Katie Hopkins: ‘HR needs to stop ticking boxes’

You will probably know Katie Hopkins as the controversial motormouth whose politically incorrect opinions on social issues have frequently put her in the media spotlight. But what does the former Apprentice contestant and business consultant think about HR and employees’ rights? In this exclusive interview, HR magazine finds out and gets a response from HR directors.

By her own admission, Katie Hopkins has been “a bit busy lately”. The former Apprentice finalist turned ‘social commentator’ was last year called “the most hated woman in Britain” after arguing on daytime TV that children with names such as Tyler and Chardonnay are destined for failure, and that it’s hard to love ginger babies. The less polite titles bestowed on her have included “faux-posh imbecile”, “insufferable snob” and “low-life superbitch”.

Indeed, on the very day HR magazine confirmed this interview, she was sticking to her shock tactics. This Morning presenter Philip Schofield nearly had to prise apart Hopkins and co-presenter Holly Willoughby as the strait-laced guest explained that behind every fat child is a “fat parent”.

Sensationalism like this undoubtedly gives the 38-year-old eye-catching headlines, and you clearly sense she covets the notoriety. But there is a string to Hopkins’ bow that is less likely to attract the attention of the redtops – her concern about the changing nature of work, women’s issues in the workplace and employment law, as well as HR’s role as the facilitator – but often, she argues, blocker – of progress. 

Always hire the best

Search for her online and you will not find many references to her passionately defending the need for employers to shun gender or ethnic diversity targets and hire the very best talent regardless (as she did on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live), or her admonishing of workplace bullying on Sky News – just hours before this interview. She has just hot-footed it from there to meet HR magazine in Paddington, suitcase in tow.

“I use this phrase, ‘I tell it like it is’,” she says while thumbing through scraps of paper on which she has jotted notes. Perhaps it’s a subtle visual cue that this will be a prepared, thoughtful conversation and definitely not a rant. “People say I must be a parody,” she adds. “But I reflect the common sentiment, and only really say what most people are thinking anyway. It’s why I’m able to say I believe many in HR are unwilling participants in a lot of what they have to do. The problem is, they can’t speak out against these same processes, because they already struggle to explain their value at the board level.”

It’s strong stuff, but Hopkins says she sees the evidence of it nearly every day at the firms for which she consults. “It’s a particular bugbear in recruitment,” she explains. “HR is required to push a particular shortlist of candidates who tick diversity and equality boxes. The wording of job ads has already been changed to hit equality metrics, so before HR has even seen anyone, the process has been skewed two or three times.”

Stamp out quotas

Passive compliance in this process is tantamount, she asserts, to a failure of HR to counsel CEOs into doing what is in their best interests – which she believes is to hire great people, no matter who they are. “Unless you only hire top performers, it’s a futile exercise,” she says. “Businesses care about shareholders, and to think their role is to engineer a more socially diverse working atmosphere just for the sake of it is naïve. 

“All women and ethnic minorities will tell you they don’t want to be hired if they have any suspicion it’s for target reasons. That would be hugely patronising. But if HR allows this to continue, it will simply move into the domain of providing special treatment to people. If HR has a calling right now, it’s to be brilliantly robust, to say no to quotas, to weed out the wheat from the chaff, and be great at doing interviews. It’s not to provide special treatment.”

Alert to accusations that she simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Hopkins is blunt: “I haven’t just sat at home since The Apprentice; I see business from the inside.” She seems particularly annoyed that her call to HR isn’t being answered. “I get viscerally angry when I see HR invest in yet more process to get the wrong people, because that then means they need even more HR people to do it.”

From the standpoint of her own upbringing and career – she returned to work three weeks after having each of her three children – it is possible to see why HR’s methods infuriate her. “My parents were very work-ethic-oriented,” she recalls, speaking in particularly fond terms of her father, an electrical engineer who would often not be home because he was out fixing power lines. “They taught me to be the best you are, and the example I want to set my daughter is that if she’s the best she is, she’ll get where she wants to be on merit, not quotas.”  

Taking on the 'Mumsnet brigade'

Certainly, among one group in particular – the “Mumsnet brigade”, as Hopkins call them – the fact that she appears to have swapped parenting for a career is seen as some kind of a betrayal. But her view on this couldn’t be more different. “While the largest crime seems to be speaking out against the sisterhood, I think there’s a weird irony in play,” she observes. “HR is a hugely female-dominated sector, and they will all say we need to encourage women to reach the top, but then as soon as their own staff, or their organisation’s staff, have babies, HR’s processes again kick in and pretty much say that unless you have nearly a year off, you’re a bad mother.”

Hopkins admits to being influenced by her nine years working in Manhattan, where new mothers, entitled to statutory six months of unpaid leave, “Google-calendared their birthing dates” so their employers knew when to expect their return. “America is so much more can-do; there’s much less of HR always being in the periphery, interfering. People there just get on,” she says. 

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with HR being honest to women, saying ‘make a choice’ between being a mother or a careerist – whatever you decide, it’s OK, and if you want to come back, we’ll support you. But workplaces need to accept that trying to accommodate both lifestyles cannot work. Being family-friendlier won’t stop, of course, because that’s what’s in vogue, but for SMEs it’s crippling not knowing if, or when, talent will return. At the moment, I feel HR seems to reinforce the message that employees have all the rights.”

Her view that the image of the high-performing mother is nothing but an illusion propped up by HR is perhaps her most controversial yet. And some would highlight an apparent hypocrisy here. After all, didn’t Hopkins pull out of The Apprentice final because she couldn’t get childcare? Wasn’t she, too, trying – albeit failing – to ‘have it all’? “That was what the BBC came up with to explain it,” she says coolly. “There was six months between initial filming and the final, and I simply realised I didn’t want the job. It was turned into a childcare issue to be convenient, but that wasn’t so.”

Talent lost to the economy by women who choose motherhood over work is the reality UK plc should accept, she says, because “job shares are hugely inefficient – it’s just duplication”. So, what would Hopkins do if she were in charge of HR law for the day? “I would review all employment law,” she says quickly, adding: “For every one law that benefits the employee, I would put something else in that also benefits the employer. I’d see what we can adapt from the US model and bring it here. The key is having a framework.”

HR should focus on efficiency

And her message to HR? “I’m not silly,” she laughs. “The tide is probably against me; I think there will be hiring quotas, and that will be a sad day. But a part of me still believes employers are fed up with being too PC – and that it’s HR’s chance to lead the change.”

For all her detractors, Hopkins can talk sense. She may well say some things many HR professionals privately think but can’t actually say out loud. Her view, though, is why not say it? “If you only ever hire the best person, you’ll always be right,” she says of the recruitment process. “But until HR has been inside the business for a least 10 years, it won’t have the experience it needs to do what it knows is right.”

At times she forgets herself and returns to ‘ITV Katie’ mode. “They [HR] like being an island, all on their own, gossiping and munching carrot cake!” she exclaims, recalling a company she visited where HR had changed its door codes to separate the department from the rest of the building. But, on the whole, the genuine, business-focused Hopkins comes over in spades. 

“I’m pro-HR,” she clarifies, “but somehow it needs to be reset as a tool for massive efficiency. That way the board will go straight to HR and it won’t be a case of them having to get the board on their side.

“There are two types of HR director – those on the board, and those who aren’t. Those who have financial targets, who modernise the workforce and make things happen; that’s the HR I love. Just don’t get me started on the others. These are the inhibitors, the restrictors – and I think that says it all.”  

HR leaders respond to Katie's comments

Peta Fry, HR director of Monahans, on maternity leave:

“I had only three months’ maternity leave, but I wouldn’t enforce that. Women can come back after two weeks if that’s what they want, but I say ‘do it, but don’t shout about it’. People have to look at their family and do what’s best for them. There’s a growing movement saying shared paternity is anti-motherhood, but HR is caught in a tough place. Until there is a change in legislation, HR is there to advise against the risk of not taking the full maternity entitlement.”

John Stewart, HR director on Scottish & Southern Energy, on diversity:

“Our policy is to hire the best for the job; with the caveat that, if we didn’t have a candidate list that was diverse, we should ask why. Our preference is ‘pipeline programmes’. These look at the ratios of women and ethnic groups moving up, but in the sense of understanding why people make certain choices. All the research seems to point towards the need for having positive role models, but if role models are not there on merit, it puts the whole agenda backwards.

In our sector, the bulk of the supply of candidates is men, and the chances of getting a female applicant is just harder. What we’re doing, however, is trying to focus on the role types where there should be equal numbers of applicants.”

Jo Ward, head of resourcing and talent at Talk Talk, on workplace felxibility:

“Organisations don’t bend over backwards to allow staff to work flexibly. I don’t agree firms shouldn’t and can’t accommodate our changing lives. It is simply an issue of trust. Problems materialise when there is not a culture set from the top, and that’s less to do with how HR is run. The notion that employees need to be seen – presenteeism – is old hat. The next generation wants to work differently, and firms need to cater to that, as much as their culture allows it. Technology gives people choices about the way they work and opens more doors than it closes. That’s the role HR can play.”