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.

It’s hard to argue that investing in for our employees’ health and wellbeing is anything other than a good thing. Particularly now when the pandemic is creating additional pressures in our already stressful lives. And I’m not going to. Argue I mean. But I do think we should question the corporate approach to health and wellbeing and ask whether the things we’re doing are really helping? Or are they unnecessary investments that delude us into thinking that the health and wellbeing box can be ticked? We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Or whether they are yet another example of the parental relationships we foster in most organisations? Should we be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look at the things we do that create/add to the stress in the first place and try and reduce those?

Health and wellbeing at work is now a massive industry. It currently stands at $53 billion and is set to grow to $97 billion by 2027. That’s a lot of yoga classes and Fitbits.

Most of our health and wellbeing support falls into one of the following:

  1. Giving health education and instructions such as ‘take a break from your screen’, timely pop-ups reminding employees to ‘now drink some water’ – or my personal favourite that I saw recently – advising women to ‘practice your pelvic lifts’ via a poster on the back of the ladies’ loo door!
  2. Protecting employees from stress by putting in place certain restrictions such as the French ‘right to disconnect’ law, banning email sending after certain hours or Volkswagen, who blocked emails after hours.
  3. Gifts and perks such as gym membership, a back massage at your desk, or fresh fruit.
  4. Training for both managers and employees in how to spot signs of mental health problems and
  5. Providing professional help to tackle these issues such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

Our health and wellbeing initiatives tend to be patronising

I’m not suggesting for one minute that these things are bad, nor do they come from anywhere other than positive intent. However, as with many employment initiatives, they can tend towards being patronising and fail to address the real causes of poor health and wellbeing.

Instead of acting like a caring parent, who knows what’s good for our people and gives out remedies, it would be great to see organisations taking a different approach. We should instead be tackling the causes of stress and creating environments where our people feel comfortable about owning their own health and wellbeing, in the knowledge they will be supported.

In my view, any effective approach to health and wellbeing should include:

A determination to move the relationship with our employees to one of trust.

Rather than providing tons of rules on flexible working, adopt the Swiss Re approach where they tell their people, ‘own the way you work’. This tells their people that they are expected to know when, where and how they work best and that their needs will be accommodated. Instead of loads of policies, encourage your people to #DoTheRightThing as they did at Transport For London during the pandemic. When we feel trusted to do the right thing, we feel more energised and engaged.

As adults we know what’s best for our own health and wellbeing too. I definitely eat more chocolate than I should, but is that because I don’t know that it’s bad for me – or because, even though I know the dietary dangers, I choose to do it anyway? What I need from my employer is not necessarily advice or training or incentives to be healthy. What would be helpful is knowing that I am trusted to work in ways and at times that I can balance effectively with the other demands in my life. And that if I need time off or to take my foot off the gas, that I will be supported. Of course, it’s great to be given healthy perks, but I question whether they can transform my health and wellbeing.

Line managers seeking to understand our employees as individuals and accommodating their needs.

Managers holding frequent check-ins, asking the right questions, relentless listening – should be at the heart of any wellbeing plan. Whether it be Entry Interviews or Stay Interviews like they do at Webroot and LinkedIn respectively, to try and understand from the outset, how they can create the best working environment for each individual. Or ensuring that reward and recognition is based on what is valued by that employee like they do at Baptist Healthcare. Or knowing how best to support individual needs like during onboarding like they do at Wipro. The line managers who can adapt their style to accommodate the needs and wants of each of their team members will create a more supportive and fulfilling work environment. When we talk about a duty of care to our employees, that’s about treating them decently, not just looking after them when things have turned to s**t!

Creating a Feeling of Belonging

70 separate studies show that feeling socially accepted is a key factor in helping our new hires be successful. And that sense that you belong, that you are accepted for who you are, that you matter, that your ideas and views are wanted and that you are valued, become even more important as time goes by. So whether it’s putting in place buddy systems like they do at Buffer, giving employees their own intranet page to let colleagues know who they are as a human being, not just their role description and CV, as they do at AirBnB, moving to peer to peer rewards as they do at South West Airlines, creating a sense of belonging should be key to our health and wellbeing plans.

HR as mediator rather than grievance process administrator

If we think about the grievances we’ve had to deal with in HR, or the people who go off sick with stress, we can often relate the origins to the breakdown of personal relationships at work. An individual starts to feel excluded, not valued and the options available to them to try and resolve this are nearly always procedural. In my experience individuals haven’t necessarily wanted to take the nuclear option of a grievance but just wanted things to change. Maybe we should change our focus from the effective implementation of a grievance procedure or an EAP, to early intervention when relationships start to sour? HR as mediator rather than process administrator.

Remove the hassle

Finally, our health and wellbeing plans ought to focus not just on what we do for our people – but what we take away. If we can reduce those daily frustrations, those small irritations and barriers to people just getting their work done, wouldn’t that at least help with people feeling less stressed out? One of the benefits of the current crisis is that it has given us clarity about what actually matters, and we have been able to cut through the red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy that we’ve been inflicting on our people for decades. So, maybe now’s the time to follow Pepsico’s ‘Process Shredder’ or TD Bank’s ‘Kill a Stupid Bank Rule’ example to make our people’s lives a bit easier. Or replace that cumbersome in-company tech with intuitive, easy to use options like WhatsApp or Workplace by Facebook. Or allow employees to buy the tech that works for them with an allowance like they did at Google.

As I mentioned at the start, I don’t want to dismiss the well-intentioned efforts of typical health and wellbeing approaches. But if we focused more on the causes of stress – the lack of trust, the managers who lack empathy, the things that make us feel excluded and the daily hassles and frustrations, maybe we wouldn’t need to spend all of that $53 billion on things that try and fix the problem?

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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Not the most exciting area of HR but our employment policies can say so much about how we want to treat our people. In this webinar we share some of the problems with our current approach and give examples of how to do them differently. We also talk through how to help managers and employees adapt to a new style of employment policy and to use their judgement rather than following lots of prescribed rules.

This webinar is from a wide range of tutorials from The Disruptive HR Club.  Membership of the club gives you:

We will be constantly adding new material so there is always something new to learn so whether you want individual or corporate membership the Disruptive HR Club is an opportunity to get practical support to help you do HR differently