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Blog : In times of crisis, looking after your HR people is key


In times of crisis, looking after your HR people is key

Jo Harley, Director

The origins of HR, are we keeping up?

The Bank of England's labour market expert, David Blanchflower, has warned that unemployment is set to rise above 3 million in the current economic climate. The Guardian reported that over the last couple of days South West Trains, Barclays and Jaguar amongst others have announced hundreds of job cuts. We are, like it or not, in a recession. And it is now the unpleasant job of many people in the human resources (HR) field to have to tell colleagues that they no longer have a job. Not an enviable position to be in right now.

One of my friends, a new mum and HR manager for a City firm is spending up to 14 hours a day just sorting out redundancy and redeployment packages and telling people not to come in tomorrow. How very depressing when she used to spend her time looking at benefits, organising training, deploying engagement initiatives, oh and working a normal eight hour day. Some organisations are even, and it saddens me to say it, making their 'People people' redundant and I, for one, am astounded that at times such as these, when employee engagement, retention and maintaining morale are critical, that businesses are being so short sighted.

If you are reading this then you are probably interested in people, and you may be aware that HR, certainly as we know it, has only been around since the beginning of the last century. The view was always that the work being done was more important than the people doing it. And the social needs of employees were never taken into account, particularly not the aspect of improving employee - management relations. An example of this was in 1913 when Ford motors experienced turnover of 380% (and you thought yours was creeping up!). Instead of engaging people as we do today, the action they took was to increase wages by 50% even though original salaries were completely in keeping with the times.

As unions grew in power, organisations started to bring in workers to specifically handle grievances, and in the UK these were known predominately as 'Welfare Workers'. By 1913 there were enough of these roles for the Welfare Workers Association to be formed - a forerunner of the CIPD.

Between the wars large organisations such as Marks and Spencer and ICI started specific personnel divisions but again this wasn't so much for the welfare of the people as to improve production and smooth industrial relations. Even so, it was the first formation of departments to specifically look after the interest of the people, and the basis of the HR function we have today.

There were some exceptions to this rule though. A few special organisations were way ahead of the game: Two of the UK's biggest brands have proven that taking an interest in, and looking after the welfare of the people is productive in the long term. Cadbury, founded in the Midlands in the early 1800s and still going strong today, set up a whole village for the people that worked there. At first they built 24 houses for their key workers and then went on to build 300 houses to form Bournville Village. Another innovation was to group the houses around cul-de-sacs or gardens to create pleasant and sociable living conditions. A school, hospital, reading rooms and wash-houses were also built for the people in the village.

Cadbury Brothers already had a reputation as a good employer, having introduced Saturday half days and Bank Holiday closing. At Bournville, Cadbury introduced a wide variety of sporting and recreational facilities. There was a kitchen for heating up food and later a works canteen was added. The company also provided medical and dental treatment which was completely unheard of at this time.

Colman's Mustard of Norwich was also another employer showing great people practice before its time. Jeremiah James Colman was something of a visionary. He realised a healthy and happy workforce would be more productive and made this happen. In 1864, almost twenty years before parliament made any form of education compulsory, he built a subsidised school for his employee's children. A kitchen was also set up in 1868 to provide hot meals at affordable prices and in 1878 Philippa Flowerday, one of the very first industrial nurses, was appointed to assist the company doctor in the dispensary and visit sick employees in their own homes.

These companies proved that engaging and caring for the workforce would make the company more successful. Employee welfare is widely accepted as the norm today and supported by legislation and good practice recommendations; although we do things very differently these days and offer enhanced benefits and working practices. No one thinks twice about the fact that we have restricted working hours and many rights that were unheard of even 50 years ago and it is the HR visionaries that have led the way. There are still many brands leading the field with innovative people practices, Google, Innocent, Virgin, Malmaison & Hotel du Vin, Liberty to name a few . After all it is the people that work for you that are the cornerstone of your organisation and the people that implement the welfare of all others are as important as anyone else in the organisation if not, dare I say it even more so?

However in challenging times many have pushed all the good stuff to one side. So the people who are lucky enough to have kept their jobs are suffering from low morale and are therefore unlikely to be in the frame of mind to walk the extra mile to help businesses recover. It seems a shame that when I am out visiting clients I hear that there is a 50% increase in middle HR manager applications and I know of at least three organisations that have drastically reduced the number of people in the learning and development field over the last three months. And these are so called 'enlightened' companies.

Surely this is a time to make sure that the 'people people' are looking after your workforce and ensuring that they are engaged, motivated and positive about the future, not letting them go because the numbers don't stack up. Isn't it bad enough that right now, when dealing with redundancies and low morale must be part of many HR managers day, they also have to worry about what is going to happen to them when they have finished working 14 hour days for no extra benefits? Whilst it may be that no one's job is safe, I believe that we should be applauding the HR managers of the world for the fact that those of us fortunate enough to have a job in a company with a strong HR presence have it pretty damn good.

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