What I want from HR

What I want from HR

Synopsis: An emptying of my head around what I want (and don’t) from HR teams I work with.

I worked for years in HR. I now, technically, have a ‘normal’ role, despite still spending quite a bit of time writing and discussing HR.

Leading teams and doing work outside of HR has been a great experience in better understanding and clarifying what I want and need from HR (and what I don’t), so I thought I’d share some observations below.

Please note that this isn’t about the strategic future of a business function. This is what I turn up to work each day expecting…

i) Do the basics well – for all of the talk about HR needing to be more strategic I want my teams paid accurately and on time, supported to develop and I want my vacancies filled in a reasonable time (with a good pool of candidates to choose from). Where there have to be policies I want them to be fair, helpful (rather than cumbersome) and clearly communicated.

ii) Provide insight – I want to be given insight into my team, its dynamics and challenges that I might not find or know myself. I want to be better equipped and with a better understanding after each conversation. Bring me data and bring me insight and bring me suggestions. Expect me to prod and check that data and insight because you are asking me to act based on it.

iii) Provide challenge – I want to be challenged to be better. I want to be told where I can improve and I want someone to bounce my decisions off. I want to be shown different angles to approach a problem. If I’m wrong (I’m busy and we all have blindspots) then I want someone to call that out clearly. Be honest – I don’t actually have enough time for you to manage me as a stakeholder just tell me what I need to know. I need you to help me crack on with making things better.

iv) Provide support – leading teams can be lonely. I want someone that I can confide in and who will find ways to help. I’ve already got more than enough people judging my leadership – be the person that works with me on it.

v) Problems solved – I don’t just want commentary and chat. I want problems solved and action taken. I want to notice the difference to the organisation and my teams of having a good HR team in place. I want to see that activity has value. I want to look at whatever you do and see the link to improving the organisation.

What I don’t want

i) My team’s/my time sucked up – I want as low an amount of paperwork to complete as humanly possible and if you are chasing me for it I want you to utter the sentence ‘I know you are busy with other things’ and to know what those things are. And I’ll apologise if you do those things.

ii) Being told what I should value/what is important – I don’t need to be told that leadership/culture/x/y is important. The problem is juggling that with also delivering performance and operational requirements. I need practical help to get that balance right.

iii) Distant judgement – Step into my world…it’s a mess in here and every time I think I’ve got it sorted something else moves or breaks. I don’t need you to visit that world, I need you to live in it with me. Part of ‘the business’ rather than talking about it like it is somehow ‘other’ to you.

iv) Initiatives – if you want me to support something then it needs to have a concrete output and be joined up with other work. Don’t give me posters and isolated work. It’s about the outcome, not the activity.

I’ll be sharing this with my HR team too, because I need to get better at ‘contracting’ too and that’s my side of the deal (we don’t have a problem here, but I can be better)…and typing this out certainly made me aware of where I hadn’t provided support and challenge in the right way over the years.

Quick PS – a couple of people have described the activity above as transactional. I would see solving problems and delivering value across an organisation in a joined up way as transformational. I’d include effective change management etc within that.

Applicants – and Paintings Without Prices

Applicants – and Paintings Without Prices

Synopsis: A short piece on value.

If you ever get a chance to walk around an exhibition at an auction house it is an odd experience. The exhibits have a guide price – and you are essentially being told what holds more value than other things. The ugly piece that you can’t work out the point of is somehow worth ten times the price of the one that you’d love to be able to afford.

Value is detemined by the market

  • What did this piece sell for before?
  • What is the artist selling for currently?
  • What is in fashion?
  • Who else might be bidding?

The market is somewhat shaped by likes and dislikes – but they might have been hundreds of years old. A good example is this painting – the world’s most expensive painting – that maybe should or shouldn’t be the world’s most expensive. The market trends for it to reach that price have been set over time.

If you go to a museum or gallery the experience is different. Unless you are an art buff you are free to meander without the guidance and shackles of value. You know the works have been curated and are ‘valuable’, but beyond some of the more immediate suspects (the super famous ones) you are just there for the experience. And I bet almost all of us would rank 300 paintings in a gallery differently. But also place the obvious contenders (‘Look, I know that one!’) near the top of our lists. For more on why have a read of this.

The job market is a similar forum of strong and weak signals about value. I saw a post from a well regarded and experienced professional the other day bemoaning artificial standards in job descriptions.

Applicants are often expected to

  • Have a degree
  • Have degree or equivalent
  • Have relevant sector experience
  • Come from a role that paid at a similar level
  • Come from an organisation with a recognisable brand

These are all understandable (if not always suitable or desirable) shortcuts to enable us to give nominal value to people when we aren’t experts. I worked for an organisation a few years ago that was just starting out – as it has grown that looks better on my CV – despite my work there not being great and it disappearing into the distance in terms of recency. It’s familiar.

We take weak signals and seek to place value. We see this failure in the market and society in undervaluing caring responsibilities and overvaluing, arguably, poor leadership.

Similar to an art gallery I guess the challenge is discerning not just what other people would be happy to pay for something – but whether you, personally, would place the same value on it.

That’s the challenge of hiring in a broken marketplace – value is in the eye of the beholder.

How different would it look if…

How different would it look if…

Synopsis: short read on interpretation of performance and motivation. Deals with how to agree that someone is underperforming (there is no strengths based thinking in this blog, it’s about agreeing it is going wrong…)

One of the hardest challenges in organisations – and indeed society – is where two people have available the same information and draw radically different conclusions. It can be hard to fathom and hard to engage when your world view leads you to a (seemingly) unavoidable conclusion – yet someone else ends up somewhere else. Because for most of us perspective and emotion are layered over facts.

In work you see it in cases of fundamental attribution error/correspondence bias, where we allow far more leniency for context in our own performance but more readily assume that underperformance in others is due to character/capability. I also think people are often more likely to give some slack for context in our own teams than in others.

That doesn’t, however, mean that nobody is ever underperforming, but it probably means we need to do two things

i) be a bit harsher or clinical with ourselves in terms of appraising our own performance

ii) ensure that we have sufficient context to understand challenges facing others

It doesn’t mean that once you understand those challenges that people can’t be accountable for not surmounting them – but assessing work devoid of context is as unhelpful as not setting standards in the first place.

One of the questions I often ask is ‘How different would it look if… ‘

For instance if you have the same information about someone you think is underperforming as someone else (who thinks they are performing…) then ask

‘Once I’ve taken into account context… how different would things have looked if someone I did rate had completed the project/been in the role?’

This approach shifts the focus from the person to thinking about acceptable outcomes in context. It shifts the conversation, quite often, to not being an emotive one about whether the person is ‘good/bad/indifferent’ but a more constructive one about shared expectations and the gap to actual performance

  • What are the outcomes we can both agree we think could have been achieved in the situation?
  • Do we both think they’ve been achieved?
  • Why?
  • So what do we need to do?

I’ve written before about the mantra of ‘Cold assessment of the facts, warm development of behaviours’ and to do this we need to be clear thinking enough to understand acceptable levels of performance in context before we take next steps. And we need to be fair and open in the way we do that.

  1. Context – understand it
  2. Clarity – over what was achievable
  3. Contrast – with what was
  4. Constructive steps forward – to address gaps

Because people love lists that all start with the same letter.

The Milkshake Provocation

The Milkshake Provocation

Content: a short reflection on how being shouted at when younger still has a positive impact now. Even though I’d never recommend shouting

When I was about 16 I was working in a fast food chain that has a largely arch based logo. I had been told to fill up the milkshake machines with new mix – and then suddenly I was being shouted at. I was putting my second bag of mix in and one of the shift supervisors suddenly was shouting at me about costing the organisation thousands of pounds.

He picked up the ’empty’ milkshake mix bag and showed there was still more I could have squeezed out. He pointed out how many restaurants there were around the world and how often they would be using a bag of milkshake and if they all threw away as much as I did… Then just how much money did I think my laziness would cost the organisation each year? I just stood there. And then squeezed the hell out of every bag I ever used afterwards.

He taught me the value of not leaving money on the table. A lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career. Being shouted at in a giant fridge taught me that.

What’s interesting for me – and the more important provocation – is that I’d never advocate people shouting at each other and certainly not shouting at more junior members of staff in a contained area.

But like lots of life’s lessons I’m not sure that if it had been delivered in a less visceral way it would have stuck. I can still feel the emotions from that exchange. I’ve benefited from it every day of my professional life.

Like I say, I’d never advocate for that behaviour, but at the same time a two minute rant in a fridge has stuck with me for decades.

Welcome people well – then tell me

Welcome people well – then tell me

Synopsis: a short request for a practical change in language. Easy to make happen. Change ‘onboarding’ to ‘welcome’ then let me know.

In 2017 I wrote that there must be a better name for the process of welcoming someone to an organisation than ‘onboarding‘. Onboarding is a process. A welcome is something you experience. And I think we are possibly overusing using the word ‘experience’ at the moment – but it makes sense here and that is another blog.

I revisited that concept in a tweet last Friday and received this reply

I’ve completely forgotten how to embed tweets, so it says

in Spanish we say: “Plan de Acogida” which will be something like: Welcome Plan or Reception Plan…….!!

I love that because it does what it should do. It expresses a desire to welcome – then you just have to design/plan things congruent with that. I’d therefore like to encourage people reading this to stop using the word ‘onboarding’ and start talking about making people welcome. I’m encouraging you to actually make that change, not as a theoretical thing but as something you do this morning. You don’t get to talk about putting the ‘human back in HR’ or being more ‘user centric’ and keep using jargon.

Have you got their welcome sorted out? Will they feel welcome? If you think about it it touches on inclusion more than onboarding too. Will they feel welcome?

Obviously when I write here it isn’t with my work hat on, so this is encouragement from me, not my organisation.

I’d like – in fact I’d love – to tell our teams here that onboarding is out of touch and so we need to change our materials.

So if you do commit to make the change then drop me a note to say so… The first person has already signed up…



Unlimited Annual Leave

Unlimited Annual Leave

Contents: a short blog on why we need to keep a focus on the substance of what matters to people

I was on 5Live a couple of weeks ago talking about unlimited annual leave. When you give a radio interview broadly you get to answer the questions and then broaden things out a bit. Also if you are me you are very scared and slightly confused as to how you ended up on the radio.

We ran out of time so this is what I was going to say if the BBC hadn’t decided that somehow people would be more interested in hearing the national news at 10am rather than an extended interview with me…

“I’m glad more organisations are at least thinking about being more creative in the way they support their people. Of course I am. And I’m glad they are being more creative about it – and hopefully more trusting. These are good things. It would be cheap to knock them.

And yet… There is something gimmicky and headline seeking about things like this because all too often they are dealing with the frippery of people’s experience of work. They aren’t addressing the heart of what people would like improved. We live in a time of rightly heightened awareness of how unfair and dehumanising work can be – and so many examples of how it is for so many. A caller described this issue as a ‘middle-class problem’ and I’m inclined to agree.

It seems wrong to be talking about unlimited annual leave when so many people are working hard in unacceptable conditions with little job security and struggling to meet the rent or mortgage payments. It seems wrong to focus on annual leave when the duty of care for mental health and wellbeing that employers have is so manifestly not being delivered for millions of people.

So I can talk about unlimited annual leave and whether it is a fad or a good idea (or possibly both) but it isn’t the conversation that would concern most people. It isn’t the elephant in the room. People want fairness, dignity, security and transparency. That’s not about how many days they get off. It’s what happens on the days they don’t have off”

I’d have said that. But I didn’t get the chance so I’ll write it here.

The Thought Terminating Clichés of Work

Content: a reflection on thought terminating clichés in work – with an explanation from Wikipedia up front

I had the delight of learning a new term recently.

A thought-terminating cliché is a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to end cognitive dissonance(discomfort experienced when one simultaneously holds two or more conflicting cognitions, e.g. ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions). Though the phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating. It basically tries to stop an argument from proceeding further

The term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton said, “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”


That might seem a large chunk to take from Wikipedia but this concept is one of the more interesting I’ve come across in some time. A good example is ‘Brexit means Brexit’. That’s meant to close down a conversation by providing certainty (a certainty that history has rapidly shown doesn’t exist). You hear similar things in the workplace…

  • It is what it is
  • We are where we are
  • It’s common sense
  • We’ve already had this conversation
  • It’s all relative

All of these can be used to suggest the conversation is done – when we know the conversation isn’t done. They sound like complete thoughts, but the reality is that it is a bit more complicated than that. And they are hard to challenge.

My team will testify that I, in particular, hate the statement ‘we are where we are’. That invites the following questions for me

  • Why are we there?
  • Who got us here?
  • Do they know it’s the wrong place?
  • Have we made sure the next place they take us isn’t going to be wrong?
  • How often do they take us to the wrong place?
  • How would we have ended up in a better place?
  • Does everyone understand that ending up in the wrong place is sometimes inevitable, but can’t be a habit?

But the statement is designed to end those conversations due to being a straightforward assertion of position. There is nothing to be done so move on. But moving on is your choice.

So I guess the point of this blog is threefold

i) it’s an interesting term, so I thought I’d share it

ii) Now you know about it you will spot it everywhere. And it is probably about 50% of all tweets…and 90% of political utterances

iii) You can decide to stop closing down other people (if you do so) and can challenge others doing it (if so inclined)

It is what it is.