There comes a time in every Exec or Board meeting when they get to the HR report; often just before the AOB’s. Your team have spent hours pulling this report together, making up for your shabby systems with herculean, manual data collection. But disappointingly, the response from the Board members rarely justifies the effort. You might get some comments like ‘absenteeism looks a bit high in Operations’ or ‘you need to try harder with diversity’ but in my experience, the HR report seldom leads to a stimulating debate in the way that they get excited by, say, the one from Finance. Why is this?

Maybe it’s just my HR reports that were a bit boring (very possible). Maybe it’s because the Execs are not interested in people (also possible). Or maybe, just maybe it’s because we’re giving them a bunch of data that doesn’t give any real insight?

What are we trying to prove?

Apart from the basic stuff like how many people we’ve got and how much they cost, our reports tend to try and demonstrate that our people are:

Well Behaved

Most of our reports try and reassure our leaders that everything is under control. I would usually provide information on absenteeism levels, how many people have completed our anti-bribery courses or how many grievances we’d received that quarter. I’m not saying that this kind of reporting is completely irrelevant but it’s unlikely to generate much interest or energy.

No HR report would be complete without its diversity stats. I used to provide countless detailed lists of percentages of protected groups for each Division and grade. Other than the conclusion that ‘we should do better’ my Board colleagues found it difficult to get engaged with these stats. Whilst demonstrating how unrepresentative we were in terms of gender or ethnicity was interesting, I struggled to get underneath the figures and to offer any real insight into why.


Once a year we get to present the jewel in our data crown; the results of our annual engagement survey. We provide an overall engagement number (hoping desperately that it’s gone up from last year), response rates by Division, comparisons with anonymous upper quartile organisations and identify areas for improvement which are always ‘communications, career development and line management’. After the Divisional leads have argued why the data isn’t fair/accurate, we usually get some commitment that we really must ‘do something’ and that action plans must be presented by every leader within three months … and they can then forget about it until next year’s survey.

I find it fascinating that Boards still feel that they can tick the engagement box because they do one big survey every year. As one of our clients said to us recently, “we realised that it couldn’t be right that we check in with 1500+ customers every day, but only once every 12 months with our people.” If we are serious about demonstrating how are people feel about us, then we should obsess about it.

High Performing

Our other big set piece is our annual analysis of how well our people are performing. This is the product of hours of painstaking collation of rankings against performance and potential and countless calibration sessions. This will usually tell the board that we have a handful of stars, a few lost causes and shedloads of mediocre individuals. There will be much disappointment shown and HR will be urged to address this with some urgency through management training/poor performance management.

Our Boards’ continued belief in the value of these performance reports seems unshakeable. Despite a growing trend in the move away from annual appraisals to frequent check-ins and other forms of performance management, the desire to be able to present a definitive measure of performance keeps many of us stuck in ratings misery. I feel that anyone who is on a leadership team or Board should be made to watch the brilliant Marcus Buckingham talking about performance data. This 12 minutes and 11 seconds of video could save hours and hours of wasted time and effort, not to mention freeing HR teams up to transform their approach to performance management and improvement.

What can make our HR report shine?!

With the joy of hindsight, it’s unsurprising that my HR reports failed to generate much discussion. I was often presenting a disjointed report, filled with random stats, lacking insight and filled with flawed data. And yet, this report ought to have been one of the most critical and vibrant parts of their Board pack. Even if you have a bunch of NEDs who aren’t that people-oriented, our people costs usually make up a significant portion of our operating costs, so that alone ought to warrant some attention. So, what could our reports look like and how would we produce them?

Our starting point should be what the Board should want to know, not simply what we’ve been asked to submit. I believe that every Board member should want to know two things:

  1. Are we able to attract the talent we need?
  2. Are we creating the conditions where our people can perform to the best of their ability?

Looking at these in a bit more detail …

  1. Are we able to attract the talent we need?

No HR report should be complete without a comprehensive view on the power of your employment brand. Pre-social media days we would have had to compile this via expensive commissioned research but now we have it done for us via sites like Glassdoor. Given that the majority of applicants will check out your reputation before applying, we need to let them know what’s being said about us as an employer. Having a decent Net Promoter Score internally is relatively meaningless if we’re scoring low on these sites. If you’re struggling to get much interest in this kind of data, show your CEO his or her personal Glassdoor rating – that can usually spice things up!

We can supplement with more traditional HR data such as time to hire and churn (if aggregating it doesn’t make it worthless) but it might also be useful to bring in data such as the number of people that return to work for you or the output from the increasingly popular ‘Stay Interviews’ that can capture those initial impressions and provide great insights into why people chose to join you and whether your employment brand matches the reality.

  1. Are we creating the conditions where are people can perform to the best of their ability?

If there is one area where your Board should be focused, it’s this. Whilst our annual engagement survey tries to get to some of it, I feel that we can do so much more.  We need to be able to demonstrate that we are creating an environment where our people:

Our Board members should have a relentless focus on ensuring these conditions are being created. And we should help them understand through regular monthly pulse surveys and supplementary measures such as the numbers of people working flexibly or data that shows how we are rewarding and recognising people on a regular basis, or even the number of ‘failures’ we’ve had – as a positive indication that we’re innovating.

Finally, we should ensure that our vital insights are brought together in a compelling narrative. We need to learn from our Marketing colleagues who usually do a great job of combining key bits of data to tell a story that can truly engage our Board members. The People Report should be the section of the meeting that they look forward to the most.

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