This week’s letters

Training thoughts need to be directed outside of the box

Training has an image problem. Too many see participation in training as a
punishment for poor performance, as a sign of failure. This is because training
has allowed itself to be thought of, for too long, not as the tungsten tip of
the organisation, but as some sort of remedial backwater.

Let’s face it, the industry doesn’t do itself any favours with the strange
language it habitually employs. ‘Behavioural objectives’, ‘transactional
analysis’, ‘neuro-linguistic programming’? It’s the language of a profession
looking for academic credibility, but more often than not ends up sounding
merely faddish. Pick some half-baked theory, package it in pseudo-serious language
and present it as science. Bang, you’re in the training business. Well, science
this is not… unless we’re talking ‘out-of-date, largely discredited’ science.

Too much of this modish conceptual clap-trap draws on behaviourism, for
which the presiding genius was one BF Skinner (1904-1990).

Skinner is best known today as the man who kept his daughter in a box and
extrapolated his theories of human psychology from experiments on pigeons – for
which purpose he invented a different type of box, called the Skinner Box.

An animal placed inside the Skinner Box is rewarded with a morsel of food
each time it makes a desired response, such as pressing a lever or pecking a
key. Skinner discovered and elaborated his principles of ‘operant
conditioning’, a type of learning based solely around rewards and punishments.

Skinner believed that everything we do, and everything we are, is shaped by
such rewards and punishments. Consequently, training (whether it’s for pigeons,
dogs or human beings) should begin and end with a stick and a carrot. The
point, for Skinner, was not to understand behaviour, but to control it.

This is an attitude whose principles can still be seen underpinning a
surprising quantity of the training world’s more ‘sheep-dip’ approaches today, as
well as some of the cruder thinking about organisational learning, which tends
to see learning as a strictly linear process, imposed by the organisation, with
no requirement for trainee buy-in to be effective.

The persistence of such ideas is all the more surprising because the type of
thinking Skinner represented has long been a busted flush in mainstream
science. Faddish and backward-looking, maybe training needs to get out of that
Skinner Box. Or maybe it just needs to get out more.

Donald Clark
Chief executive, Epic Group plc

Prime example of how not to do it

All the talk of open and fair recruitment from Government seems to only
stretch so far.

Alistair Campbell resigns from his post of communications director, and by
the end of the day his successor has been appointed, the job has been revamped
and the new structure is being implemented upon advice from outside.

Why should any employer pay heed to the laws on sex, race and disability
discrimination and follow recruitment good practice, if, when he has a vacancy,
the Prime Minster calls up an old pal who gets the job without any form of
process being followed?

Robert Hicks
HR manager, Details supplied

OH practitioners can help solve problems

I have reviewed with interest the correspondence in Personnel Today and also
your articles in the 2 September issue on sick notes and absence management. I
was surprised that very few of your contributors referred to occupational
medicine and the benefits that such services can bring to the workplace.

Occupational medicine is not a new speciality. Since the dawn of time it has
been recognised by physicians that ‘work’ and ‘health’ are inextricably linked.

Occupational health practitioners are an under-used resource in this

Why should the general practitioner or hospital specialist be able to
pronounce on an individual’s fitness for work? Most hospital doctors or general
practitioners have never worked in industry, and many have never entered a
factory or production facility. Occupational health practitioners, doctors and
nurses, however, in addition to their general medical training – and in many
cases years of practice in hospital and general practice – have also undertaken
postgraduate specialist training in law, health and safety, toxicology and
management techniques. Such individuals are able to facilitate dialogue between
the world of work and the world of medicine, understanding and being able to
address the needs and concerns of both.

GPs and hospital doctors are not usually aware of risk assessments, duty of
care, phased return-to-work programmes, in-house employee assistance programmes
and the length that managers and HR professionals go to in order to address
individual employee needs.

There is significant case law to support the fact that where an employer has
taken the advice of a competent occupational health specialist, and where this
advice differs from the advice of the GP, the former’s advice can overrule that
of the latter.

The responsibility for managing all absence is that of the line manager, who
must draw on all the available expertise from legal consultants, HR
professionals and occupational health specialists to arrive at a fair,
equitable and informed decision.

This expertise is there to manage health issues within the workplace, so use
it. Just because a managing director plays golf with the local doctor is not
enough. Would you consult an electrical engineer about the foundations for your
house or go to an employment lawyer for a tax problem? It is important to choose
the right specialist for the job.

Dr John Mason
Occupational Health Physician

‘Elitist’ CIPD club is tick-list nightmare

I should like to put forward a point of view on behalf of all those highly skilled
HR people out there who do not have the coveted qualification from the
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

I have been working in HR for more than 25 years, the past 15 at the most
senior level. I was recently made redundant and, having never been out of work
before, assumed that it would be relatively easy to find a fulfilling role. Not

I was under this illusion because I have never had to look for work in the
past. Unfortunately, my network is not coming up with the goods this time, so I
decided it was time for me to trawl the ads, agencies, and so on.

Imagine my horror then to find that, in the main, those of us without a CIPD
qualification are barred from even the most junior HR roles.

I have no problem with this formal qualification, but when it is used as a
filter by HR departments who are too lazy or incapable of assessing someone’s
actual skill, it begins to look like a closed shop.

A CIPD qualification does equip a person for the mechanics of HR management.
However, the good management of a workforce requires more than skills learned
in class.

My experience in the past three months has appalled me. I have applied for
nearly 75 jobs and have had replies from less than 10 per cent – does the CIPD
qualification also teach people to treat anyone who doesn’t match their
‘tick-list’ with utter disrespect?

Details supplied

E-learning needs to try and make it ‘real’

Your article on e-learning (22 July) suggests that companies are now taking
a more ‘realistic approach’ to this training method. I beg to differ – how else
can the packed ‘e-learning’ workshop I attended just a few months ago be

The whole day was spent justifying the costs of e-learning – for example, by
comparing it with extra face-to-face training that organisations had no
intention of delivering anyway.

With hindsight, the fact that I had to fax back my confirmation should have
acted as an early warning. The workshop was too heavily dependent on flipcharts
and Blu-Tac to demonstrate what could be achieved electronically.

Equally, the ‘money-up-front’ licence deals that are typical in the
marketplace suggest that e-learning providers have no faith that the end
consumer will actually use the products they sell. It’s inconceivable that Reed
Training’s clients would be asked to pay at the start of the year for their
annual training spend and then accept that we didn’t care who or how many of
their employees turned up, and whether they learned anything.

This selling technique, more usually seen in the software market than
training, is often mirrored by the top-down imposition of e-learning from the
very highest levels of management within an organisation. To justify what can
be extremely high costs – for example, 2,000 licenses at £250 each per annum –
cost-benefit analyses comparing the merits of different types of training are
often manipulated, and ignore the fact that e-learning take-up is notoriously

We must subject e-learning to the same rigorous tests we set for more
traditional training, and be convinced it is meaningful, cost-effective and
most of all relevant, before giving it house room.

Mike Norman
Managing director, Reed Training

Legislation leaves employers in limbo

I fully concur with the sentiments echoed by other HR colleagues (Letters, 2
September). Employers are not asking GP’s to ‘police’ attendance, what we are
asking is that GP’s do not take it on themselves to ‘sign’ people off with
stress/depression if they are not fully qualified to do so.

It is also not effective to send employees to occupational doctors. I can
give numerous examples where our occupational health contractor has informed us
that we cannot contact or speak to staff because of their stressful condition.
However, these same employees are perfectly OK when it comes to asking for
extension of sick pay, and so on.

In addition, the amount of work involved in dealing with these cases from an
HR perspective is huge. As ever, legislation has virtually rendered employers
almost powerless to act quickly, and by default has also introduced lengthy
absence management processes.

Carol Mitchell
Personnel and health and safety manager, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council

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