Look for every opportunity to change

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I wish it didn't take government interventions, quotas and reporting requirements to make a difference in organisations sometimes

I have a guilty secret. At the last few networking dinners I’ve attended with HR colleagues, when gender pay gap reporting or the new code requiring employee representation at board level have been discussed, I am in the minority in believing they have been very good initiatives.

I know the way gender pay is reported is nonsense, and that it really doesn’t have anything to do with what or how men and women are paid. And that the definitions are a bit strange and results can be skewed by a few men paid lots of money.

But boy has it changed the debate – within my company, around the board table and externally. It has done more to raise the topic of how we value women and address some of the shocking inequalities that exist than any HR policy, programme or initiative we have laboured over.

Likewise, the requirement to ensure the voice of the employee is heard around the board table has resulted in this topic getting more air time at board level in one month, than in the six years I’ve been an NED.

I can hear you shouting at me at this point. I know that it shouldn’t require a change in a code for this to happen. We should all already realise the importance of HR to the bottom line. And I know great HR leaders should be doing this as a matter of course.

That’s why it’s my guilty secret. I know all this and wish it didn’t take a government intervention to make a difference. But I also wish I was one stone lighter and always drank below the recommended alcohol units…

It shouldn’t take one or two courageous women speaking up about a dreadful predator and a #MeToo campaign to raise awareness of discrimination in the workplace, or to oust several high-profile perpetrators of harassment. But it did. Even if it leads to some difficult conversations that polarise opinions and create a heightened level of sensitivity about what is and isn’t acceptable, leaving some people feeling confused and disempowered, I still think we are better off as a result.

We should recognise that this stuff is hard. It’s deep-rooted, grown over many years and tangled in power, ego and embedded patterns of behaviour. It requires more than one or two courageous HR leaders to unlock things. So if we get a tailwind behind us I truly believe we should embrace it and not put our energy into explaining all the reasons why it won’t work, isn’t needed and ‘we know best’.

Let’s look for every opportunity for leverage. For example, at my place we have introduced a shadow board made up of Millennials who tell us how it is. We have also used gender pay gap reporting as a catalyst to introduce new initiatives and really challenge our thinking. Not rocket science I know, but a meaningful shift in the conversation at the very top of the organisation.

Instead of sympathising with some of the by-products of these initiatives (i.e. it’s a little bit harder to become an NED as a man now, a bit more thought is required when interacting with your female colleagues etc.) it’s a great opportunity to redefine a new way of working with a different set of rules, norms and behaviours.

It’s quite telling that when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn’s more radical agenda to hand over 10% of a large company’s equity to its workers, while met with a certain amount of horror and dismay by various institutions and businesses, most have largely supported the principle of greater employee involvement and addressing inequality. There’s clearly an unmet need here that should be at the heart of good HR thinking – how do you build a more inclusive, fair and compassionate environment where employees have a genuine voice and a sense of value and belonging?

So now that I’ve officially ‘come out’ as it were, my final thought is let’s embrace these well-meant (if not well-thought-out) initiatives and make them count. As my teenage son would say on a night out: go big or go home!

Lynne Weedall is group HR director at Selfridges Group

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