Do HR readers have top 20 truly useful HR books of the year

03 Jan 2012

Helen Giles

I wonder what HR magazine readers’ best leadership and management books of the year would be? For me it would have to be Scott Keller and Colin Price’s Beyond Performance.

The authors have carried out an extensive empirical research project over the space of a decade with hundreds of companies. Their evidence shows that only a third of organisations that achieve excellence are able to maintain it over decades and that the successful companies are those that focus not solely on performance, but on organisational health.

They identified 37 practices against nine dimensions that separate organisations that both achieve and sustain excellence and those that don’t. And guess what? Around two thirds of those practices relate directly or indirectly to the way people are managed. Canny HR practitioners can extrapolate the grid as a template for a persuasive approach to organisational development within their companies.

Do other HR readers have Top 20 truly useful HR Books of the Year nominations?

I'm backing the campaign to get together those who have an interest in reforming employment legislation

07 Dec 2011

Helen Giles

Sian Harrington is right to place her bet that reform of regulation of itself won't bring about employment recovery. But I believe it would make a significant contribution in a whole variety of ways. One example is the amount of time and money spent by public authorities on compliance with regulations that add nothing to service and social outcomes: reform would enable those bodies to become more efficient at a time when they are being forced to reduce staff.

My second example concerns the reluctance of many employers to take on as apprentices high risk groups such as young people who have had not previously had the opportunity to learn the work ethic when they have a disproportionate array of rights and protections from Day One.

Those of us advocating reform are doing so because we believe that it will be in everybody's best interests at the end of the day, including employees and those who want to find work, not because we want unfettered power for employers.

To find out more about HR magazine's campaign, click here


CEOs unlikely to come from HR profession: could there be a gender issue here?

14 Nov 2011

Helen Giles

One obvious correlation, it seems to me, is that most HR professionals are women and most CEOs are men. There must be a relationship here somewhere to that current high profile debate about why there are not more women on boards.

One thing I've noticed time and time again is the vicious circle that prevents HR professionals being more strategic within their organisations. HR has not traditionally been seen as a strategic function which adds measurable value, so CEOs are reluctant to invest in it properly.

It's too much of an article of faith to spend a decent amount of money on it since they've never seen with their own eyes the return on investment that comes from a properly resourced team, with truly competent individuals, operating at the right levels.

The HR staff they employ are then often operating at too low a level with too few staff in their departments to handle even the basics of the job well.

I have seen many a bright and able HR 'head' or 'manager', reporting to the top tier through a finance director, with a tiny team of juniors to support him or her (most often a her). They desperately want to get out there, understand the business and focus on long-term strategic planning, but are bogged down handling the complex and time-consuming work of dealing with regulation and employee relations.

They are seen as pretty useful and reasonably competent within the business for fire-fighting reactive purposes. But, their potential to do the more strategic work of influencing the business to operate in a way that minimises the potential for such problems to arise in the first place remains unseen. This means the top decision-makers lack the evidence to invest more to have the right people in the right places within the function to make it a leading contributor to the success of the business.

In short, I believe that it is this vicious circle that serves as the main barrier to progression of HR people to the top, rather than anything intrinsic about the HR function or the mindset or capabilities of the people who go into it. Then again, as the article pointed out, there are a number of HRDs who have broken through this vicious cycle to become high impact contributors to successful businesses and public bodies but haven't become CEOs because they don't want to, being more inclined to venture into setting up successful HR businesses of their own.

Helen Giles is HR director at Broadway Housing


HR’s Most Influential 2011

06 Oct 2011

Helen Giles

One or two of the thinkers, in particular, are to my mind great because they are advocates of a 'back to basics' approach. One person in particular that I think should be added to the list probably never will be because he doesn't think or write about HR. But as someone who is a role model of great leadership, he can count me as his Number One Fan. He is Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of the Mossbourne academy in Hackney.

Sir Michael deals with the hardest to reach pupils from disadvantaged areas, many of whom have been excluded from other educational establishments. Renowned for his rigorous standards of discipline, he runs a tight ship and gets outstanding results. No less than eight of his sixth formers were offered places at Cambridge this year. When once asked what his leadership secret was he said:

"It's about understanding that … you have to build structures … It's a sort of tough-love approach. It is reliant upon structure and traditional ways of doing things, such as being rigorous about punctuality and attendance… Where there aren't structures, it's always the strongest and the most vocal - the bullies - who prevail. But at the same time, tough love is a very caring and compassionate attitude. Getting that balance right is key."

I think we have much to learn from Sir Michael in terms of setting some basic standards in the workplace. I say this because I frequently go into other organisations as a consultant to do troubleshooting when one or more disruptive individuals has the organisation turned upside down and by the throat. And I'm astonished at how frequently these organisations don't have anything as basic as a clear Code of Conduct in place, often it would seem because such things aren't considered necessary for adults in the modern 'high trust' workplace. Then they are taken by surprise when in the absence of any codification or expectations or regulation of behaviour a number of individuals decide to set their own standards. These typically range from indulgence of moodiness, unreliability and generally anti-social behaviour through to down and out toxic bullying (downwards, sideways or upwards).

On the other side, the organisations that I see that have a positive, respectful and high-performing culture have absolute clarity about the standards expected of all its members, through explicit values statements or Codes of Conduct. And more importantly, they enforce these rigorously, picking up non-compliant behaviours early and firmly.

So I think many HR practitioners and CEOs have a great deal to learn from Sir Michael Wilshaw. I would certainly include him in my personal HR Most Influential listing, given that I find cause to quote him to clients time and time again.

For more information, interviews, news and profiles about HR's most influential, visit


The HR profession: one of the worst perpetrators of unnecessary complexity

15 Sep 2011

Helen Giles

I'm sure many of us have witnessed groups of senior people who should be focused on pragmatic implementation of long-term strategy and product or service quality getting themselves into a twist over unnecessary process and protocols.

I was also quite amused by the article since in my view, the HR profession as a whole is one of the worst perpetrators of unnecessary complexity. And I don't mean - referring to an example in the article - because an HR officer might spend time chasing managers for completed appraisal forms. In fact, from the lamentable degree of voluntarism around conducting performance reviews that I've encountered in many organisations, I think HR staff might need to do more and not less of that particular activity.

What I mean is the general cant and obfuscation that surrounds the world of HR generally. I often train or speak to groups of HR practitioners who, led astray by HR guru writings and presentations or direct mail from consultants, have tortured themselves over the question how they can be more 'strategic'. Their exposure to all of this leaves them perplexed about what all this 'adding value to the business' means. What they really want to get to the bottom of is, the day to day practical things they might do to make themselves an indispensable pillar of the business rather than a necessary evil clearing up the mess made by managers who find managing people difficult.

I find that the mist soon lifts for them - with visible relief - when it's pointed out that whatever the business, whatever the climate, what managers want from HR invariably boils down to six things:

  • Identifying what attributes people actually need to be able to the jobs, and then find ways to recruit them.
  • Working out what and how to pay them.
  • Support with motivating, performance managing and developing those staff while they're with you.
  • Making sure they turn up.
  • Support with moving them onwards or outwards when things don't work out.
  • Handling change such as mergers and redundancies in a way that meets regulatory requirements and doesn't cheese employees off.

The only complexity involved is the need to work out how best to do these things within your particular environment for the foreseeable future. All the rest is just noise.

Helen Giles is director of human resources and consultancy, Broadway Homelessness & Support

Success in the area of business leadership remains elusive

20 Jul 2011

Helen Giles

Firstly, there's the lack of availability of the basic raw material. Most leadership gurus will cite self-awareness and emotional intelligence as central pillars of transformational leadership capability. All the emotionally intelligent and genuinely charismatic people I've ever come across are incredibly good listeners, actively asking anybody with whom they enter into dialogue at least three questions for every statement they make about themselves.

Yet such listeners are as rare as hen's teeth in any walk of life. How many times have you been introduced to a stranger at a formal event full of well appointed people only to have them regale you with every last detail of their working lives and yet walk away without the foggiest idea of what you might do in a day at the office?

Then there's the propensity of organisations in all sectors to promote people primarily on the basis of their technical skills, despite the overwhelming body of evidence of just how wrong this is. Leading to managers who have no interest whatsoever in other people, let alone spending any serious time inspiring, coaching and developing them.

And when the worst of them indulge in blatantly bullying behaviour, their seniors and boards back off tackling their performance because they are terrified of losing the technical skill whose removal, they fear, will bring the viability of the concern crashing down about their ears. HR needs to get better at quantifying the loss and risk posed by such menaces so that the seniors and boards can get better at removing them.

Finally, academics and researchers in management and HR have relied too long on promoting the virtues of empowering leadership on the strength of anecdote rather than hard fact. The problem that we HR practitioners have in trying to persuade boards and senior teams that their businesses are not sustainable unless they get rid of their non person-centred leaders and managers is that there are too many live examples before their noses of corporations and businesses that keep going, apparently flourishing, year after year despite the fact that they are headed up by those who treat people at work as disposable trash.

Come on all you denizens of top business schools: we need to be able to point to a lot more 'before and after' figures showing how a company was hobbling along at sub-optimum profit levels until the people-centred CEO came in and transformed its fortunes over a sustained period.


Ministers' considerations of TUPE and redundancy consultation is music to my ears

27 May 2011

This is music to the ears of people trying to run businesses or public services which incur enormous costs and impaired efficiency as a result of the disproportionate way these laws operate in practice.

John Philpott of the CIPD said this week that the perception that UK businesses are bound up in employment legislation 'red tape' does not stand up to an examination of the evidence. Pointing to an OECD research finding that the UK has the third least regulated labour market in the world, he goes on to say that 'It is time UK businesses stopped seeing red whenever employment regulation is mentioned and instead adopted a more balanced, evidence-based perspective'.

I would respectfully point out that Mr Philpott already had occasion to eat his words earlier this year when he went on record saying that there's no need for reform of the ET system, and shortly afterwards the CIPD's Conflict Survey of its members revealed that three fifths of respondents had had employees tagging discrimination claims on to unfair dismissal cases in the hope of achieving greater compensation while 55% reported complaints against their organisations on malicious grounds. The caption of the associated press release was 'ET System is Broken'.

Perhaps Mr Philpott should think about what constitutes a relevant evidence-base. I suggest that if he were to get out and about on the ground, as I believe ministers have been doing, to see and hear the case studies of employers struggling with the law and the way it is being applied by ETs, he might not be quite so undermining of what he describes as the "drive to deregulate" advocated by sections of the business lobby.

I have met and spoken with many small business people who have experimented with various ways - some ingenious and some reckless - to grow their businesses without employing staff because the costs and risks of being an employer so are so unmanageable. I have encountered others who have been driven out of business by one vexatious claim against them. For the most part these are people who are genuinely keen to motivate their staff and treat them well.

I appreciate that the CIPD doesn't represent small businesses since most of them are too small to have HR professionals on their staff even if they are brave enough to employ a workforce. But I'm a CIPD member, a director of an SME organisation, and I can't believe that I'm in any way unique in thinking that Mr Philpott's bold statements about employment regulation are so far removed from my daily experience of the reality that he is surely guilty of ignoring both the evidence and the interests of the people who pay his salary.


Is engagement mania relevant for a 21st century workplace?

27 Apr 2011

After all, not only will we get in the Sunday Times Best Companies listings, but all that research about the link between engagement and productivity is now incontrovertible, isn't it?

Yet on occasion, I am beset by doubts that our quest for greater and greater engagement is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Perhaps it's because I spent too much time analysing our Best Companies data and noticed that all the questions seem to be about how good people feel with barely a nod to how conscientiously they apply themselves to their work. Or because not long ago I was in a room with a group of HR academics getting terribly excited about how employers can create greater 'meaning' for their employees.

Thinking about all this, my mind wandered back to the days when my father was still alive and working - 45 years boy and man, interrupted only by a stint soldiering in WW2 - as a pen-pushing clerk for the Eastern Electricity Board. He worked a lot of overtime, was out from 8.00 to 8.00 most days, seldom taking a day off. He seemed to work hard and was loyal to his company. He never spoke of meaning, but inasmuch as any could be deduced it would seem to have consisted of a belief that he should provide for his family and a sense that he shouldn't let down the firm or the colleagues he relied upon for his livelihood.

OK so times have changed, the psychological contract has changed with less job security, and now people expect a great deal more out of work. Or do they? At a recent staff focus group looking at how we could improve on our staff survey results, participants brainstormed how they and their colleagues could have more 'fun' at work. After a while of pondering this, one of the group looked at her colleagues in a quizzical fashion and said, "Hey guys, you know what, this is supposed to be work". This young colleague happens to be from Eastern Europe.

So in another time, another country, people may look at our engagement mania with open-mouthed incomprehension but how is that useful or relevant to think about in relation to the early 21st century workplace? Well, I think it is, in terms of realising that anything taken to extremes can become counter-productive. The engagement industry seems to have taken on a life of its own and I really do think at times we are in danger of breeding a workforce of high maintenance namby-pambies by bending over too far backwards to make life at work meaningful and engaging.


In this issue: August 2015
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Stand and deliver: Fresh austerity measures are on the way – but can public sector HR seize the strategic opportunity?

Eureka moment: HR at engineering firm AMFW

Going for gold: Maintaining the Olympic legacy

On the money: Providing innovative rewards

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