There has been much written about HR wanting to be more strategic in recent months. Partly this is in recognition of the fact that the business of people can do much to help the business of business succeed in today’s ever-more globalised markets. Additionally, it’s a self-defence mantra designed to soothe HR’s fears about the fact that much of the work currently carried out by the personnel function will be shipped out to some far-flung corner of the world.
But HR has nothing to fear as long as it’s focusing its grey matter on what employers really need. And that is more legislation and a clear understanding of what it all means.
That’s right, more law. Bring it on. The more so-called red tape, the better. In fact, pretty soon, legislation will cover every activity made by any employer and any movement by any employee anywhere in the world. Organisations won’t be able to move for vast screeds of documentation spilt down from on high to tell you what to do, when to do it, and what might happen if you don’t comply. But believe me, this is a good thing.
Employer says ‘no!’
Now, your knee-jerk reaction might be to reject this hypothesis and think the opposite. Only last month, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors (Personnel Today, 30 January) all found some common ground by bemoaning the mountains of red tape that too much law generates, crying “foul” and “leave our industries alone” and “enough is enough”. Well yes, enough would be enough, but we haven’t got there yet. There are still too many unresolved issues, too much doubt.
But surely more employment law will tie employers’ hands behind their backs, slip on an impressively opaque blindfold and lead the world of business up a dark alley to be fleeced by unseen forces?
Of course it won’t. For that is a role currently occupied by the good people of the legal profession, whose inability to give a definite answer to a direct question, while in itself a fantastic display of linguistic dexterity, is merely a sneaky way of getting employers to part with huge amounts of money for the privilege of being told just slightly more than absolutely nothing. And the more laws there are to stop you, the employer’s representative, doing the wrong thing – that is, consulting the besuited masters of obfuscation – the better.
A quick glance at the sensible range of legislation introduced over the past 40 or so years to protect the human resources employed in the UK’s industries shows why HR should be glad of even more red tape:
Age discrimination laws (with our dwindling population, this is clearly essential reading. Someone is going to have to do all the work).
The Working Time Directive (unless you’re committed to underpaying staff, thereby forcing them into a no-work no-food, give-me-the-overtime situation).
Health and safety (unless you’re an unscrupulous businessman exploiting illegal migrants by allowing them to take on dangerous manual tasks for scant reward).
The national minimum wage (unless you’re a small business or a small-hearted, small-minded miser).
Equality and equal pay legislation (unless you’re male, pale and stale).
Of course, there are areas of law that could do with a bit of a spring clean here and there, and that is where lawyers can rightly earn their crust by testing the waters. And to help them along, the government is reviewing the tribunal system and has set up a panel to simplify employment law (PersonnelToday.com, 22 December 2006), which includes representatives from businesses, the CBI and the TUC.
A case for unions
Another reason we should actively encourage more laws and less negotiation is the demise of that bastion of pointless argument that is the unions. Don’t get me wrong – unions have a role to play in the world’s labour markets, and they have done and will continue to do a great job in bringing minimum standards to mass-employment industries where workers are regularly exploited.
And the only reason we have been blessed with the recent flood of legislation is because of the sterling work done by the UK’s trade union movement in decades past.
But there is a reason why trade unions are referred to as ‘dinosaurs’ – they are mostly talking about problems that, inthis country at least, have been extinct for a long time.
Employment law is good for you, good for business and especially good for those working in HR. Nurture it and it will reward you with an enchanted career and the chance to grow into a strategic business partner. Of course, any good HR professional is always strategic. But you weren’t born that way, and you cannot be strategic without actually doing anything.
There will always be work for those on the road to strategic nirvana. And the one sure-fire way to ensure HR thrives in years to come is to get your grey matter fully acquainted with the UK’s impressive array of employment laws. And pray for more.
If you remain unconvinced, solicitor Mark Ellis has been calling for the unfair dismissal laws to be scrapped. Now why would he do that? More grey areas, more room for Machiavellian wallet-fattening manoeuvres, perhaps.
By Tony Pettengell, group production editor, Personnel Today
Do you agree with Tony? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your response to firstname.lastname@example.org