Scandinavian HR wins by reflecting wider society

Some people have all the luck. Take the Scandin-avians, for example. If research is to be believed, they are much more likely to enjoy their work in HR compared with their UK peers.

According to a survey of 14,000 workers throughout Europe by recruitment company Kelly Services, fewer than half (46%) of HR professionals in the UK are happy at work compared with 68% of personnel people from the Nordic countries.

At vehicle manufacturer Volvo, Richard Eyres, European HR director at its truck division, said the egalitarian attitudes running through Swedish society were re-flected in how firms operate.

“Worker/manager relations in Swedish companies are less confrontational,” he said. “Every employee is considered equal and their satisfaction and opinions are taken seriously.”

According to Eyres, Swedish managers spend more time with workers discussing issues and understanding their motivations than their British counterparts.

In addition, employer relationships with trade unions in Sweden are more agreeable. Unions and company representatives in Sweden tend to regard most issues as a mutual problem, he said.

This means HR professionals in Sweden spend less time resolving complaints and more time occupied with constructive development tasks.
The consensus-based culture of Swedish firms also struck chartered occupational psychologist Marc Atherton during an 18-month stint working in the country. He said that in Sweden issues were resolved through co-operation whereas in the UK workplace people tend to approach HR with a “bitchy ‘fix this’ attitude”.

“Working in HR in the UK must seem like working on a complaints desk at times,” he said.

Wage inequality is also less pronounced in Scandinavian companies and with no ‘fat cat’ culture, employees feel more content, he said. “In Sweden everyone drives the same type of Volvo into the company car park.”

Vibeke Frank, HR director at Danish brewing company Carls-berg, agrees that the split between workers and management is less obvious in Scandinavia.

“We’re no good at hierarchy,” she said. “Scandinavian workers are far more empowered than their UK counterparts.”

Carlsberg has a flat management structure made up of self-managing teams. With fewer bodies between the shopfloor and the boardroom, workers’ voices are heard, Frank said.

This structure also makes it easier for HR to get its views across where it matters.

“HR is regarded as a business partner, and we are on the board,” Frank said. “There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing we are valued.”

Employee engagement is valued so highly at Carlsberg that the company has tried to introduce the Scandinavian model at its company sites around the globe. UK managers, for example, are measured on their success in breaking down barriers between staff and managers.

But Scandinavian HR professionals want to know about other approaches. Johanna Sunden, head of communications at Norway’s professional body HR Norge, said many of its 1,500 members read British HR publications such as Personnel Today.

But she thinks UK HR is bogged down with worries about complying with employment law. “If they spend too much time worrying about compliance and administrative tasks, they are sure to feel the squeeze,” Sunden said.

Another reason for HR optimism in Scandinavia is the high level of importance placed on people issues by companies, which has, in turn, raised the profile of the HR profession.

Issues such as work-life balance, talent management and succession planning are recognised as vital aspects of a company’s business strategy, said Søren Nymark, vice president of HR at Danish bank Danske Bank.

But this part of Northern Europe is not an HR utopia.

Nymark said a continuous stream of deadlines, the expectations of business and a tricky merger mean that life for his HR team is currently quite stressful.

“There are problems for HR over here,” agreed Eyres. “It’s just they seem to be outweighed by the positive aspects of the job.”

Why are the Scandinavians so happy?

“It’s not unusual to see the top bosses eating with employees in the canteen. Staff are encouraged to discuss issues with managers.”
Vibeke Frank, HR director at Carlsberg

“The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For report lauds organisations which take employee issues seriously. In Sweden, this attitude is taken as standard employer practice.” Marc Atherton, chartered occupational psychologist

“Underpinning decisions in the Swedish workplace is respect for individuals.” Richard Eyres, European HR director at Volvo’s truck division

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