Here is a question for you:
Should HR policy development start from:
a) legal compliance and risk avoidance
b) a values-based ethos?
Difficult, right? I posed this question to a group of post-graduate HR Management students at Leeds Business School recently. This was part of their Diversity in HR Management module. I had given a lecture earlier about how HR policies can affect employees who are, or who become, disabled. Drawing on my own experience, I encouraged the students to consider what they might do as future HR leaders when an employee's disability support costs are significant and may seem ‘unreasonable’.
Culture and values
Of course strong HR policies need to take account of both the angles above. But any company and its HR department can decide which to put first. This decision sets helps to set the cultural framework for the organisation. It also conveys powerful messages about the values on which the company is based. This is important because you can choose to be aspirational: ‘We want our workforce to feel empowered, listened to and equal to each other’) or ‘zero-based’: ‘Our primary aim is to avoid legal challenges.’.
Sanjay Lakhotia, Co-Founder of Noble House Consulting, described the importance of HR policies as
‘a comprehensive people strategy that will pay dividends by creating the right culture, instilling the right values and building a foundation for success for the organization.’
The students worked in groups to grapple with the issues which this question raised. Some opted for compliance (a) based on the understandable need to protect their organisation. Most, more boldly chose the values-based ethos (b) even when this concept was fairly new to them.
This got me thinking about whether aspiration could, and should, be built into HR policy making. Full disclosure -I have never worked in HR, though I have been lucky to have worked with several senior HR professionals. I have also been at the sharp end of poor practice in previous jobs. In my work as a social entrepreneur and coach, the approach I have seen work time and again is to ‘imagine the unimaginable’. I mentioned this to the students. The ability to discard present reality and concerns and project forward to where you want to be is precious. This exercise encouraged them to do this.
I then asked the student groups to try to develop a simple statement for disabled staff in an organisation, describing its approach. They also considered questions they would need to ask staff.
With permission from Leeds Business School Post-Graduate student, Dan Pei – here is the draft statement she and her group developed:
‘We are dedicated to creating a fair and inclusive work environment with the provision of equal opportunities. Our aim is to assure you will thrive and achieve your full potential.’
I was employed for over 20 years at a variety of public sector and third sector organisations, most of them when I was a deaf person. It strikes me that I have never seen such a welcoming statement by an employer aimed at staff with disabilities, or those who may be handling a newly acquired disability or health condition. Use of the term ‘thrive’ conveys such a positive message – going beyond ‘coping’ and ‘reasonableness’ which are often terms used.
Of course policies are only as good as they way in which they are implemented. Lakhotia’s emphasis on values and culture is echoed by the CIPD's (Chartered Institute for Personnel Development) Chief Adviser for HR Practice, Tony Vickers-Byrne describing positive management practice:
‘All managers have a responsibility to look after their staff. This is not just a financial or performance responsibility – this is a moral responsibility, it’s part of being human’.
You may be asking, ‘Is disability so important?’
I suggest three answers to this:
1. It makes business sense to understand and be able to tap into the ‘disability market’ for any organisation. Watch Barclays’ short video about the global ‘disability market’. You may find yourself surprised by the facts it presents.
2. By getting policies like these right will make you more appealing to the newer generation of potential employees. It is well documented that they prize organisations that are based on strong values, who consider and maximise their social impact and who offer flexibility. An organisation which not only anticipates the needs of disabled staff but offers a positive, welcoming approach demonstrates all three of these in one go.
3. Finally HR is about people. And people change. Ruth Gould, Artistic Director of DaDaFest (Deaf and Disability Arts) says ‘We are all either disabled or not yet disabled’. She has a point. Nobody wants to consider how their bodies and minds may change, but change they will. And being able to continue to use your experience and skills and feel valued at work is crucial. Positive policies which build in for this not only go beyond the minimal requirements of non-discrimination, they show care. I have been deaf for 30 years but even before this happened, I would definitely have been drawn to a company which built hope and aspiration into their policies.
Do you have any responses to this article? I am interested in your views on this and will collate them in a follow-up blog. Contact me here or on Twitter or LinkedIn.