The rhetoric and the reality

HR is frequently chastised for spouting rhetoric. And it’s fair to say that
over the past few years a host of buzz words and key phrases have entered HR’s
vernacular that seem nothing more than euphemisms for bad practices. But even
some of the worst examples of rhetoric are spoken with the best of intentions.
Here, we portray five examples of HR rhetoric and the employees’ take on it,
and offer advice on how it could be given new meaning

People AS assets

The five words below were once described by Michael Hammer, who
co-wrote Re-engineering the Corporation, as "the biggest lie in
contemporary business", and by Lynda Gratton as a "truism not a
clich‚". In Ceridian Centrefile’s recent survey, The Demanding Society,
Managing Work in 2010, three out of five senior HR people questioned admit that
employers only pay lip service to the idea. The reality, according to the
study, is that they are only talking about an elite few – the rest of their
employees are expendable. If people are truly the only differentiator in a
competitive market though, then the mission for HR is to be appointed to board
positions to ensure this piece of rhetoric becomes a reality.


All organisations like to think they have empowered their
workforce and that creativity and initiative is flowing free, with the upshot
of improved levels of service and productivity and a happier, motivated
workforce. But it is not enough to merely tell people they are empowered. As
Guy Browning points out in his latest book Grass Roots Management, all too
often the movement has been driven by consultants and delivered by high-cost,
low-impact, top-down initiatives. True empowerment, he believes, is all about
trust. "If you really want them to take responsibility for growing their
part of the business, then you need to trust them with something important…
It’s about giving them the plans, the tools, the permission", says
Browning. But he adds it is also more about money. "When people know they
are being paid more for improving the business and managing their budgets
better, you’ll have the best of all possible worlds."

Corporate families

Families trust each other, are nice to each other and look
after one another. How many companies can claim to have engendered such an environment?
The recent survey The Demanding Society, Managing Work in 2010 sadly highlights
the basic mistrust that still exists between employer and employee. Nearly half
of all employees (45.2 per cent) say they can’t fully trust their employer and
almost the same amount again (44.3 per cent) say they never feel fully
appreciated at work. Yet many employees still say they would be attracted to an
employer that offered a job for life. This is increasingly hard to guarantee
that in today’s climate but there are a raft of benefits that the corporate
family could extend to employees to earn loyalty and instil a sense of pride.
These include giving them control over their working week to facilitate a
better work-life balance and ensure their job is meaningful.

Risk taking

The famed Jack Welch once lost GE $1.2bn in a deal (having
bought 80 per cent of Kidder Peabody for $600m). In his leadership classes he
bestows the merits of rewarding people for ‘taking a swing’ and says that if
the chairman can buy Kidder Peabody, mess it up and still survive, you can do
anything. If you’re Jack Welch you probably can, but for the rest of us, when a
bold initiative backfires it can mean a sudden halt on the career ladder (or at
least a few sideways shifts). The entire dotcom revolution was based on taking
a risk, but it needed to happen and be experienced in order to lay the
foundations for a stronger e-business economy in the long run. Yes, there are
more casualties than survivors, but those who have hung on in there are much
stronger for their experience,’s Martha Lane Fox and Brent
Hoberman being the best cases in point.

Embracing change

Change is scary because in business it is generally associated
with activities such as downsizing and streamlining, with their inevitable job
cuts. The progress of technology has made us all more insecure about ’embracing
change’ and the desktop publishing revolution in the mid-1980s, which wiped out
an entire industry over-night (typesetting), was technological change at its
most brutal. But organisational change needn’t always be for the worse and in
almost all cases would benefit simply from better handling.

So finds Robert Taylor in Britain’s World of Work – Myths and
Realities, a report based on research by the Economic and Social Research
Council, which says that the way employees are supported at work, especially
through change processes, needs to improve. Taylor points out the implications
are clear. "If employees are going to co-operate in a positive and active
manner with the management of workplace change, they are going to need a
greater sense of wellbeing, status and control over the work they perform."

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