John Hutton’s announcement of a report into improving staff engagement might have caught the HR industry off guard, but senior practitioners have been quick to offer their opinions on what should be done.
Revealed by the business secretary at the end of last month, the review aims to improve workforce productivity through higher levels of staff engagement. It will be led by ministry of justice non-executive director David MacLeod and Nita Clark, director of workplace consultation body the Involvement and Participation Association.
Hutton said at the launch: “We should have an open mind coming into this process. Maybe it’s a resources issue, but let’s look at this, let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s not make the mistake that the way to improve employee engagement is to revisit laws around industrial action.”
Although some curmudgeonly commentators argued that the government’s first footprint in such well-trodden HR turf was belated, Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency, spoke for most when she said: “Engagement is not a faddy, tree-hugging invention of the HR department, it is a clear business priority with pound signs attached.”
HR directors have long been chanting this mantra, and extra resources from the government to help them achieve staff satisfaction would not go amiss.
Dave Conder, director of people strategy at professional services firm KPMG, said that more subsidies for management training, and a wider range of tax-breaks for CSR activity, would be high on his wish-list of things the government could provide.
He added: “I would like to see this review bring together best practice, and encourage a degree of knowledge sharing we haven’t seen in the past by finding some way to come up with a common methodology that allows engagement in, say, M&S and KPMG to be tracked on a far and equal footing.”
What Conder doesn’t want to see though is an excuse for more government red tape.
“You can’t force people to be more engaged at work, nor can you lay down one-size-fits-all strictures on how employers can achieve this. I wouldn’t want to see engagement becoming over-complicated.”
Helen Giles, director of HR at charity Broadway Homelessness and Support, is cynical about the government’s ability to persuade employers to use sound engagement practices without forcing them to publish engagement data.
“I would like to see the review lead to the compulsory inclusion of engagement statistics in company accounts and brochures, and clear links made between high levels of engagement and the attainment of government contracts,” she said.
Giles also wants to see “better training in people skills for everyone currently booted up to management level on the basis of competencies alone”, and a better span of management control that would abolish what she calls “the nonsense of one person attempting to manage 250 others”.
A significant extension to the Investors in People scheme, and a system of compulsory and non-refundable deposits for all staff looking to bring a discrimination claim, are also on her wish list.
“Anti-discrimination legislation is important, but in our sector, too many people bring hopeless claims in a bid to mask poor performance, and it costs us a packet each time.”
Quality line management
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) welcomed the timing of the review and said it would shortly be consulting with senior level practitioners before putting forward a response.
Policy adviser Ben Wilmott said: “We see this as making the link between good HR practices, employee engagement and productivity, and are hoping it will trigger a real understanding by business leaders of how the people management agenda can be a source of competitive advantage.”
The CIPD’s wish list to combat the global epidemic of under-engagement [see box] includes good-quality line management, opportunities for all employees to have a voice, comprehensive staff training and development, more flexible working, and fair pay and reward.
O’Connor stressed the link between engagement and commercial success.
“HR departments have a very important role to play in ensuring they understand the emotional temperature of the organisation and are clear about what motivates, and more importantly, demotivates employees.”
O’Connor cited Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire local authorities as making “excellent strides” in improving workplace commitment. “All three councils are seeking to strengthen the bond between high employee engagement and improved productivity,” she said.
The bond between government and HR may be a little harder to seal, however. Especially as – despite Hutton saying during the review’s launch that the government “will need to invest in something” – a spokesman for the Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform told Personnel Today it was too early to tell what, if any, funds the government could contribute.