Off message: New tools for the HR armoury

Much has been written in the pages of Personnel Today about HR with oomph, and more often HR’s lack of it. And on the occasion of the magazine’s anniversary various writers speculated about what HR might look like in 20 years’ time.

In a whirlwind burst of unprecedented outdoor activity last week, I heard two accounts of how things have changed and not changed in the past decade or so and been challenged over how we ensure that equality of opportunity is made available to all people, and not just to white men.

Attending the latest HR Directors Club Breakfast Briefing at the Haberdashers’ Hall in London last Wednesday, TV’s top investigative reporter, Donal MacIntyre, made a good case for ensuring that employers do not forget their duty of care to their charges, however reckless they might be.

MacIntyre was clearly referring to himself as he proceeded to demonstrate why, as he revealed how he’d spent the best part of seven years out of the past decade pretending to be several other people. In fact, he was so committed to his job that for a single two-year stretch he was operating entirely undercover, one minute pretending to be a fashion photographer in Milan the next, flying back to England to infiltrate right-wing football hooligans. All this while simultaneously putting in a few hours here and there as a mild-mannered janitor in a bid to expose abuse at a home for adults with learning disabilities in Kent.

It would be enough to make you go mad. And you could argue that MacIntyre has tipped himself over the edge, given that he describes himself as “risk averse”. But his wayward approach to self-fulfilment did lead to the introduction of a health and safety scheme for the protection of undercover journalists at the BBC. And even though you could argue he brings it on himself, he is right in that the employer does have a duty of care to its employees, regardless of how close to the edge they might go in pursuing the aims of the organisation.

As he said: “My employer had to be aware that for all my testosterone and commitment to good journalism, the BBC owed me a duty of care… For all our exploits, the employer has a duty of care to protect us from our worst excesses. Otherwise people can go too far (for example, start making up stories) or simply lose it.”

For a man who regularly puts himself in the firing line – remaining calm as a drug-crazed gangster drilled a loaded pistol into the side of his neck, regularly going into war zones to get a lead for a story, being kidnapped in the Congo and having the ransom refused by his employer, and living with the knowledge that he’ll constantly be moving house as a result of death threats – MacIntyre seems to be an entirely sane and entertaining individual. And an individual who has made a difference to the rights of employees as a result of his somewhat maverick approach to getting a story.

When MacIntyre was released from his kidnap ordeal in the Congo, he said he was left in a room with a bible, a bottle of whisky and an Uzi machine gun. Naturally, while awaiting rescue, like all good non-practising Catholics, he took the opportunity to read the New Testament for the first time.

Positive experience

Just six-and-a-half hours before arriving at the HR Directors Club Breakfast Briefing, I was leaving the BBC’s HQ in White City, having been invited to debate the merits of positive discrimination on the Richard Bacon radio show on Radio Five Live. The debate started two hours and 10 minutes into the programme, and while the general consensus agreed with my view that two wrongs don’t make a right and positive discrimination is basically replacing one set of inequalities with another, my colleague in the debate, Simon Wooley, director of Operation Black Vote, asked what was the alternative, as something had to be done to “redress the imbalance”.

Wooley is certainly not wrong that there is an uneven playing field, but striving for justice by introducing measures likely to disadvantage a whole new set of people, as Harriet Harman seems inclined to do (Personneltoday.com, 20 March), seems like a backward step.

However, writing for an audience of HR practitioners on a publication dedicated to covering the goings on in the HR profession, it is easy to forget that the average jobseeker, or indeed, the average employee, has little real insight into the laws relating to discrimination in the workplace until it bites them on the bum.

So perhaps as a starting point, the government could invest in some HR expertise for the large swathe of the working age population who are unaware of their rights. And maybe the best place to start would be with the potential employees – the unemployed – and the casual workers, who usually have no access to HR expertise.

Arming these individuals with some basic knowledge of employment laws would help to curb the worst excesses of unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers, and if all potential workers, existing staff and employers all knew the laws of the game, they would be forced to play by the same rules. After all, knowledge equals power, and as MacIntyre proved, small changes can make a big difference.

My unexpected burst of outdoor activity highlighted the breadth of issues facing HR practitioners and the scale of issues that have to be considered, from dealing with very specific needs, such as the mental health of an individual, to somehow smoothing the path to encompass the justifiable desires of the masses for a fair chance. But it was all put in nice perspective by David Whincup, employment partner at Hammonds, who brought the HR Directors Club Breakfast Briefing to a close.

He suggested that MacIntyre’s exploits and stress levels made a bad day at a tribunal seem slightly trivial, but said that HR could learn from the undercover hero’s exploits. “After all,” he said, “who in HR has not wished that their tools of the trade included a bottle of whisky and an Uzi?”

Tony Pettengell will be chairing the next HR Directors Club Workshop, on 15 May, on the future of HR. To reserve your place go to www.hrdirectorsclub.co.uk/events

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