I was in the supermarket recently and overheard a conversation between a supervisor and staff member. The supervisor said “I’m really sorry, you can’t have leave next week. I would have let you but HR said no”.
Or take this similar story with two different outcomes. A member of staff suddenly loses a close family member. In one case the manager supports the employee, telling them to take some time off. They are off for a few weeks and return feeling valued and supported. In the other case the manager tells the staff member the special leave policy allows them five days. The employee takes five days then goes off sick for three months and returns feeling undervalued and unsupported.
You, like me, will be familiar with these and countless other stories where policies are in place that are predicated on compliance and control, and where treating people the same is seen as treating people fairly. Equality and equity are confused. They are not the same. The result is that these policies often undermine and disempower effective managers and provide a prop for less able managers who were brought up on a diet of concern and control rather than empowerment and engagement.
I know frameworks and guidance can be really helpful. I know that the concept of “fairness” is incredibly important to staff and how they feel valued. But as the world of work changes, as empowerment becomes even more important for good service delivery, as staff engagement becomes a key management and leadership priority for organisations, we have to adapt our HR policies. To move away from anachronistic rules and instructions, and towards guidance that supports and then holds managers to account as appropriate for the way they treat and value their team.
In a unionised environment, this means trade unions need to engage differently too. They can't argue that every judgement a manager makes about a set of individual circumstances sets a 'precedent'.
I’m sure we have the credentials to get this right, to become better able to demonstrate the difference between equality and equity and to have HR feeling less like the organisation police force and more like the people people.
Dean Royles is chief executive of NHS Employers