‘Good work’ should focus on principles not rules

The current culture of compliance is eroding trust - employers should move from laying down more rules to focusing on principles

RSA lecture panel of speakers

At a sell-out lecture on 9 May hosted by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA and Chair of the UK Government’s Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy, CIPD Chief Executive, Peter Cheese, told an engaged audience that ‘good work’ should be focused on principles, rather than rules. The CIPD is fully committed to 'good work', and is urging the next Government to take action to ensure that work is good for all. Cheese was joined in a panel discussion on defining what good work is by Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Professor Dame Carol Black.

Taylor framed the context of the session by iterating the RSA’s commitment to improving the quality of work in the UK economy and the view that all work should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and progression.

Taylor set out a number of concerns about the current state of work in the UK, including the:

  • rate of in-work poverty
  • levels of stress in the workplace
  • long-tail of poorly managed businesses in the UK
  • pace and scale of technological change in the workplace
  • erosion of employee voice at work.

The panellists were then invited to respond to Taylor’s thesis on good work. A major theme to surface was the trade-off between flexibility and security. Cheese remarked on the need to strike a balance between the two, to ensure that flexibility is accessible in all kinds of work and that it is recognised as one of the main levers for creating more inclusive workplaces. Fairbairn cautioned against demonising flexible work and praising fixed work; the type of contract does not necessarily define the quality of work or workers’ satisfaction, a view that is supported by the CIPD’s research on the gig economy and zero-hours contracts.

Dame Carol Black underscored the importance of autonomy at work. Recounting a day spent with a Tube driver as part of her research into well-being, she expressed her dismay at the repetitiveness, darkness and early start that the job required. Yet she noted, the driver himself was quite content; he had full control over what he was doing and felt responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers. The autonomy he had was hugely valuable to him, she said.

Cheese shared the sentiment, pointing out that too often, employers take a deterministic view of their people, as though they are bad robots that need to be constantly monitored and controlled. That culture of comply and obey, Cheese argued, erodes trust and initiative while fuelling stress and disengagement. Instead, he encouraged employers to move from rules to principles.

‘You cannot change behaviour by writing more rules,’ Cheese commented.

The CIPD has recently published its professional principles for better work and working lives, a set of fundamental beliefs, which will help guide good decisions in any situation, rather than relying on applying a fixed template for ‘best practice’.

RSA panel discussion

Finally, Taylor questioned how we can encourage active and engaged citizenship in society when we accept the denial of recognition, respect and engagement at work. In response, Cheese highlighted the importance of involving people in decision-making and challenged employers to engage with all of their workforce, regardless of whether they are permanent employees or freelance contractors.

In the coming weeks, the CIPD will continue to engage with the RSA and with the Taylor Review. The Institute will be submitting a formal written response to the Review, and is encouraging members and the public to get involved in defining what good work is.

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