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How HR can avoid reputational mistakes

Employers have never been more aware of the importance of a healthy organisational culture. The problem for many, however, is how to get there. From listening to the employee voice to driving change at the board, HR has a crucial role to play. Dominic Bernard reports. 

Happiness, creativity, productivity. In a fiercely competitive post-pandemic environment, HR knows well how vital culture is to keeping up with, and standing out from, the crowd.  

But how can HR drive this positive culture and avoid making costly reputational mistakes? 

In partnership with people management accreditors Investors In People, HR magazine put this question to an expert panel for a HR Lunchtime Debate. 

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Trusting your employees 

The first step, said Paul Devoy, CEO of people management accreditors Investors in People, is founding your culture on trust and purpose. 

He said: “Purpose is something that organisations need to focus on more in relation to culture.” 

Citing Scottish housing association the Wheatley Group, where workers are given autonomy to act in line with a set of principles, rather than follow inflexible rules, he added: “Where you can, create a culture that’s based on trust and empowers people to do the right things, that links back to your purpose.  

“They’re all really strong ingredients in a high-performance culture.” 

Giving people the freedom to think for themselves, added Grace Mansah-Owusu, talent consultant at the British Heart Foundation, comes from a sense of psychological safety. 

She said: “Being able to express yourself, and know that you’re going to be embraced and not ridiculed, that you’re not going to be seen as a renegade or someone that’s challenging the status quo, is something that is really important to helping people feel brave enough to share.” 

Once that happens, she added: “You end up getting a bit more cognitive diversity as well as physical diversity, which is: ‘Everyone’s thoughts are welcome here.’” 


Driving authenticity 

Expression of individuality makes great culture tick but, according to Beverley Shears, board member and independent consultant, this means that no basic blueprint exists for culture. 

What aligns people with an organisation’s purpose and gives them the confidence to be themselves is authenticity. 

She said: “Lifting and shifting culture from other organisations will not work. It’s got to involve the organisation, be inclusive within it, and have that sense of belonging when creating the architecture of your organisation.” 

To drive authenticity, she added, boards must keep culture at the heart of every decision they make. 

Shears added: “On all the boards I sit on, culture is in every board meeting. It’s about assurance – because what boards pay attention to, gets done.” 

By bringing culture into the board’s everyday vocabulary, she added, a committee effectively does the chief people officer’s job for them. 

She said: “What [the CPO] has is a sounding board, and a place where they can make decisions, and help the organisation make decisions on material things they want to do.” 

'Culture should be on the agenda at every board meeting'

When polled, over a quarter (28%) of the audience said that culture was a subject rarely brought up in their board meetings.  

Almost half (49%) said it is discussed ‘sometimes,’ and 9% said it had never been brought up at board meetings. 

This is often the case, said Devoy, until something disastrous happens. 

It is only at that late stage, he added, that these companies realise that the cause of their problems has been cultural. 

Referencing allegations of toxic culture at Brewdog, which had been subject of a BBC documentary the night before, Devoy said: “I’m sure it was top of the board agenda this morning, but perhaps it should have been a long time ago, when these things would have been coming out from various assessments when the original allegations were made.” 


Adapting to your employees 

The workforce is now more diverse than it has ever been and having an adaptable culture will be vital to keeping employees engaged and motivated. 

There are now potentially five different generations working together in any one organisation and, said Shears: “You can’t generalise or stereotype your workforce anymore.” 

Similarly, employees now face wildly differing working environments. For a young person sharing a house with five others, lacking space and a good wifi connection, Shears said, working from home can be quite stressful.  

“I think there needs to be flexibility and fluidity, so people can make some choices within the parameters of what working for that organisation means.” 

Mansah-Owusu agreed: “We are living in a world where everyone is at different points. Organisations just need to be able to listen to that employee voice.” 


Listening to your employees 

Once the process of changing an organisation’s culture is underway, it is important for HR to measure progress and adapt strategies as necessary. But how can you put numbers to a social phenomenon like company culture? 

“There’s one hundred and one ways to measure culture,” said Mansah-Owusu. 

As a tried and tested model, the employee survey is not to be underestimated, she added: “I think the evolution of the employee survey, not just as a one-time measurement, is really useful. 

“It’s a continuous kind of questioning. You’ll get to see a real picture of what’s going on – and get much more in-depth, rich data that way.” 

A data-led approach, she said, should be used in conjunction with methods that drill down into the quality of employee experience. 

Interviews and focus groups can be lengthy, she added, but they also provide richer data: “You really do get a feel for what it’s actually like on a personal level for people regarding culture, how they feel about it, and any improvements they’d like to see.” 

Shears agreed, saying that leaders need to take some of the onus on themselves to really find out what the experience of the company is from someone many levels their junior. 

She said: “Leaders need to be much more curious, in a non-judgemental way, about going out and about, and saying to people: ‘What’s it like for you, working here?’.” 

However, data gathering processes can sometimes be slow or miss the point. 

Shears added: “Staff surveys sometimes frustrate me, because they quite often use a large number of people, so results can be intractable for quite some time. 

“People will start suffering survey fatigue and get fed up with being asked – I’ve heard people say, ‘Stop surveying, [just] get it right!’.” 

It is crucial, however, that once HR has its fill of data, that it doesn’t try to tackle the whole organisation’s culture by itself. 

Shears said: “The organisation has to own its culture.” 

Everyone, she added, is responsible for what it’s like to work there, and they must decide what will and won’t be tolerated. 

“HR holds the mirror up to the organisation, and helps them from a technical expertise perspective, to do the right thing.”  


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This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine.  Subscribe today  to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.