If it ain’t broke, DO fix it!

As a company providing outsourced services, I believe I should practise what I preach, so recently I’ve been looking for outsourced HR and H&S support.

By trawling the available websites, I soon picked up on a common benefit – nearly all these companies have decided to sell on…fear. Staff, the HR companies have in general decided, are little more than walking, talking bundles of potential liability. One HR website (by no means untypical) focussed on managing grievances, sickness, and disputes about everything from bonus levels to dress codes. Another headlines that it’s outsourcing service is particularly for employers “looking to reduce risks”; this is the first line in the benefits it offers.

In the words of a man, I don’t particularly like … “is it me?”

Doesn’t this focus on fear ignore the real reasons we should try to manage people well? We should try to manage people well for a number of reasons; partly because it makes business sense – well managed staff do deliver better for the business long term. But more importantly, and this seems to be news to many HR companies, staff are people too! Yes, they might have the occasional problem, but who doesn’t? The focus of many HR companies seems to be that “staff are a necessary evil – which we’ll protect you from”. Whilst we might have a great range of equipment at Agenda1, and structure and systems of control, those are worth nothing without properly managed staff.

Managed here means well-informed and well-trained, encouraged to take ownership and to know their limits of authority. It means having an open culture where questioning is encouraged and ideas are welcomed. It means respect, but not out of following guidelines that say “you will respect” but by inculcating an atmosphere and approach where respect is continually given because it is continually earned.

We’re working hard to find an HR company that starts from our viewpoint. That viewpoint is that people spend a lot of time at work so, to the extent that it is possible, we should make what people do as fit to their desires as possible.

I also complained about Health & Safety companies.

This week we had an H&S review with Team Leaders and other management. Many good ideas were raised, all with the aim of making small improvements. All with a focus on keeping our staff protected. We work in a hazardous environment, but the risks can be managed. We manage risks for many reasons, and partly because doing so is part of treating people with respect.

And that was the point where we ran into the same skewed vision that some of the HR companies present. “If you do this action…you will avoid liability if anything goes wrong” was something (or a variation of something) I heard on too many occasions from the H&S company attending the meeting. (For me, in this respect, hearing it once is hearing it “too many” times!)

I have no interest in avoiding liability for an accident; I’m much more interested in stopping the accident happening in the first place. We involve all staff in assessing risks and proposing solutions, not so we can show they were involved, but because they are most likely to have the most relevant ideas. And more. If you involve staff in these areas, asking and encouraging them to think outside the immediate part of their job, you are building a culture and a mindset that encourages that broader view.

At the heart of both the HR and H&S mindset seems to be a single idea – if something goes wrong, we’ll be there to pick up the pieces or to help you avoid liability. That view of the world, that negative, constricted, cover-your-backside view is not only bad in itself, but is morally equivalent to that worst of all possible business viewpoints….
…. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

On the odd occasion that I used to hear that at Agenda1 (we don’t hear it at all anymore!), I would always resopnd with….
…. “and just why should I allow it to break? “

Allowing something to break is the philosophy of the HR “staff are walking minefields” and H&S “you won’t be liable” consultants. Waiting for something to break is the opposite of management, waiting for something to break is…well I’m sure you can see where I stand on this.

So my thoughts for this blog are:
1) Manage people as you would like to be managed and usually things will work out well
2) Don’t work to avoid HR/H&S liability, work to avoid the problem/accident in the first place
3) And DON’T wait for anything to break

I also believe that if you do 1) and 2) above, you’ll probably find your staff will be strengthening the systems all the time, and 3) will take care of itself.