I’m an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand.

IMG_0068Walking through the new and sanitized front of Kings Cross station in London Town on Monday, I discovered that it was the International Justice Day for Cleaners. To my shame I didn’t know this and I certainly didn’t pick it up from the feeds that came through my favoured HR hangouts of social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Well they wouldn’t would they. Those sacred places are, as I identified in my blog last week, the preserve of the white-collar worker or as ‘we’ proclaim ourselves the ‘knowledge community’. As shown by the flyer the blue-collar worker remains focused on the things far and away out of our relatively privileged universe and centred on the basic need to earn a decent living.

Beyond the obvious disenfranchisement of the social space, it made me also think of how polarized our workplace has become over the course of this generation, and by consequence, our horizons in HR have as organisations have embraced the following trends :

  1. Since the 1980s the trade unions have been largely defeated by a series of governments who’ve taken a very pro-business stance. Taking their most grotesque caricature of the 1970s, unions at their worst adopted too often the mantra that “absolute power corrupts”, but at their best provided a counterweight to people-unfriendly practices. Replaced ultimately as a power player by the Financial Services sector, with their own special curate’s egg.
  2. The outsourcing and offshoring trends of the mid-1990s onwards in pursuit of cost containment and an improved bottom line. More and more of the business services left the country or TUPE’d across to new ultra competitive industries giving us a workplace view of core and non-core, or alternatively categorized as ‘we care about’ and ‘we don’t care about’ unless it blurs our employment relationships with our myriad of vendors.
  3. The HR function burnt its personnel bra and got closer to a corporate policing role and wholly aligned with the needs of the enterprises’ owners. The individualization of the workplace became irreversible and the competitive nature of post-war baby booming dictated our parent-childlike organisational cultures.

As a by-product of all this, and inside this evolving ecosystem we’ve pursued too often a warped employee engagement strategy for our workforce within an increasingly narrow and sometimes elitist worldview. And sadly I don’t think we even noticed the subtlety of this after all these years of doing it.

Think about it – Our flexible working narratives are those of the cosy middle-classes, who can afford to drop out of work and receive the cushion of their partner’s paycheck. No such joy when you talk of minimum wage versus the rising costs of living. Everyone needs to work in this blue-collar family unit.

Our office workspace debates are confined to those sitting within the comfy leather chairs at corporate HQ who need places stacked full of bean bags and coffee on tap in the name of engagement. Not for the fellas pushing the dirty linen around in a basket in some dingy hotel off the A1.

And our recent moneyball approach to workplace disputes and dismissals, via the newly revamped Employment Tribunal system in this country has created a very clear chasm in my mind on the haves and have-nots. With a clear link to affordability for justice this travesty has gone through it’s first year congratulating itself on a diminishing return of employment cases, leading us to believe that some employers are no longer as sexist, racist or plainly unfair as before. The £250 issue fee and £950 hearing fee is out of reach for those on the minimum wage.

Along the way and in response, we’ve allowed ourselves to embrace the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a big ticket item over the last few years but how many of those initiatives, as well-intentioned as they are at times, are failing to grasp the biggest social problem we face in this country and others – the availability of jobs and future employability in our society. Painting walls at the local school or putting in better recycling bins seems at times trite and patronising. And let’s not forget that some organisations have allowed their commercial arms to cannibalize this worthy cause for brand and revenue purposes in some instances.

Can HR influence a more authentic approach to these matters of social justice in the years ahead ? Will job creation, a demand for the introduction of the living wage, a commitment to reinvest on future skills for the young and long-term unemployed be done because it’s the right thing to do and can some organisations invoke an internal board debate about the impact that clever tax avoidance schemes at an enterprise level have on their company’s employment brand by an increasingly savvy talent pool ? Or maybe the seat at the table means a counterweight on these issues seems a bit like professional suicide.

Finally to the cleaners. I’m sorry my generation labelled you non-core to the business and that you feel compelled in a relatively rich economy in 2014 to fight for some basic rights that those of us in good employers and who are core have taken for granted and bagged. Of course it made good business sense in an OD kinda way but I increasingly worry about the kind of society I am helping to create for my kids as a result. Maybe the next generation can make a better fist of it and help embrace a more authentic approach to social justice in parallel to making company profits.

Until next time, is this on your agenda HR ?

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5 thoughts on “I’m an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand.

  1. I don’t wish to bang my own drum (but I’m going to anyway) but I do think my employer has got many things right on this front. I totally get everything you said in your post and these are things easily swept aside (pardon the pun) in the name of tackling bigger issues. I think it helps that I work for a social housing company where the plight of out clients makes these issues so real. We adopted the living wage early on, not just for cleaners but apprentices too. We operate an award winning scheme to help the unemployed back into work. Is there more to be done? Of course, there always will be, but the more of us who make a start, the more we promote and chip away at these issues. Enjoyed your post, thanks.

    • Thanks for that. Fully agree, there are some shining lights around but what worries me more is the system we have created in the country over the last generation that has admittedly boosted short and medium term profits but is having a toxic effect in the longer term. Many services have left this country forever now and there is little by way of a manufacturing heritage to hold onto – what do we ask of our future generations when we are running out of things for them to do and earn a living off ? Shouldn’t a legacy for tomorrow be a perfect CSR strategy ? Very different to today but a rethink required. Thanks for contributing. The debate is a good one and there answers aren’t easy.

  2. Great post – and thought provoking! I’m in New Zealand where the Living Wage Campaign is in relative infancy (since 2012), but gaining momentum all the time…working for an organisation paying well above minimum and living wage – but I now have to question what we pay our contractors, or rather, what pay are they receiving? And how far reaching is this sort of activity? I know we have a lot of problems with migrants being well under paid and working in near squalid conditions here – mainly in foreign owned businesses. Spotlight is on these situations and similar in particular at present in media and through advocacy groups.
    I agree too with your reply above relating to manufacturing heritage and the like and future generations…I believe our legacy there is already lost. We’ve already set future generations up to carry on the path we’ve largely set down – like you say let’s hope they can redirect that for the better.
    Now I’ve put my two cents in I’m off to read the rest of your posts!
    (FYI found your blog from a response you posted to HRGem’s blog)

    • Big thanks for taking the time out and contributing. Massive accountability on this generation to help ensure we get it right for the next one in terms of work and its new social meaning.

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