· 2 min read · Features

It's time for HR strategy to 'rise to the occasion'

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The economic crisis will continue to dominate the agenda in 2013, with further challenges ahead for Europe and beyond, especially within the public sector in this age of austerity. These turbulent times, however, call for swift and urgent action if the UK is to avoid the 'Greek tragedy' that is unfolding in Europe and beyond.

As a rallying cry, we might turn to some inspiring words from the US, voiced by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, in the midst of the US Civil War, arguably the most destructive war in the country's history.

Lincoln said: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise - with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country."

The issues for people working in HR in the public sector, here and now in the UK, are well known. Government spending must be cut; and, across the public sector politicians, leaders and staff are, indeed, 'rising to the occasion'. They all accept (whatever their political hue) that things must change.

The burning question is how and to what end?

Recent media attention has focused on the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne's proposals for staff to 'relinquish' their employment rights in exchange for shares in the company.

In addition, it is understood that a full-scale review of terms and conditions in the civil service is underway. Detail on both these issues is not clear as yet, but the language has suggested a deficit model: 'giving up rights'; 'reducing annual leave entitlements'; 'cutting flexible working'... The list goes on.

The danger of this approach is that it leads directly to confrontation and conflict with those who see it as a direct attack on rights and entitlements that have been hard won over a long period. Responses from industry experts in the media have confirmed this. Battle lines are drawn and energy is consumed fighting old wars instead of uniting collective will and intellectual power towards finding new solutions.

Reforms to terms and conditions are certain must be tackled by employers, but if they are seen as simply a cost-cutting exercise by staff then they will be doomed to failure.

If agreement cannot be reached, HR professionals can assume that imposition will follow. Such a move would seriously damage the ongoing engagement of the workforce and we would likely see an increase in poor practice such as the recent debacle surrounding the awarding of the West coast rail franchise, which has now been overturned.

The Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA) recognises the need to reshape the fundamental contract between organisations and their workforces. Old ways of working and how this is rewarded will no longer be enough.

We need new and creative approaches such as reward strategies that recognise real contribution to real outcomes. Across the public sector there are many and varied examples of unified workforces working together to find ways of squaring increased demand and expectation with reducing resources. This works best where workforces are highly engaged and can see, and more importantly feel, that 'we are all in it together'.

Interestingly this sense of ownership does not come from a dividend payment. Instead it is about strong, brave and authentic leaders, the kind of leaders that are least likely to ride roughshod over workers' employment rights - partly because it would seriously challenge their value base but, more significantly, because these leaders understand such behaviour does not drive staff engagement. It does the opposite, negatively impacting on productivity and performance.

If we truly are 'all in it together' then let's use our collective energy and brain power to find shared sustainable solutions - solutions that will provide people with a clear picture of a brighter future, where 'relinquishing rights' or 'giving up entitlements' is no longer even relevant.

Let's 'rise to the occasion,' start to think anew and act anew in order to save our country - without compromising the values that have made us who we are.

Joanna Ruffle is regional chair of the East of England PPMA and head of HR and communications at Southend on Sea Borough Council.