The Sports Direct report: Whitewash or encouraging news?

Actions promised in the report into Sports Direct's working practices were an important step, but more must be done

Following intense media coverage, and an appearance by founder Mike Ashley in front of the BIS Committee at the House of Commons, an independent report into the working practices at Sports Direct International has now been published.

Its key findings? That there were serious shortcomings in many of those working practices at its primary distribution warehouse in Shirebrook. Shortcomings for which the board has confirmed its regret and issued an apology.

So what of the report? Is it, as some press commentary has suggested, a whitewash that lets Ashley off the hook? Can a report authored by solicitors who have worked for Sports Direct before be truly unbiased? Or can you (as some have posited) all but hear Sports Direct’s marketing spiel coming through?

Some 45 pages detail the aforementioned shortcomings. Many of them are the sort of people-related policies that will make many HR professionals cringe.

One of the worst examples of poor people practice is the so-called ‘six strikes’ policy, applicable solely to agency workers. Commit one of a list of infractions and workers will be issued with a ‘stage’. Six of those and your contract is terminated. So devoid of sound judgement was the process that the form itself contained a list of 10 potential rule violations, ranging from lateness to dereliction of duty. Those issuing the stage merely had to put a tick against the worker’s particular transgression.

Such processes reduce the employment relationship to nothing more than forms and tick boxes. A complete absence of any human element or interaction.

The use of zero-hours contracts at Sports Direct has also made the headlines. Within its warehouse operation some 70% of the workforce are agency workers on zero-hours contracts. The question of why is left unanswered by the report. It is referred to simply as a matter for the company's business strategy that will be reviewed further in 2017. If we were to adopt a cynical approach we might consider that such a strategy isn’t just about flexibility but something else entirely. Perhaps it is about having a workforce that is ultimately disposable and largely without recourse or voice.

It would be naïve to treat this as an isolated case. The state of affairs at Sports Direct’s distribution centre is symptomatic of a labour market in which there are rights for some but not all; where justice is available, but at a price. Even when legal rights exist they are meaningless if those who find them infringed are unable to enforce them.

It's easy to demonise zero-hours contracts. But such contracts themselves are not the problem. It is – as in this particular example – their application that is the issue. Flexible contracts are likely to be abused in an environment where there are other abuses of employees and employment rights too.

We should take it as positive that Sports Direct is now making some changes to improve the situation of its most vulnerable workers. But would any of these changes have been made but for adverse media attention? We will never know. It is, however, clear that there is still much to be done, and it remains to be seen whether the changes detailed in the report go far enough. There is a great deal of reference to ‘ongoing reviews’ and ‘consideration’ of improvements rather than firm commitments.

So where was HR in this debacle? It is suggested in the report that the HR function could have done a better job. In particular, the report references an unhelpful demarcation between the Sports Direct HR team and those looking after agency staff, including a lack of communication between the two. Sports Direct claims that it is not for the business to dictate the terms and conditions of the agencies that supply it. But this simply isn’t good enough.

By way of tackling these specific limitations a welfare officer and a nurse are being recruited for the Shirebrook warehouse. While both roles may add value this just does not go far enough. What appears to have been missing is both the role and voice of a strategic HR function able to influence at board level, ensuring that both employees and agency workers are treated not only legally but also ethically and morally. That they are treated like humans, not just resources.

Gemma Dale is HR director at Tunstall Healthcare