It’s the culture…..stupid!

Irish health service managers should benchmark against and seek to emulate the success of the best HR organisations internationally, writes Denis Doherty.

Being a HR manager in our health service must be extremely difficult just now. Staff salaries have been cut again, the working hours of many have been increased and allowances have been either abolished or reduced. HR managers have to bear the bad news to colleagues and are expected to be leaders and motivators at the same time. Their own terms and conditions of employment have been worsened too and the prevailing climate at work is one of staying within reduced budgets above all else. So, what’s to be done?

Denis Doherty
Denis Doherty

Good HR practice has evolved over more than a century. What is now the Institute of Personnel and Development is celebrating its centenary this year. A century ago the emphasis was on increasing productivity driven by autocratic managers. A group of welfare officers in England saw the need to promote the wellbeing of workers and banded together to promote that aim. The Institute has evolved from that humble beginning.

The Institute has recently published a list of the 20 best HR organisations in the UK1. A panel of academics and practitioners drew up the list. Their task was to identify the organisations that have revolutionised working life over the century. Cadbury came out on top followed by Ford and John Lewis.

The panel looked for:

  • A strong reputation for treating staff (and other stakeholders) well over time
  • A history of HR innovation, either generally or in specific areas
  • Recognition for HR practice, including awards
  • Commercial impact of HR practice on the wider organisation.

The panel identified which of ten traits they associated with the organisations they included on their top twenty list.

Engagement actually increased at Marks & Spencer in 2009 despite job losses, store closures and a decision to cap its pension scheme.

Engagement came out on top. Interestingly, engagement actually increased at Marks & Spencer in 2009 despite job losses, store closures and a decision to cap its pension scheme.

Learning and Development came second. BT, like Eircom here, is a much smaller organisation now than it was before it was privatised. It has adopted a creative way of redeploying surplus workers through its BT Transition Centre. It means the company can retain and redeploy existing staff instead of making redundancies in one area while recruiting in another.

The armed forces, listed at no.4, come in for praise for basing their approach to training and development on being very clear about their duty of care. “When your staff sign a contract agreeing to give their life for the common good, it imbues a duty of care and an awesome sense of loyalty into the employer – employee relationship”. The greater good dimension of the work of healthcare workers arguably entitles them to expect an equally high duty of care.

Ford might not be an obvious organisation to look to in search of good practice transferable to the health service but comments by Chris Bones of the Manchester Business School suggest differently– “Ford is an outstanding training ground, with strong processes, very high standards and a highly disciplined culture. As a HR person in that environment, you learn the value of process and standards”.

Equality and Diversity was the trait least identified with the best organisations for HR, just below Employee Relations, Leadership and Recruitment & Evaluation. I suspect this is a reflection of how well embedded these traits are in the best organisations.

That’s a roundabout way of addressing the question I posed earlier.  So, what’s to be done? A good approach might be to benchmark against and seek to emulate the success of the best HR organisations. Most of the organisations on the best 20 HR list have been around for a very long time; their HR practices have contributed to their longevity; they seriously engage with their employees and invest in their training and development.

  1. People Management Centenary Special Issue June 2013