The People Manager
All posts from: June 2011
They have been described as smiling assassins for appearing pleasant and friendly whilst informing you that you no longer have a job. They have been compared to estate agents in appearing to be an impartial broker when they turn out to be nothing of the kind. Most frequently they are seen as the people who do management’s dirty work. I am of course referring to Human Resources staff.
I suppose in a climate of redundancies, redeployments and restructuring there is a tendency to shoot the messenger and the messenger is often HR. The name on the bottom of the letter may be that of a senior manager but the contact person, the one who will be “advising you on your options”, will be from HR.
If you are unfortunate enough to be the subject of a disciplinary hearing then management will present the case supported by someone from HR. They will tell managers how to present you in the worst possible light. If you’re appearing before an attendance panel as a result of your absences from work then it will be the person from HR who ensures all the dates are laid out, the relevant sections of the occupation health report are highlighted and the chair briefed with policy quotes like: ”In view of the fact there is no immediate prospect of a return to work…”.
You can understand why staff might see HR as on management’s side. You might be surprised to learn that first line and middle managers are no fans of HR either. This is because they view HR as the ones who say “you can’t do that” in response to a manager’s proposal to sack someone, to refuse to take them on redeployment or to appoint them without following the formal recruitment process.
HR police the organisation’s policies and procedures and so they are often seen as bureaucratic and obstructive by operational mangers who just want to get things done quickly.
An HR colleague once told me my managers were in the habit of ring up HR staff asking for “advice” and when they didn’t get the answer they wanted they would simply ring another member of HR phrasing the questions slightly differently until they got the answer they wanted. They would then act and claim they were following HR advice.
The other reason managers are often antagonistic towards HR staff is due to what happens when a member of staff accuses a manager of harassment or bullying. Managers tend to resent having to justify their decisions to anyone other than their line manager, and view being asked by HR to show they acted reasonably as being guilty until they prove their innocence.
In fact HR are just following the agreed formal procedures knowing full well that not to do so would invite criticism from the trade unions with whom the procedure was agreed. Even more significant is the fact that to ignore agreed procedures would expose the organisation to future claims of unfair dismissal.
HR don’t work for management - they work for the organisation. Their job is to promote good employee relations hence their focus on recruitment, disciplinaries, absence management and health and safety. The true value of HR is their unseen work. It’s members of the HR team who meet regularly with trade union reps and sort out potential “misunderstandings”. These are often the result of senior managers getting carried away and being indiscreet or too bullish in their comments to a group of staff. On more than one occasion I have been thankful for HR digging me out of that particular hole.
HR actively encourage managers and staff to resolve problems informally (i.e. sitting down and talking about it with the union rep present) because they know that once the formal process is begun, attitudes harden. Some of the most difficult issues for managers to deal with are conflicts within their team, people who just don’t get on, the individual who upsets everyone by not taking their turn to make the drinks or do the washing up, the person who can cause a major falling out over whether an open window is too draughty or a closed one too stuffy.
More serious and more sensitive are accusations of homophobic bullying, sexist comments or inappropriate “jokes”. On these occasions managers are very grateful for the advice, support and guidance of HR, and perhaps they should be considered the diplomats who try to ensure disagreements don’t turn into conflicts, and where conflicts do arise, to bring them to a swift resolution.
I am not surprised if staff and managers don’t put up much resistance to cuts in HR. But I would be surprised if they didn’t come to regret it.
The final of Britain’s Got Talent has only just finished and the British public is already awaiting The X Factor. These shows are certainly very popular with the public and they also give an opportunity for absolutely any one to show they have talent and potential.
Could this approach be applied to recruiting staff in the public sector?
I have always felt that we put too much emphasis on experience and qualifications and not enough on enthusiasm and values. It may be that a change of emphasis would result in appointing people with a more positive attitude to those they cared for and so would be less likely to abuse them.
When I was recruiting staff to work in large residential homes, I was desperate to change staff attitudes.
I had good managers who were champions of independence, choice, dignity and respect but who struggled to defeat the staff room culture. When they were on duty, walking around the building promoting and encouraging everything happened as it should but when they were on their days off, holiday or attending a meeting everything reverted back.
The majority of staff could be influenced by the manager or the staff room leaders. Training resulted in people knowing exactly what was expected but even this did not stop them reverting to doing what was easiest when the manager was not about.
When the opportunity arose to recruit new members of staff it was seen as a real chance to shift the staff room culture. What was needed were people with enthusiasm, energy, creativity, a desire to make a difference and set of values compatible with improving the lives of people living in the home.
Specifications were drawn up for the vacant posts which were as inclusive as possible; no requirement for experience in care work, no requirement for working with the client group and no requirement for qualifications. The essential requirements were a positive attitude to the client group, willingness to work shifts and willingness to undertake training.
The result was a large number of applicants and very little criteria to short list so we interviewed large numbers over several days. A bit like the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent; we had to see a lot of no hopers to unearth a few gems. The interview questions were all based around the ability to apply values like choice, dignity and privacy in relation to situations within the home. We were also looking for enthusiasm.
This may appear a bit hit and miss. Someone might state that they would go to the laundry to find the dress a resident wanted to wear rather than persuade them to put something on that was in the wardrobe but how do you know they are not just saying what they think you want to hear?
However couldn’t that be said for all interviews? How do you determine if someone is enthusiastic and how do you score it in an interview? It seems to work well enough on Britain’s Got Talent; both the panel and the audience seem to be able to identify those with potential and you know a positive and enthusiastic person when you meet one.
This talent show judging approach made some HR colleagues nervous and it was certainly time consuming but the impact these new staff had on the staff room culture was dramatic. Justification, I think, for giving more weighting in the interview process to enthusiasm and values, over the traditional emphasis on experience and qualifications.
It’s the sunniest day for weeks and instead of soaking it up in the garden we are in outpatients.
We’re here for a follow up on my wife’s operation that she had to remove gallstones. It should have been key hole surgery but there were complications, open surgery followed by an infection but six weeks later the scare has healed up nicely and here we are at the hospital.
A positive start; it’s a touch screen electronic registration which would make our process more efficient. However the message comes up: “report to reception” – not so efficient then.
Reception examines our letter from the consultant and informs us we are in the wrong place. “You need to go to ‘Shaftsbury’ - end of the corridor, turn left.”
We see the signpost for Shaftsbury and then McMillan cancer information centre. We present the consultant’s letter and the receptionist checks are details and confirms she has Brenda’s medical notes. “Take a seat and you will be called.”
There is no one else in this smartly furnished waiting area and the first thing we notice is that there are neat racks of leaflets, all of them about cancer! Why have they sent us here?
If there was a problem with the post-op test they would have informed our GP first, wouldn’t they?
My wife is convinced she has cancer - why else would they send us to the cancer outpatients clinic?
There was no mix up, the receptionist has her notes and the date of birth and address are correct. I try and reassure her by saying there is no way they would let anyone find out they had cancer this way - but I am not convincing her, or myself.
There follows an extremely long ten minutes filled with dread and anxiety before we are invited to see the doctor. We are shown into a consulting room and informed by the nurse that the doctor will be along shortly. We take a sneaky look at the notes she has left; they say “refer to specialist” - andwe fear the worst.
Through panic I announce: “This is the cancer unit.”
However the response was astonishing. “We get complaints about this all the time, it has been raised with the chief executive. This is the biggest outpatients unit so when the others are busy we use these consulting rooms. You don’t have cancer. This is just a courtesy follow up because your op had complications.”
If I hadn’t been so relieved, I would have set off looking to kick that chief executive somewhere very painful.
All is not as it seems behind chief executive closed doors
The most interesting conversations, the ones that provide a real insight are when senior managers go off the record.
When a director or chief executive comes to give a talk to colleagues from other organisations and starts by confirming Chatham House rules apply, you know it is going to have been worth turning up.
If you are in a management learning set or on an MBA course this hour will be one of the very few occasions you get to learn about what it is really like to be a senior manager operating in a political environment.
The session will be part gossip, part Machiavellian manoeuvres - with the odd reference to some skeletons in cupboards - and part learning some valuable lessons.
You might get the real story about why the last chief executive left, how the leader of the council was ousted by their own party and how deals were struck in deciding who got what job in the cabinet.
You may learn how much influence a local MP has; who plays golf with the editor of the local paper and who drinks with the regional trade union organiser. Or that when something big goes wrong, like the death of a child in care, what makes some local authorities stand by their chief officers whilst others throw then to the wolves.
Of course you can’t repeat any of this or say who told you but you will listen to reports in the media in a different way, and when you hear those carefully worded press statements you will be able to read between the lines.
One of the largest providers of private residential care for older people is at serious risk of going bust.
A private residential hospital providing care for people with a learning disability is exposed on national television for routinely abusing residents.
Questions are raised in the House of Commons, as the care commission responsible for inspecting homes admits it failed to protect residents.
What is the common link between these failures? The increased generality of the private care sector.
Many local authorities no longer provide residential care for older people or people with a learning disability. Why? Because they were expected to compete with the private sector on price and couldn’t. This price war also meant small homes could not compete; 12 beds may be cosy, but 60 is cost effective.
At a time when the authorities did not have the money to build new homes, the private sector seduced many with their purpose built units with en suite facilities, walk in showers, fitted wardrobes and fitted carpets and a television and phone in every room just like a hotel. And of course succumbing to the private sector will be attractive when the quality of care will be regularly inspected.
Local authorities’ budget cuts meant they did not up rate care home fees when faced with rising costs. This and the staffing cuts in the reorganised inspection service resulted in a “light touch”, and consequently the reports of abuse, weak management, poorly trained inadequately supervised staff.
The private sector, which was once a choice, is now in many places the only option. It had once offered something different for those who could afford it but now it provides care for all.
So is it finally time to recognise the folly of turning care into a business - and reinvent public sector care?
How do you know what’s going on? I don’t mean the budget position or performance against targets or even staff moral. I mean how do you know what it is like to use your services, to be a customer of your organisation? Those who deal with customers directly know but how do their managers get to know and how do those at the top of the organisation find out?
Frontline managers know because they are the ones who deal with complaints, whereas senior managers may rely on customer satisfaction surveys. Frontline managers have the anecdotal evidence whereas senior managers have the numbers. This hasn’t always been the case and it still isn’t in many parts of the public sector.
Since the introduction of streamlined back offices and call centres it has become very difficult to complain directly to someone at the top. There was once a time when if you had a bad experience on a Virgin flight, you could write to Richard Branson and get a reply from his personal office. You could cut through the layers of management and get a response from some one senior enough to be able to do more than simply quote back company policy.
In the post-call centre era things are different. My wife’s recent experience appears typical. Having been incapacitated whilst waiting for an operation, she spent a week in hospital and had a six week convalescence period so she was not able to work out at the gym or attend classes. Therefore she asked the gym staff if she could have an extension as she had not been able to use her membership for three months. They referred her to the manager who said that it was not company policy to make refunds and she did not have the authority to make such a decision.
At this point the problems started. My wife asked for the email address of the celebrity whose name is on this chain of health centres. We don’t have an email address for him, the said. Well, what about the postal address for head office? “We are not allowed to give that out”. Well how do I take this up with someone in senior management? The answer: put your request in writing with supporting medical evidence and it would be forwarded. She did. No response.
A search of the internet revealed a site set up by disgruntled members all with similar stories about how difficult it was to make a complaint if it could not be resolved by the local manager. My wife did eventually get a short letter saying how sorry they were to learn of her illness but pointing out that the contract she signed on becoming a member was quiet clear on their no refund policy.
It was a similar story when my local bank manager was replaced by a personal account manager based in a national call centre. The arrangement seemed deliberately designed to make it as difficult as possible to directly contact those at the top of the organisation.
Contrast this experience with my own as a director within a large local authority. If an MP wrote directly to me on behalf of a constituent I asked the relevant manager to investigate and draft a response for me to sign.
If a member of the public wrote to the director dissatisfied with how their complaint had been dealt with by the front line manager, I would ask the appropriate service head to organise a response and for the reply to go out in their name.
In this way the senior management team had a very good handle on the type of complaints we were receiving and as a result agreed actions to not only resolve the individual complaint by reduce the risk of similar complaints. Our anecdotal evidence supplemented the statistics and helped us get a feel for what it was like to use our services. Our direct experience stopped us being complacent if the number of complaints had fallen or the satisfaction rates had risen.
It would be a terrible mistake if local authorities, in their enthusiasm to reduce costs, introduced streamlined back offices and call centres which would end up denying senior managers snap shots of real life.
Redundancies and redeployment present a challenge to the over 50s. One minute you are fielding phone calls from head hunters for top jobs, the next you’re trying to demonstrate you still have the drive and energy for a post in the new structure.
If your post doesn’t exist in the new structure and early retirement is neither desirable or an option then how do you go about getting a job somewhere else in the organisation?
If you work in the public sector the current harsh financial climate will mean job losses for managers but there is still room for success. The new slimmer management structure may have fewer managers but there will still be good jobs to be had for the right people. Why shouldn’t that be you?
Some of your colleagues will take early retirement and a few will take voluntary redundancy, but the rest will be your competition. The winners get a new job title and possibly more money and definitely a bigger work load. The losers get redundancy.
Being in the public sector you are unlikely to be in competition from individuals outside the organisation.They don’t like to make people redundant then advertise new higher paid posts, it simply looks bad.
So what’s likely to be your biggest obstacle acquiring this new post? New structures are usually announced in a language which refers to the need for dynamic, enthusiastic and energetic leadership with an emphasis on innovation and new ways of doing things. Subconsciously both those applying and those appointing may hear this to mean “young” managers.
The stereotype is that older managers are set in their ways, lack ambition, are less likely to be up for a new challenge and lack the energy to drive the changes required. Of course this may well be true of some older managers, just as it is true of younger managers. It not really an age thing but more of an attitude.
Nevertheless if you are over 50, you will have to challenge the stereotype and demonstrate you’re up for the challenge.
Start with the personal statement section on your job application. List your top ten achievements in relation to bringing about change. Use all that experience to show how you have transferable skills on occasions when there were budget cuts, service reductions, redeployments and restructurings. This is not the cynical “seen it all before, try it, found it doesn’t work” attitude but the “I have faced these challenges, know what to expect and am therefore confident I can lead staff through a period of change”.
The next task is to demonstrate your creativity. Why not start by referring to the proposals you submitted for achieving the efficiency targets and delivering the budget savings. This will help convey your enthusiasm for looking at new ways of doing things and provide the opportunity to show that you appreciate the political climate has changed and that councillors and staff are willing to think the unthinkable.
This statement should be about two sides of typed A4, short, sharp and punchy, not long, repetitive and irrelevant. The interview is your chance to build on this so prepare accordingly. You will have a lot more examples to draw upon than your less experienced colleagues.
As a former director who chaired many interview panels I was always looking for someone who could inspire staff and take responsibility for getting things done but I also wanted evidence of wisdom to go with all that drive and ambition.
It has been the buzzword in social work and adult social care for at least the last three years. “Personalisation” was set to be the vehicle that would transform adult social services.
The idea was simple enough: just give money to people with a disability, enabling them to buy their own support services, rather than have a whole industry telling people what they could have from a very limited ”take it or leave it” local authority list.
Yet personalisation was never championed by social workers but instead by service user groups, politicians and senior managers. Hardly surprising, therefore, is the news that a recent survey has found that social workers believe personalisation will fail and that only a minority believe service users will benefit from individual budgets.
It was always in danger of over promising and under delivering; all the more so now it is finance driven rather than practise led. The brave thing to do would be to retain it as an option but recognise it has been oversold and scale the whole thing back. In reality this is what is likely to happen but not likely to be ever stated.
Personalisation fits with the Tory party ideology on choice and control; it shifts service away from the public sector, but giving people the money isn’t very attractive when budgets are being cut. What you’re likely to be given isn’t likely to buy you what you need, never mind what you want.
So targets for personalisation are likely to be quietly dropped, the government’s way of indicating to senior managers and local politicians that they have lost interest and moved on to something else.
Not much point in introducing it into the NHS then.