Is it possible to have principles at work?

As businesses tackle the substantive issues of our times, it’s more important than ever that HR helps them to make good decisions for their long-term success

As businesses tackle the substantive issues of our times — labour costs, the changing relationship between employers and employees, the pressure of technological change and the relentless drive for more productivity — it’s more important than ever that HR helps them to make good decisions for their long-term commercial success. Equally important is that these decisions are made for the benefit of the individuals who work for them and the communities in which they operate.

The changing world

The nature of work has radically changed in the past twenty, ten and even five years. The jobs of many people today didn’t yet exist when they were at school. Thanks to modern technologies, we no longer have to work in the same place in the same way. As such, the workforce today has a very different mindset.

Employees no longer have an idea of themselves as inferior and see themselves as equals with their employers. There is no longer a binary distinction between being committed to the organisation or not. Many employees create a portfolio of work rather than staying with one organisation for their whole lives. This is beneficial to organisations who get an impassioned and generalist workforce; however, the reputational damage employees can cause if they are unhappy has also increased dramatically.

Employees want work that’s in some sense rewarding. That’s not to say that everyone will find meaning in the same way. For some it might be from the work they do, the people they work with, a sense of security or the pay they receive which allows them the freedom to do other things.

A recurring theme among conversations is the profoundly social experience of work. With flexi-working, emails and teleconferences, employees don’t even have to be in the building together anymore. But there is something to be said for meeting and spending time with your colleagues. How can you assure yourself that all your workers understand your organisational identity if you never meet them? How important is a handshake? In some occupations such as nursing, the importance of contact is obvious, but in others it can be far more complex to define.

All these changes mean that employers have to ask themselves, what’s important to my organisation, what do I want to subject my employees to and what type of culture do we want to have? Employers have to identify who they want to be and set a culture. The culture must follow identity, not the other way around and it must be a stable culture but which can adapt to the changing needs of society.

The challenges to HR

In this context, HR certainly has a role to play in improving the experience of working lives. Bringing HR to the fore in a corporate setting means embracing the emotional aspects of work. Emotion is no longer a dirty word in business but its value can often be overlooked because of its inability to be measured and quantified.

There is an obsession with measurement in the workplace and this has removed the human and emotional aspects. Trying to reduce everything to rational behaviour wrongly assumes that everyone will only make rational decisions. But this is not how people work and we must ask ourselves, in terms of value, what should we be measuring?

The value of HR is lost when it is seen as an operational necessity. HR does its best when it is taken seriously and given a seat at the board table. But to achieve this, HR must really understand the needs of business. In doing this, it is important that HR doesn’t lose sight of its own purpose and value by constantly trying to get better processes and being a real strategic partner. HR need to be deviant innovators (rather than conformists) to advocate change and challenge business for the better.

As far as working lives are concerned, a positive experience is not universal. All too often workers feel insecure at work due to their job status, their roles in the organisation, a lack of autonomy or unfair treatment. There is a feeling that today’s short-termism is causing a 'race to the bottom' at work. With the increase in zero-hours contracts, self-employment, agency working, outsourcing and home working, many struggle to find decent instruction and employment.

Another big issue that is surfacing is that of power and politics within the workplace. By looking at who has the power and how it’s used we can see how this can affect workers — turning them into compliance robots. So often, we behave in the workplace in a way that’s foreign to how we behave in our daily lives — doing something in the 'right way' rather than doing what’s right. More often than not, someone performed a task not through greed but out of fear they would lose their jobs.


'Good' conflict needs to be brought back into the workplace to allow employers, employees and HR to move beyond pure compliance to reciprocity. Employment relationships are one of rights and responsibilities, trust and confidence, without which, there is no future.