DisruptHR Aberdeen – A New World for HR, Alison Woods

A New World for HR

Alison Woods, Employment Law Partner, CMS LLP

So employee relations issues, anyone spot that they’re getting a bit more difficult, a bit more complex maybe? WELL, you’re not alone. That is what we’re seeing. I started my career talking to people about someone being off sick for a while and I deal with massively complex issues. But 2006, nearly 20 years ago, we had the last big move in anti-discrimination law. Maybe more coming with the Labour government, who knows? But for now, that was the change we had, age discrimination. Now we can all work as long as we like. But why then, have we not got a stable position? We’ve got all of this legislation here for a long time. What I would like to talk to you about tonight is the fact that I don’t think it’s the law that’s changing things. I think it’s the social change around that and how your lawyers work within that environment.

And that’s really what we are seeing, is the biggest explosion is a generational shift, I would say, in terms of things moving forward. People wanting change, people being engaged. So the legal rights may have been there, but it’s how people use them. It’s how they lean on them. It’s how they expand them in practice.

Think of Me Too, think of Black Lives Matter. Think of the tension between trans rights and their expansion against the view of critical gender thinking. Think about people wanting to talk about the environment and wanting to bring that into their workplace. All of this is crossing my desk literally on a day-to-day basis.

Anyone recognize this? Yeah, complaints department. Who’s going to deal with this? When this comes into the workplace, when we see conflict there, which is my side of it very often, how is it that HR being left to fix that problem? Employees want more and more opportunities to express their values, their individuality, their identity through their work. It’s important we know that. But that brings possibilities for misunderstandings. Clash of rights is a very real thing and something we’re seeing on a regular basis.

Employees though, they do feel more empowered now. The reason, or one reason you’re seeing this is that employees feel empowered to bring those views to the front, to make complaints when they see things that they’re unhappy about and to stand up for their colleagues when they see that as well. So how do you create that culture of trust with them where also what you’re going to find is that my whole self at work may completely conflict with what your whole self is? And I think sometimes there’s this feeling that somehow there is a roadmap and bang, we’ll make it happen. But I’m here to tell you, we’re never going to get there completely. This is not an easy fix. This is something that’s going to be a continual journey. I think the future is not a destination. Someone talk about, the future is now and the future will forever be there. So we need to think about that in terms of what we do.

How do we stop people from shutting down? How do we recognize the fact that the more we talk about diversity, the more some people switch off? We need to be honest about that if we’re going to move things forward. And how do you put yourselves out there? The world is watching. You may have a strong value statement. You may have something beautifully laminated and up in glass all around your office. But what are people seeing when they’re out there? How does that impact the disputes you see?

And don’t forget, you’re only ever one click away from the real review of your organization. Where we’re seeing disputes now, it used to be 20 years ago that it was all about, well, what if someone went to the press? They don’t need to go to the press now. They just need to log on to X. So what are we going to do? I don’t have long enough to say, I’m passionate about the topic, I could speak about it all night, but I was thinking about three things, a few musings, if you will bear with me, without me in any way, wanting to tell HR how to do your job. You’re all absolutely so expert about. So I’ll flatter you instead. You’re all awesome. You’re the people in the room.

But I see a massive danger. This is an HR audience, but I’m telling you, this is not your problem to fix. And there’s a real problem of this being seen as an add-on, as a siloed thing, that we’ll pass it to HR. We need these badges on the boardroom table. We need people to take accountability in it or, I can tell you now, it’s not going to make any difference. And it’s actually, as an advisor, it’s really unsatisfactory to go in there and be that sticking plaster to try and do that. We want to affect change.

Two, investigate and be willing to investigate, be willing to listen when people say there’s a problem. Very often when these issues come up, it’s often like, “Oh, right, okay, how can we navigate our way through this? How can we do it?” See it as a learning opportunity. See it as a chance to actually listen to what’s going on in your organizations. And combined to that, make sure that it’s not just about that one incident and that’s over. But how do we actually take that forward into the business? How do we actually then, think about what can we change? What can we do? Rather than assuming that someone accusing us of doing something wrong, as we see it, is the problem.

Third, wear this badge at all times. I’m only joking, I’m only joking. But I do mean have a lawyer who really understands your culture and where you are. There’s nothing worse than having badly fitting advice, or advice that assumes that you’re in a perfect world, or what you do. Maybe some lawyers don’t listen, but a lot do. A lot of us want to be there. We want to connect with you. We want to make a difference, but by making a difference in a real way. To recognize the issues, to move things on, that’s what we are passionate about. That’s what we’re trying to do to make the law fit in.

So AI, a topic already mentioned tonight. It’s coming. We talk about it all the time. It’s definitely there. But I tell you, it’s not going to fix this problem. Your jobs are safe, I can tell you that. And there’s a lot more that we can learn and do together.

See Alison delivering her presentation at DisruptHR Aberdeen here >>>> https://vimeo.com/876132079

More talks from DisruptHR Aberdeen here >>>> https://hunteradams.co.uk/blog/disrupthr-aberdeen/