We know it’s hard to challenge a management team when you are concerned about the ethical dimension of what’s happening. That’s why it’s so important to know that you could find another job if you needed to.
We know how important continuous personal and professional development is. It helps us to perform better at work, it helps us to understand people around us, and it keeps us interested and engaged in our careers. Beyond that though there is another benefit in personal development that we don’t talk about very much: personal and professional development makes us employable. For people who are looking for another job, that is of course a very good thing. The point we overlook is how important it is for people who are looking to stay where they are.
When I think back in my own career to the times when I felt most confident challenging, it was during a three year stint when I was on secondment from the Civil Service to the NHS. The secondment arrangement was fairly standard and, although the agreement was intended to last for three years, it could be terminated by either party with four weeks’ notice. What that meant in reality was that if the NHS decided they weren’t happy with me, I simply went back to my substantive position in the Civil Service and continued my career there. This meant that when I was working with the executive team at the Hospital where I was based I could say whatever I was thinking without any fear that they could hold my career back, demote me, or even decide to put me out of a job. I took full advantage of the confidence this brought and, to the credit of the whole team there, my frankness, honesty and challenge were (in the main) welcomed and accepted. To put a final happy ending on that tale, I didn’t end up going back to the Civil Service at all and was instead given a contract in the NHS.
I’ve also seen this happen the other way around. I have seen people who have been with the same organisation for a very long time, with no recognised qualifications or credentials, who would struggle in truth to find another job with a comparable salary. I’ve seen the damage that this can do in terms of the fears people have when they come to challenge and the weight of the knowledge that they probably need their job in the organisation more than the organisation needs them. It leads to a perpetual focus on saying the right things to fit in rather than bringing challenge and different perspectives.
The knowledge that if an organisation decided it didn’t welcome your approach, you would have a good chance of finding a job at the similar or a higher level somewhere else, is incredibly valuable. When we talk about helping organisations to have difficult conversations about ethics, value and sustainability we are talking about difficult and challenging conversations. It means as an HR practitioner putting your own neck on the line sometimes to talk about the elephant in the room or alternative interpretations of organisational norms. To do this from a position of confidence in your own market value is hard, to do it when you know you would be unlikely to find another job at a comparable salary is nigh impossible.
So next time you are thinking about your development goals and plan for the year, take a look at your CV and think about how you would feel if you knew you had to go out and sell yourself to a brand new employer. My guess is that the more confident you would be in that regard, the more able you will be to have the difficult conversations and bring the challenging perspectives that this new HR demands.