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How can HR be the moral conscience of the board? 18/06/2013

In this Q&A, Natalie Cooper speaks exclusively to professor Cary Cooper on how HR can change the boardroom agenda to create a thriving, healthy, happy and engaged place of work.

How can HR be the moral conscience of the board?

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  1. What are the global challenges we face today?
  2. What role must leaders play?
  3. How can leaders empower their employees?
  4. How can leaders reduce stress in the workplace?
  5. Why should leaders not just measure profitability?
  6. How can HR improve employee wellbeing?
  7. What does the future of the workplace look like?
  8. What should be on the boardroom agenda for 2012?

What are the global challenges we face today?

Obviously, one of the major economic global challenges is to get sustainable growth and to stabilize our financial institutions. This continuing downturn, however, has real ‘human capital’ consequences for organizations, with fewer people doing more work and feeling increasingly job insecure.

A human resource challenge today is how do we engage, motivate and retain our best talent, and indeed attract new talent. This isn’t just the responsibility of HR directors, but top management as well, in terms of their policies, attitudes and the cultures they create.

What role must leaders play?

Business leaders must set the agenda to create liveable and supportive work environments that nurture the talent they have, giving them more autonomy, encourage risk-taking, tolerate some failure along the way and manage people not by fear or fault-finding but by psychological reward and praise.

As Mark Twain once wrote: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great”. We need more of these types of leaders.

How can leaders empower their employees?

Leaders play a critical role in creating the culture of organizations, indeed, they define the parameters or norms about what the organization stands for. Create a culture where people are managed by praise and reward, by enabling them to balance their work and home demands, by giving them the flexibility in their job that would enable them to perform at their best and most important of all by trusting them.

As Proust wrote: “The only paradise is paradise lost”. So it is up to the leaders to proactively create the environment that will engage the individual, enhance trust, share familial values and treat the workplace and the stakeholders (e.g suppliers, the local community, etc.) with respect. 

Some of the empowering issues for staff are:

More flexible working arrangements:

Enable your employees to balance their work and home demands, give them the flexibility in their job that would enable them to perform at their best and most important of all by trusting them.

More honest communications (even if it is bad news):

This doesn’t require much but honesty. This is very difficult when times are tough because information about possible re-organizations or redundancies is not news most senior people want to deliver. Nevertheless, if leaders deceive their staff, they will ultimately disbelieve anything else you say to them.

More ‘walking the talk’ by top management:

Top management should spend time at the coal-face. It was noticeable that Sir Terry Leahy, the former CEO of TESCO, tended to spend most Fridays at a Tesco store, working with the staff and finding out about their concerns and understanding customers better. Sir Terry Leahy, in my view, was Britain’s most successful business leader. He worked his way up the organization, was wholly committed, understood the business and his employees, and valued their contribution. He took calculated risks by entering Eastern Europe. He made his employees feel proud of their organization and established the most successful brand in his sector both inside and outside the UK. Now, it's not always possible to spend a great deal of time with your staff or customers, but to stay in the hallowed halls of HQ only is not good news for any leader.

More share ownership: 

By share ownership, I mean offering to your employees, not just top management, the options to own part of the business. Unfortunately, most of share options schemes apply to senior management only but where it is open to all, like the John Lewis Partnership, the positive results are clear to see. When people feel they are truly a part of the business, that they benefit from the success of the business, whichever form that takes, then you get real commitment because they perceive the organization as committed to them.

More reward and praise:

Reward and praise is not about money, although giving employees share ownership is a way of showing your commitment to them. It's about how managers behave toward their subordinates — it's about listening to them, it's about letting them know when they have done a good job, it's about taking notice when they are having problems, it's about supporting them when they need it and it's about valuing them rather than having to pick up the pieces when something goes wrong. In the end, it is about trust and caring for each person you are responsible for.

How can leaders reduce stress in the workplace?

Leaders can reduce stress by giving people more autonomy, by communicating more openly and honestly, by creating a family-like environment in the workplace, by engaging their employees and by asking them regularly, through well-structured and anonymous psychometrics like ASSET, what they are feeling about the various aspects of their jobs and the organization — and then doing something about the deficiencies.

There will be fewer people, they will be doing more and they will be worried about their job security, but leaders can alleviate these by re-creating a family atmosphere of trust and value. As Noel Coward said in 1963: “Work can be much more fun than fun”, even in these difficult times.

Why should leaders not just measure profitability?

The answer here came in a speech by Bobby Kennedy in 1968 when he was running for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency:

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in mere accumulations of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800b a year, but that GNP—if we judge the USA by that—that GNP counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl...Yet, the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

We need to be profitable but we also need to sustain our values in how we treat the people who work for us.

How can HR improve employee wellbeing?

Many organizations now do wellbeing audits, using psychometric instruments like the one I developed with a colleague, ASSET (www.robertsoncooper.com). It is online measure, filled in anonymously by employees, to assess how they perceive all aspects of their organizational life, from the way they are managed, how engaged or committed they feel, the sources of their discontent and what they like and value about their job and working environment.

It's different from other employee surveys because it concentrates on their feelings about these issues from a psychological perspective. For example, it doesn’t ask whether they have ‘control over aspects of their job’ or not, but whether they are ‘troubled’ by having it or not.

By then aggregating up employees feelings in a variety of ways (i.e demographically, or by departments or by gender or by age or by region, etc.), we can identify the quality of life issues that could be improved in that part of the organization, and get on with dealing with it. Hard case study evidence of the success of this approach was published recently in the book Wellbeing: Productivity and Happiness at Work (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

What does the future of the workplace look like?

If managers don’t turn into leaders, and understand people’s fears for the future, and don’t lead in a humane and inspiring way, it will reinforce the ‘doom and gloom’ scenario already there in the media and by economic forecasters. We need positive leaders, people who can give us a positive vision but also can take the action that turns this into reality. As the old saying goes: “Vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare”. We need both, and now! If we can get this new generation of VA leaders (those with vision and action), we will come out of this much quicker than the pundits suggest.

What should be on the boardroom agenda for 2012?

Aside from getting the organization to grow and innovate, a key boardroom issue is to retain top talent wherever it is, to engage the employees, to enhance job satisfaction across the board and to invest in the wellbeing of their staff. This could be done by focussing on these KPIs by putting them into the Annual Report, measuring levels of job satisfaction, the number of sick days of employees, how many people are taking up flexible working options (if applicable), how many staff are engaged in community service or CSR activities, etc. 

In other words, how engaged, active and happy people are with the place they spend more of their waking hours. As John Ruskin, the great social reformer, wrote in 1851: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it”.

Professor Cary L. Cooper, CBE, Lancaster University Management School

Professor Cary L. Cooper, CBE, Lancaster University Management School

He is the author/editor of over 120 books (on occupational stress, women at work and industrial and organizational psychology), has written over 400 scholarly articles for academic journals, and is a frequent contributor to national newspapers, TV and radio.