Never thought I would find myself agreeing with Bill Ralston – or at least hardly ever, but his column in this week’s Listener, where he says that ‘most of what Human Resources departments do is ludicrous” caught my eye.
Ralston says that
HR people are the new corporate shamans, weaving their spells to improve business outputs to the detriment of any real humantity
He describes some HR tools – psychometric testing for new employees, the setting of KPIs, the annual employee engagement survey, and most insultingly of all – the “exit interview” – even where a worker has been sacked.
I don’t want to denigrate HR people. It’s important to have competent and capable Employment Relations practitioners among firms and unions.
But the worst mistake HR people make is thinking that they are the voice for their employees. They’re not and that’s where I think this whole fad has gone horribly wrong.
Someone I met recently observed that he had just attended a conference with 1200 employment lawyers and HR specialists. This intrigued me.
When I first started working as a rookie union organiser in the late 1980′s, disputes were negotiated between hands-on lay people. It would have been hard to find 120 employment law specialists and HR people, let alone the thousands that are out there today.
Ironically, the National Government’s Employment Contracts Act (ECA), which lasted a decade in the 1990′s, was designed to bring so-called freedom and individual choice to the workplace contributed to this. It spawned a whole new growth industry.
It promoted individualism over collectivism and a “contractual relationship”; it was regulation-lite with words like “freedom” and “choice” prominent in the ideological language of the time (sound familiar?). What regulation there was shifted from collective to individual workplace relationships and a deliberate undermining of unions as representatives of working people.
I was in the thick of that change, so am reasonably well qualifed to say that this contributed to individual employees resorting to employment institutions and law as the only source of protection left to them, often through bargaining agents, lawyers or no-win-no fee advocates. That was the only power they had.
The abolition of national awards under the ECA exposed the weakness of employment entitlements, and as more workers were removed from collective bargaining, the demand grew stronger for minimum conditions to be legislated for by the State. This, along with other change, has significantly contributed to the change in the employment relations landscape that we have today.
The minimum wage, for example, has assumed much more importance. It now affects hundreds of thousands of workers, because the terms and conditions that used to be set by negotiation between employers and their unions in their industry collapsed early in the 1990′s.
So “freedom” and “choice” led to the State being the “union” for many workers.
Labour made changes with its Employment Relations Act. It seemed radical at the time. But we know today that it isn’t delivering on its objectives.
If we are serious about productivity increases, health and safety improvements, skill development and international competitiveness, we must find a way to get over low pay, long hours and employers (including HR) as the owners of all the answers. Surely we want to harness the ideas and capabilities of those who perform the work as well?
Toe in the water and interested in your views.