“HR professionals are still the people who tell you that you can’t do something”

Bevan: "I’m a bit of a cynic about benchmarking. It’s a little like driving a car by looking through the rear-view mirror"

Despite all the rhetoric about business partners, line managers still see HR professionals as the people who tell you that you can’t do something. Stephen Bevan, head of HR research at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), answers questions on evidence-based HR, perverse performance management and how technology is changing work.

Is HR ready for evidence-based HR?

There seems to be quite a hunger for evidence-based practice in the HR community. There’s a recognition that you can’t just recommend, or adopt particular HR practices unless you’re pretty clear that a) there’s an evidence base for them and b) that other people have tried them out and they work in a context you’re familiar with. But sometimes academic rigour or language can get in the way of practitioners really understanding the main things they need to know about a piece of research and how it can be applied.

There needs to be a better meeting of minds between people like me in the HR research community and the practitioners who want to have research findings distilled for them.

One of the things that we’re planning to do more of at IES is proactive, collaborative research where we take themes and ideas that we think are going to be important for the next five to 10 years and then build consortium projects or collaborations so that we can actually investigate what the nature of these problems are, how they will affect the HR profession and whether or not there are good examples of those challenges being managed effectively.

Has HR lost influence in the economic downturn?

There’s an old saying: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I got the impression that, in the last recession, some employers were prepared to take full advantage of a situation where the balance of power or the balance of risk had shifted from the employer to the employee.

There’s the current debate about Sports Direct’s employment practices, of course, and whether or not they are perpetuating “precarious” work as part of their business model even though we have close to full employment. Of course, there are many more employers who are very responsible and thoughtful and recognise that you need to develop a long-term “employee value proposition” to deliver sustained success.

At the margins, practices such as the use of some zero hours contracts or the so-called “Uberisation” of work raise questions such as: “Should the HR profession be the moral compass or ethical conscience of business? And, if so, how does it do that? How does it assert its voice?”

Already we have heard Theresa May talking about excessive CEO pay and worker representatives on boards. These are both areas where HR will need to be taking a leading role rather than sitting on the fence.

Should HR change performance management practices?

Bevan’s top five issues for HR research

  1. The impact of workplace digitisation on the nature of the employment relationship and the skills needed by HR professionals.
  2. Transforming the quality of performance management among line managers.
  3. Improving job design as a way of improving psychological wellbeing and productivity at work.
  4. Managing the career, wellbeing and performance implications of longer working lives.
  5. Making real progress – beyond reporting – on diversity and inclusion at work.

Employee engagement is something that all boards are interested in. And yet in some of the same organisations I’ve noticed approaches to performance management are draconian and create a climate of fear among the same people whose engagement they want to nurture.

It seems ironic to me, for example, that there are still lots of British organisations using the bell curve or forced distribution approach to performance management, where your bottom 10% of performers risk being put on a performance improvement plan.

It’s equally ironic that several UK employers are embracing this approach while, at the same time, most American organisations are ditching it.

In public-sector organisations, like the Civil Service, the problem with performance-related pay is that a big driver of it has been about controlling paybill growth, particularly during a pay freeze. Performance awards have to be limited and targeted using a formula, so they’ve chosen a forced distribution curve. This can mean that, even if you met or exceeded all of your targets, if you happened to be in the bottom 10% of a very high-performing team you could still find yourself on a performance improvement plan.

It seems to me that, in some of these organisations, the HR profession is being mysteriously silent rather than pointing out uncomfortable truths”

Some of these organisations have also got big issues around workplace stress, sickness absence and presenteeism. In these cases HR is there to join the dots up and give strategic advice about the effectiveness of these practices and the way they might conflict with each other. It seems to me that, in some of these organisations, the HR profession is being mysteriously silent rather than pointing out uncomfortable truths.

Should HR use data and metrics more effectively?

HR metrics are great if they improve insight and drive action. From what I’ve seen, Royal Bank of Scotland’s metrics on HR are incredible. Rather than just pumping them out to the business they’re able to use them diagnostically by answering questions like, “To what extent are differences in business performance we can see across the group explained by people metrics?”

In my mind this kind of analysis is far more helpful than presenting data about problems (for example, sickness absence) or how much better or worse the business is preforming compared with competitors. This is a practical way that smart HR people are having a direct impact on operational effectiveness.

I’m a bit of a cynic about benchmarking, to be honest. I think it’s a little like driving a car by looking through the rear-view mirror. And also I’m never sure that always means comparing apples with apples.

If businesses are using HR data to look at their performance, I’d rather that they looked internally first to see whether or not they’ve changed over time, but also how different parts of the organisation are faring relative to each other

I’m a bit of a cynic about benchmarking, to be honest. I think it’s a little like driving a car by looking through the rear-view mirror”

You can get too techie and geeky about HR data. You can lose sight of the fact that you are measuring real people. There’s a spurious scientificness about it sometimes.

You can do all sorts of correlations and fancy modelling showing that a 10% increase in engagement yields a profit growth of 2%. Almost none of that stuff is credible despite the glossy and plausible way it is packaged by some consultancies.

There’s a correlation between the divorce rate in the UK and the number of bananas we import but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship.

If you measure employee engagement that’s one thing, but do you actually have all the things in place that will genuinely improve it? Do you know the five key things that will make the most difference to improving employee engagement in your organisation?

That’s why I think a lot of people are more cynical about engagement these days, because lots of organisations chase the data and proudly report their engagement goes up year on year without any real insight into what drives it or whether or not the engagement measures are vulnerable to “gaming”.

How do we make line managers better people managers?

I often call the line managers the real “squeezed middle” because they do get a lot of pressure from above and from below, and also they get regularly blamed if HR processes don’t work, improve or get implemented properly. People call them the “clay layer”, which I feel is a bit pejorative.

Nonetheless, the way we recruit and appoint line managers is still very variable. If you work in an organisation with job evaluation and the only way you can get more points and a bigger job with more pay is to take on extra people management responsibility, then actually being a good accountant or engineer and taking on some people management is quite a neat way of getting a pay rise. But unless you do actually take an interest in people management and have a personal commitment to it and the right skills, you’re going to seriously underperform.

There’s a correlation between the divorce rate in the UK and the number of bananas we import but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship”

A lot of line managers are genuinely confused and conflicted. In terms of some of the HR policies that they have to put into place, not enough effort goes into explaining to them why we need to do this, maybe from a legal or good practice point of view, and how to do it. This means that you can end up with line managers too often who are apologists for HR policies, rather than advocates of them.

For many busy line managers, HR professionals are still the people who tell you that you can’t do something, despite all the rhetoric about being a business partner. They want their HR colleagues to help them towards a solution to a problem.

The danger is you still get situations where line managers will say, “This is what I want to do. Give me an acceptable – and legal – HR route to doing it, even if it’s poor practice or an expedient short-cut.” It’s because they’re under so much short-term pressure to deliver that sustainable, long-term solutions are a luxury they can’t afford.

How is technology affecting work?

The headlines tell us that 40% or more of our jobs are being threatened by robots. However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published research in May 2016 looking at what proportion of jobs in OECD countries are vulnerable to technology and automation, and it averaged 9%. It raises some questions about whether or not technology is getting rid of a job completely or altering some of the tasks within the job. The estimate for the latter was much higher, which is a lot less newsworthy but probably more realistic.

If you’re a millennial or a generation X person, you consume information in a different way to older people. And because stuff that happens on your smartphone outside work is instant, you expect that to happen instantly at work too, but it often doesn’t.

Technology can help many of us to work at home and remotely but sometimes the barriers to doing this are cultural rather than technological. In 2013 the CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, made headlines by discouraging homeworking in her workforce to improve collaboration and because she said that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home”.

Part of the answer might lie in the fact that the prevailing culture of some modern workplaces is still not ready to trust people to work remotely and out of sight.

Maybe we still value “inputs” more than “outputs” or that many managers can’t cope well with the idea of managing people they don’t see every day, or that remote working is regarded as no more than an indulgence for those “knowledge workers” (unlike their support worker colleagues) whose work is not location-dependent.

I’m not sure HR people have always got a way of navigating their way through the technology maze just yet because things are changing so much and employees’ expectations are so high. A study by consultancy PWC in 2011 showed that two out of five millennials felt technology was not understood by their employer and that they were held back by outdated and rigid work styles. So it’s almost like part of the organisational boundary to success is a technological one and another part is cultural.

Stephen Bevan

About Stephen Bevan

Professor Stephen Bevan became head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies in April 2016. He is an Honorary Professor at Lancaster University. Previously, he was director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation, conducting research on high-performance work practices, employee reward strategy, staff engagement and retention and Good Work. Bevan is an advisor to a number of UK government departments and has advised employers and policymakers in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Australasia and North America. He has a special interest in workforce health and wellbeing, having led a number of national and international projects focusing on workforce health.
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