Following the Witch: Ethics and Next Generation HR

A Halloween witch flies across the face of the moon

After a false start, next generation HR is finally emerging. Whilst the so called ‘Next Gen HR’ was designed by the old guard, the new version has the strong foundation that all real revolutions depend on: a new generation of people who see the World differently.

If you like, we could call this the ‘third age of HR’. We have left behind the first iteration of our profession, torn down the ‘Personnel’ signs and removed the tissue boxes from the offices. The World of employee welfare and tea and sympathy had gone and we needed a new model to meet new expectations. Enter: Strategic HRM.

The beauty of HRM was that it simplified what we were here to do and, in so doing, helped us to focus. Did our practice increase top line growth or improve bottom line profitability? Could we see the golden thread, were we aligned, were we enabling? We needed to ask if our approach to People Management was fundamentally about improving organisational performance. We would stop being ‘HR people’ and would instead become ‘Business people’. In pursuit of the top and the bottom line, the customer (internal and external) became king for the HR practitioner and, while there was a role for HR to challenge in the organisation, it was to ask whether the business line had gone far enough in maximising the use of our resources. Our suits got sharper, our shoes got shinier, and we learned to talk about percentages, p&l, margins.

None of this was wrong. It moved us on, it showed what we could achieve and it moved us towards the heart of the business. We also learned a lot. We have become a more capable profession and are now well placed to build on what we achieved.

We need to build because, despite all of our advancements, we have not been able to develop our agenda far enough or fast enough. Whether the test is productivity, retention, innovation or international comparators, we have not unlocked the value that we can bring to improving work and improving working lives.

If the beauty of strategic HRM was in its simplicity, the beauty of next generation HR will be in its complexity. A million Twitter memes will beg to disagree, but ‘seven key principles’, ‘three key rules’, ‘simplify everything’ approaches won’t work here. If we are to deliver better work and improved working lives we need to move into the realm of ethics to build not growth or profitability, but ethical maturity in organisations.

The recent failures in banking were expressed in financial terms but the discourse, even in the popular press, was about cultures, values and decision making. Spend any time with a senior executive from Barclays Bank these days and you will have heard more within 10 minutes about their culture change programme than about money. In the high profile failures in local government, the NHS and news agencies, there was also a money narrative but that was intertwined with what we find acceptable and, importantly, what we don’t in decision making and ethics. These organisations may have had ‘high performing’ HR functions that were able to provide huge amounts of quantitative ‘people’ data, but where was the narrative, where was the story that things weren’t right? If HR Analytics is to add anything in this new generation HR it needs to start from a strong foundation that it requires both quantitative and qualitative perspectives overlaid with a powerful and compelling story. No other professional is as well placed to do this as HR.

This next generation HR is complex rather than simple because it is concerned with ethics and decision making that can’t be done with a calculator or employment lawyer. The great French thinker Gilles Deleuze wrote that to think was to “follow the witch’s flight”. When one enters the realm of ethics there are no straight lines anymore and no patterns; as the crazy witch flies at speed through the night sky she whirls and loops, climbs, dives and barrel roles. To impose patterns and models on that is to reduce it to less than it is. The same is true of ethics. There are different perspectives – thousands of them potentially and they shift and change constantly. There are different assumptions, cultural foundations, and subtexts. To look for an objective hierarchy is to miss the point; subjective hierarchies can be useful though. There are no ‘three quick steps’ or ‘seven effective behaviours’ here that can be anything more than window dressing. We need detailed, informed, challenging and provocative thinking and debate instead.

The new generation that I referred to earlier understand this. Money is important but so too is a connection with a mission to improve work and working lives by maximising the value of tech, but also a technology of ideas. What role do HR practitioners play in a more ambitious CSR agenda, in not just enabling voice but in actually listening to it and having a conversation? Job design too begins to look different through this lens. It might be cheaper to pay somebody to clean the toilets than it would to automate that work, but is it what we want? How do we want our world of work to look and how do we want people to feel about work.

The economic, political and social implications of this new way of thinking about work are massive. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (UK Finance Minister) talked in his Budget statement about incentivising work. Some cheered, some flinched, and some shook their heads. What is clear though is that for some people, work is something that is attractive and rewarding beyond the monthly pay cheque. For others, it is less attractive and, when we look at how organisations are designing jobs and the ethical or other approach to managing organisations, that is hardly surprising. All of that means that there is a chance, should we choose to take it, that this next generation of HR practitioners as ethical ‘challengers’ and ‘enablers’ can sow the seeds of a real revolution in improving work and working lives. That would be a legacy to be proud of.





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