reaction in HR be to cases like these?

Should we immediately add in a new rule about not socialising whilst off sick? Maybe we even need to clarify what we mean by socialising? Is seeing family and friends ok, but not drinking alcohol? How far a distance from their home should they be allowed to travel? And how long could the socialising last for? Is one hour ok, but not two?

I know I’m being facetious and whilst this particular case might seem absurd and extreme, HR does have these sorts of issues cropping up with depressing regularity.

Full disclosure – I’m not an employment lawyer and my colleagues have suggested that I’m not even a proper HR person as I didn’t come up the traditional HR route of policy and process. But, it seems fairly obvious to me that more rules, more detail, more specifics are not the answer. We can’t possibly legislate for every eventuality. What’s even more important is that by trying to protect our organisations from people like this guy, we penalise the vast majority of our people, who have no intention of calling in sick and heading down the pub.

Tons of rules scream ‘we don’t trust you!’

Tons of rules speak volumes about how little we trust our people – to either behave decently or be capable of using their judgement. And this at a time when we are crying out for innovation, personal accountability and the ability to work with agility and cope with ambiguity. For all our values posters about integrity and teamwork, the pages of fine print we get employees to sign point to a very different culture.

And the biggest irony? We potentially leave our organisations more exposed to risk of damaging claims because we have so many rules – but not the precise one that caters for every scenario.

So, if the answer isn’t to provide more detail, maybe the reverse is true. Maybe this company that is right now reeling from the absurdity of their legal battle, should be thinking about how they take a step back, move away from the detail and instead work with principles, not policies.

Principles not policies

Fortunately, this is a growing trend for HR. Instead of being placed into the role of compliance officer, HR is replacing rules and policies with broad principles that use notions of reasonableness, that start from a position of trust – or assume positive intent.

Let’s look at some examples:

We’ve got social media policies that encourage employees to ‘play nice’, ‘use common sense’ and ‘if you mess up, apologise and take it down’ being used by companies such as Gap, Intel and Ford.

We’ve got dress codes that suggest you ‘Dress for your day’ being used at Legal and General.

We’ve got expenses policies that give employees the freedom to spend without pre-approval on the basis that they do so ‘within reason’ at the company Base Camp.

We’ve got Telefonica showing they trust their people to ‘work where you are most productive’ instead of the worrying post-pandemic trend of 3 days in, two days out of the office.

And we’ve got organisations like HubSpot who dispense with rule books almost entirely and encourage their people to ‘use good judgement’.

I’m not naive enough to pretend that there doesn’t need to be some kind of legalistic framework to some of our policies. Of course there does. But I do think we can revisit many of the countless rules we inflict on our people and take a different approach. So maybe the next time you’re thinking about tightening up on the detail of a policy, maybe instead just write a statement based around common sense and sound judgement and see how that goes down?

Next time we’ll look at how you help managers cope without the detailed rule book and how HR can help them to use their judgement.

We keep looking for the next alternative to the ubiquitous “3-legged-stool” model for HR. We have almost given up trying to find enough outstanding (and affordable) HR Business Partners. We continue to struggle to find and keep CofE professionals who can deliver truly innovative, commercial and flexible approaches that are relevant for today’s world. And those of us who have spent time in outsourced, shared-service hell are beginning to get nostalgic about the days when it was all in-house.

Moreover, the demands of our clients increase daily. The impact of the current crisis has turned so much of our HR world upside down. Most of our clunky, annual processes feel irrelevant. There doesn’t seem to be any C-suite executive who hasn’t read about how other companies are getting rid of appraisals and are questioning what we are doing about it. Those pesky Millennials won’t stop making demands for greater flexibility and wanting everything on their Smartphone. And just when we thought our budget might increase for the first time in a few years, the FD’s begging bowl has reappeared.

More for less. More agility. More innovation. All HR professionals face the same challenges, regardless of sector.

Of course, focusing on the future HR organisation structure is a bit of a “physician heal thyself” scenario. For, as we would urge our clients not to leap to the org chart, so we need to ask some fairly fundamental questions about what we do and how we do it if we are going to actually deliver more productivity and innovation. But, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the HR Team that can meet the demands of a modern world. I’ll focus on 5 key trends in HR design that we’re seeing that will offer greater opportunities for real creativity, increased capacity to deliver and happily, should save money too.

From Business Partner to Account Management

When looking for a new HRBP, I was often tempted to advertise for a Superhero with strong interpersonal skills. “We need a strategic and commercial HR business partner. They must have experience in the full range of HR elements, be a coach, a law enforcer, a spoon-feeder, a tear-drier and the conscience of the business. They must be prepared to come up with lots of new ideas, only to have them ignored, take the blame when things go wrong, and always to have their item put last on any team meeting agenda, after finance, operations, marketing, IT and problems with the toilets. They must be relentlessly cheerful and be prepared to listen to the ravings or woes of anyone who seeks them out. Above all, they must be able to present the latest Group-wide HR initiative that has absolutely no relevance to their business unit, to their MD as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread.” When you look at what we want from them, it’s amazing to me that we can find one, let alone the numbers that most HR structures depend upon.

Estimates vary but it was seen that typically between 20-30% of traditional HR advisers would be unlikely to make the step up to full HR Business Partner. In my experience, it was significantly higher than that and most companies can count on one hand the number of HRBPs that can fulfil all that is required. Given this resource is both scarce and expensive, we are seeing a move to reducing the number of them and moving towards more of an account management role. This person does the strategic and commercial parts of the role, the relationship building, the diagnosis of what’s required, the resource planning and the oversight of the delivery. They then call upon a pool of HR generalists and/or technical experts who can deliver. The key benefits of this approach are a reliance on a fewer number of HR generalists, a genuine strategic/commercial focus from HR and the deployment of non-partisan generalists who can go to the greatest point of need. Clearly, these ‘super-BPs’ are tough to find. If you’d like to grow your own, it might be worth checking out our programme designed to develop the skills the modern-day HRBP needs.

HR Advisory – More than a Transaction

All of us who bear the scars from outsourcing our well-loved and local HR advisers have learned some hard lessons. We have come to realise that seeing HR advisory as a transactional service that can cost less by simply lobbing it over the organisation fence to an outsourced provider who offers ruthlessly efficient processes has some major flaws. Our HR processes are rarely beautifully streamlined at the point of transfer and so we import significant additional costs as the provider tries to navigate all of the “special and different” approaches we have historically accommodated. We ignored the loss of institutional memory as we marched these advisers out of the door. But most critically, we forgot the fact that when a line manager is asking about a particular policy – they are not actually asking about a policy – but how to get round it! The in-house HR adviser knew their line managers and their employees and deployed a big chunk of judgement along with their advice. They would weigh up the maturity of the line manager, the precedents that had already been set, the risks with this particular employee, etc, etc. Our HR Advisory service is a key part of the employee experience, often the first and most frequent touch point for our people. The painful outsourcing experiences of recent years have led some organisations to take this service back in-house. But we are also seeing a new trend – of next generation outsourced providers who are fundamentally different. One example of this is Adviser Plus who have built in an intrinsic understanding of the value and risks of HR advisory into their service – for example, providing a proactive phone call to a manager who is downloading a policy document that can be more high risk if they get it wrong, such as redundancy policy – and seeing if they want to talk anything through. HR advisory will continue to offer significant opportunities for outsourcing – but with a new style of approach that involves empathy, understanding, capability development and the ability to assess risk.

Employee Experience not Centres of Expertise

The approach we take in Disruptive HR is based upon our unique EACH model – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. We therefore really welcome the next key trend – to cluster Centres of Expertise around a focus on the employee experience – as it supports and reinforces one of these elements – the employee as a consumer. One of the (occasionally legitimate) accusations that is levelled at the CofE teams is that they are too focused on their own discipline and producing the perfect recruitment, talent, development, diversity, performance management, reward (delete as appropriate) solution and fail to connect to the needs of the business. In the same way that many consumer organisations have grouped many of their functions around a Head of Customer Experience, so this is starting to be adopted by HR for their people.

This is more than just a change of job title. By re-focusing on the actual experience that is desired at each stage of the employee life cycle, organisations can create a more joined up and holistic employee proposition that is greater than the sum of its HR parts. Driven by improved and genuine employee insight (not just an annual engagement survey but a blend of qualitative and quantitative analysis), created through effective user-centred design and delivered in ways that are relevant to each segment of their employee “market” – there are huge opportunities to increase cut through and reduce wasted effort.

Building capability not just compliance

This trend comes largely through a fresh response to a disrupted world where the abundance of employment policies and rules often stifle innovation and increase frustration of employees. The role of HR as The Enforcer is not what many of us who went into this profession wanted, but is one we have continued to play. Of course, rules matter. But any of us who have had to draft interminable employment policies recognise that this comes at a cost – to our capacity to focus on building the capabilities of line managers. Disruptive HR is often brought in to provide fresh challenge and ideas for HR teams. Whilst they like the innovation, they equally are concerned about their ability to deliver as their managers “wouldn’t do it”. They may be right but this means we are stuck in this vicious cycle where – we don’t trust managers to manage – we therefore produce rules and processes that make them do it – we spend our time enforcing and monitoring the process to make sure they have – which means we don’t have the time to develop their capability – so we don’t trust them to manage – and so on ….

Moreover, our seeming reluctance to let go of the role of Compliance Officer seriously dents our HR brand. If we spend our time ensuring cost efficiency and operational compliance – then why should we be taken seriously when we start to talk about value creation? I know it is hard to see a way out – I have tried and failed often, but only when we release ourselves from the compliance burden and focus instead on building judgement, insight and space for creativity will we be able to break the cycle. The Netflix HR team’s determination to steer clear of the role of HR police is well documented, but we are starting to see this as a trend in HR and not just within Silicon Valley. Interestingly, it is gaining traction in sectors that are often perceived (wrongly) as less innovative – the public and not-for-profit sectors. The continual cuts in support functions has forced them to consider a more radical alternative than some of their commercial and less cash strapped cousins. I know of examples in the Housing, Education and Local Government where they are having to focus on rolling back HR’s role in compliance – with highly productive results.

Contingent vs Permanent

This final trend has been evident in piecemeal form for many years. We have regularly deployed contractors, temps, and consultants to supplement or enhance our FTE levels. But we have rarely used them as a strategic choice – more as a tactical fill in. The accelerated pace of innovation in the HR space, the new freelance tech platforms, the continued pressure on costs and the need to deploy rapidly to resolve issues or bring about change all lead you to question whether a standing army of HR people is relevant in the future. This trend is about “Smart Contingency” – a belief that you can get a better level of innovation, a better resource flow and increased delivery capability if you include non-permanent resources as a key part of your HR team. This is more than getting in additional bodies to fix a problem or to cover maternity leave, it’s more than buying a consultant to give specialist advice – it is about building an eco-system of a mix of contingent HR capabilities that meet your medium and longer term needs. Contemporary HR teams are building up their abilities to commission work and to contract effectively to get the most from this growing resource.

But you haven’t mentioned digital?!

I do realise that not mentioning digital in an HR blog about the future is likely to get me chucked out of HR club (not for the first time!) but I have done so intentionally. Digital is a channel, a medium and an underlying approach that should permeate everything we do and is not an organisation trend. Of course, we may need to create a specific focus on this in the short term to raise its profile and build our capability. But very shortly, it will be simply the means by which we deliver our services – after all we wouldn’t have an Email team or Face to Face team would we?


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Many of our traditional views on how to manage talent are out of step with a disrupted and fast-moving world. We need a fresh perspective on what great talent management looks like. Here are five things that great talent leaders don’t do, that we might have admired in the past.

1. They don’t hold onto their best people

Running a talent review with senior leaders can be so painful. Their desire to hang onto their best talent rather than see them move to another Division is palpably obvious. I’ve heard them complaining that “it’s not quite the right time” or worse still, even talking down their team member’s ability to make them less desirable to their colleagues. It’s understandable given the way they are themselves are rewarded and recognised but also short-sighted. Leaders who proactively encourage their best employees to move across divisional lines are not only doing the company a favour, they become recognised as net exporters of talent and so will find being a magnet for future talent easier.

Now clearly, if your team are wanting to abandon you because you’re a nightmare to work for, then that’s not a good sign. But if you’ve created a culture where it’s ok, or even desirable for your people to express their ambition and acknowledge that they’re interested in opportunities outside the team, then good for you. The consumer research organisation Nielsen has won recognition for its “Ready to Rotate” initiative whereby all staff were encouraged to flag their interest in new roles or stretch projects. Good people are likely to move on if they’re not growing, so encouraging your people to leave to enable that growth may keep them in the company, even if they’re not in your team.

Do you make sure your team know you want them to show interest in other roles outside of the team – that it’s not a betrayal, but something you welcome?

2. They don’t have a problem with talent going outside the company

I’ve seen leaders dragged across hot coals for this by CEO’s. But the potential damage really depends on how you handle it. Some leaders take this defection as a personal insult and make the exit as uncomfortable as possible. One of my previous bosses refused to speak to me for six weeks after I resigned! LinkedIn took a different approach. They invited ex-employees, who’d gone on to great new roles, to come back and share how their career had progressed with current LinkedIn employees. They celebrated the fact that, as a result of their time at LinkedIn, they’d accelerated their career. The US healthcare company DaVita make a conscious effort to keep in touch with ex-employees, with a view to re-hiring them at some stage. In fact, around 15% of their “new hires” have worked there before. Given that many of us are likely to move roles within our sector, great leaders can turn losing talent to a competitor into a positive.

How do you react when your great people leave you? Do you make it a positive experience and keep the door open for a return?

3. They don’t see their team as a ‘family’

We have a tendency to value “parental leaders”. Their motives are often admirable. They want to protect their people from an uncertain world, keep them safe, not upset them and above all, retain them in role and within the team. I have worked in some very parental cultures and I’m convinced that this ‘kindness’ is damaging for our people. Being over-protective means that we prevent our people from developing their ability to use their judgement and the resourcefulness that’s essential for succeeding in a disrupted world. The pace of change means that leaders cannot possibly map out career-path certainty for their staff. By retaining them in role for so long that they weaken their ability to secure stretching employment elsewhere is surely abdicating our responsibility as leaders? Great talent leaders avoid the parenting and instead of creating a ‘family’ with themselves at the head, they work together with their people as adults. In talent terms, this requires leaders to make an honest appraisal about which roles in their team may need to be refreshed within say, 12 months. It means putting career management responsibilities into the hands of the employees themselves. It means encouraging their people to become increasingly employable and attractive to the outside world and avoiding any misguided (and occasionally selfish) temptation to let them stay in role for too long. 

Are you parenting your people or are you treating them as adults?

4. They neglect their high-potentials

Ok, so not ‘neglect’ exactly, but our almost obsessive fixation on focusing on the needs and ambitions of the elite is out of touch with today’s world. The fact that 73% of high-potential programmes show no ROI hasn’t stopped them being implemented. The issues with placing our leadership bets on a favoured few are two-fold. Firstly, as a leader, you are going to struggle to identify high potential with any real accuracy. It’s not because you’re stupid, it’s just that we suffer from “rater bias” and so our assessment of who’s going to be great in the future and who isn’t, is always going to be somewhat flawed. Secondly, potential is always contextual and we have an increasingly limited understanding of what will be required in the future. No matter how good the instructions on the 9-box grid that your HR partner gives you, trying to identify and invest in a small group of people who will be the next generation of leaders is a fairly futile exercise. Great talent leaders of the future will steer clear of hi-po programmes and will instead think about how they create environments where the majority of their people can stretch, can play to their strengths and take advantage of opportunity.

Do you focus your talent efforts on the many or the few?

5. They don’t find their successors from within their team

Once seen as admirable, the concept of only recruiting from a narrow internal pool feels increasingly risky for today’s leader. When I was involved in creating leadership succession plans, the interjection of an external was either seen as a failing of the leader to produce an heir, or the need for a ‘benchmark’ candidate to make sure the internal nominee was up to scratch. But now, we would have to question the desirability of any succession plan with only current team members on it. With increasingly flat leadership structures, it is often really tough for the next tier to get the experience they need to take the top job. Only drawing from the names you know and trust results in a lack of diversity and ignores a wealth of talent with fresh perspectives. Of course it’s important to grow your own, but equally, great leaders of tomorrow will take a broader view of potential successors and will build a community of future talent that extends beyond the borders of their team and their company.

How are you fostering relationships with potential successors outside of your immediate team and outside of your company?

We need to cast off some of our misconceptions of what a great talent leader is and does. We need to let go of the idea that good leaders should be judged by how many people they retain and how long people stay with them. Retention and length of tenure will not necessarily equip our organisations for the future and the better leaders will be brave enough to acknowledge it.

If you want to find out more about how to manage talent in new ways, then you might be interested in the next Disruptive HR live training session on the 10th December 2020. Filled with practical ideas for how to do things differently. Find out more here.

As an HR Director, I spent most of my time on the people whom my processes had designated either as our elite or our problem children. The top 10 percent — the super-talent in our top right-hand box — were showered with attention through fast-track programmes, promotions and higher bonuses. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the ones we didn’t trust, were the motivation behind the vast majority of our HR policies and processes. There are serious downsides to this approach, the main one of which is staring us in the face: we’re ignoring the vast majority of the organisation. I don’t think we can afford to do this any longer, and here’s why.

Letting the Stars fend for themselves

Our primary vehicle for top talent is our High Potential Programmes but recent research by management consultancy CEB report that 73 percent of them fail to produce a positive business outcome. We shouldn’t be surprised by this statistic, as there are glaring errors in how we execute them; the following three problems ought to be sufficient for us to pause and question.

Our ability to define top talent is flawed

The data we use to identify high potentials is flawed by our outdated performance and talent management processes, which have an inherent rater bias. One of my clients was disappointed when, at the launch of his new High Potentials Programme, his opinion was that ‘out of 24 people, there were probably only seven who had any real potential’. This was despite HR spending several weeks nailing the right criteria and coaching senior leaders to help them make sound decisions. How many times have you looked at your Hi-Po nominations and thought, ‘Really? Are they actually the best?’ In my experience we recommend people for this status for a whole range of dubious and subjective reasons: the most common being the person is a perceived flight risk, as an alternative to a pay rise, and because of not knowing how to say no. When I was at Serco, for instance, we ran a leadership course in which it regularly transpired that about half the delegates weren’t as high performing as we’d assumed they were. They’d been sent on it because they had a great relationship with their boss or were doing a job that played to their strengths, but when they were later promoted into a management role they often didn’t perform well.

High Potentials Programmes are inherently divisive

These programmes create a group of perceived favourites, who now have the additional burden of high expectation on their shoulders. What’s more, these anointed ones can become frustrated by a lack of immediate promotional rewards now they’ve been earmarked as ‘special’. This results in a group of pressured, insecure leaders and managers with an insatiable appetite for reward and success — a toxic combination. If you need any convincing that focusing on the ‘stars’ is damaging, check out this wonderful TEDTalk by Margaret Heffernan.

The programmes lack transparency

Leaders worry about the neglected 90 percent discovering they’re not in the elite group. According to CEB, this results in up to a third of businesses concealing from the high potentials that they’ve been identified as such, creating the crazy situation in which the organisations have a group the members don’t even know they’re in!

Like many of our traditional HR talent tools, the High Potentials Programme belongs to a different age — when careers were more linear and predictable, when structures were less flat and when ‘career paths’ made sense. Fortunately, we’re seeing talent management evolving to recognise that we have to widen our focus away from a tiny minority including:

HR teams are beginning to cater for the majority rather than an elite few. The truth is our best people will always be okay, ensuring their voices are heard and pushing for the best opportunities. We don’t have to worry about them too much.

Not letting the Rogues run the show

On the other hand, there’s a danger inherent in designing change around the rogue minority. When we do this, we inflict constraining policies and processes on people who are capable of more, and who have no intention of behaving in the same way as the bottom 10 percent in any case. It’s tempting to tell ourselves if the policy or process doesn’t apply to the 90 percent they can just ignore it, but there are three main reasons why this isn’t good enough.

It discourages innovation and pro-activity

When we force people in the majority to carry out a process designed for the lowest common denominator, we patronise them and — even worse — sap their ability to think for themselves. How irritating is it to be treated as a poor performer when you know you’re not? Does it make you feel like you want to do your best work? Do you feel confident taking a risk that might result in a mistake, when you know the outcome will be a tutting re-write of the company’s procedures manual? This is not a recipe for encouraging people to be brilliant.

It deters poor performers from improving

A brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review refers to this as the Pygmalion Effect. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Eliza Doolittle famously says: ‘You see, really and truly… the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.’ If we design HR services around people with the assumption they can’t do something, the chances are they won’t; in other words, if we assume they’re useless managers that’s how they’ll behave. On the other hand, if our starting point is they’re capable of managing well rather than us constantly compensating for poor behaviour, we’ll most likely see an improvement.

It rewards poor behaviour

When about to launch a new HR product or approach, most of my energy went into trying to persuade the most negative managers or employees that it was a good idea. Every roadblock they put in the way resulted in delays, compromises or occasionally, giving up. When we spend lots of time on our ‘problem children’, when we lavish them with our undivided support and attention, where’s the incentive for them to change? Why didn’t I simply exclude them? I was recently working on the introduction of a new form of bonus within a media company. Most of the managers liked the idea. It meant they would have their own budget to make discretionary and timely rewards rather than having to be part of an annual and centrally organised bonus scheme. The ones who resisted were worried that having to explain to people in their team why they had chosen to give a reward to one person but not another would be too difficult. Instead of compromising and creating lots more rules and guidance for managers (which would have diluted the positive impact), we decided just to leave the objectors out of the new scheme on the grounds that this was their choice. The impact was fascinating. Many of them changed their mind – worried about being left out. By treating them as adults and ignoring rather than rewarding their negative behaviour, the better managers got the scheme they wanted.

So let’s not worry about the outliers. The best will be fine with or without your help, and if you gear your actions towards the worst you’ll only stifle the rest. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any policies or procedures aimed at these groups, only that they’re best left as back seat passengers rather than being in the driving seat of our HR ambitions. It’s the 80 percent in the middle who should be the main focus of our attention; our job is to cater for everybody, not to nanny and control the minority.