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“HR needs to step up a gear”

"HR professionals are being blown off course," says Billot and Associates' managing partner - ©jorgenmac100/Adobe Stock

There is growing evidence that HR professionals are being blown off course through heavy concentration on a wide range of issues that do not add real value to organisations and stakeholders.

Reading through HR publications online, I find articles on foodbanks, bare minimum Monday’s, ethnicity pay gaps, money stress, work life balance, childcare support, imposter syndrome, social mobility and the likes.

Articles on productivity, performance, continuous improvement and the like are few and far between. If that is representative of the current agenda then it explains why employee performance is currently so poor.

Staff shortages and failures of workforce planning have had serious negative impacts on many organisations. But worse still, around a third of new staff are quitting within the first 12 months, and a fifth of employees are planning to quit in the next 12 months, questioning the sustainability of many businesses.

Business failures are 5% greater than three years ago. It’s not just having the right number of workers; they need to have the right skillset.

Read more: The solution to the UK's productivity problem is in HR's hands, Part 1

Organisations are crying out for skills they don’t have – probably because their training programmes have failed. Workplace training days in England each year have fallen by 19% since 2011, and, over a similar period, employer spend on training fell by 27%. Further most managers have no formal management qualification on appointment.

‘Can’t get the staff; can’t train the staff; can’t retain the staff,’ suggests that HR professionals need to step up a gear.

Staff wellbeing, almost always a topic of discussion in the HR press, appears to be ‘less well’ than many suggest. Disengagement levels are at their highest, at 90%, I can ever recall. Sickness absence is up 35%, from 5.8 days per person in 2019 to 7.8 days per person in 2022/23.

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of older workers quit during (and immediately after) the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, known as the ‘The Great Retirement’. This helped take the number of economically inactive people in the 50 to 64 age group to 3.5 million. Research indicated that these 50 year olds just didn’t want to work anymore.

Many employers can’t get staff back to work, even with inducements, after many enjoyed the privilege of being able to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Tight labour markets, the government’s financial support to workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, and recent research suggesting that work is not a priority appear to have changed the power dynamic between workers and employers. This appears to add to the appallingly low levels of UK labour productivity.

If the theory is to improve staff wellbeing to improve organisational wealth, the plan needs an overhaul. Employee relations and organisational performance overall are at their most turbulent time for decades.

Read more: The solution to the UK's productivity problem is in HR's hands, Part 2

Labour unrest, with nearly 4m days lost to strikes in the year to May 2023, is the worst for over 30 years. Productivity bargaining appears to be a lost art, as organisational failures and downsizing due to excessive employment costs gather pace.

From 2007 to 2019, average weekly earnings grew by 27%. Yet, over the same period, UK output per hour worked fell to 0.2%, one of the worst performances in advanced countries.

In human resource management, employees are seen as assets capable of appreciating. This seems to be missing currently.

My barometer of HR performance is intended to benchmark collectively where HR professionals stand. The need now is to recognise change is needed. This change is best achieved by concentrating on actions that add value to stakeholders.


Hugh Billot is managing partner of the organisational performance business Billot and Associates