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Where’s HR’s helping hand?

When the tables turn and HR finds itself on the receiving end of an employment dispute, is there case for a union? Cath Everett reports.

The actions of HR professionals are increasingly coming under the spotlight. For example, more and more HR leaders now sit at the top table, which has upped the function’s profile.

The value offered by the profession has also become more widely recognised, especially since the pandemic, raising expectations of it at the same time.

But HR is also under more pressure than ever.

According to a recent survey by specialist recruitment consultancy Wade Macdonald, many teams are finding employee relations issues, including grievances, are taking up increasing amounts of time, particularly if taking the stand becomes necessary to defend their employer or act as an expert witness.

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Not all this enhanced visibility has been entirely positive. For instance, in February, a constructive dismissal case hit headlines concerning a Weetabix employee who had resigned twice over his boss’s management style.

Head of HR Stuart Benham was accused of poor administration in handling the complainant’s referral to an occupational health specialist. He was also said to be confused, inconsistent and not credible in relation to the evidence he gave.

Another high-profile incident a month later involved Clare Davies, head of HR at the Metropolitan Police.

Commissioner Mark Rowley publicly defended her after whistleblowers claimed she was ‘out of her depth’ and linked to multiple failings at the force.

Both cases raise the question of where HR professionals can go if they need someone to represent their interests should potential issues over their personal conduct come to light.

By extension, a further question is also raised over whether the time has now come for the profession to have its own trade union. The consensus around the latter point, however, appears to be a definitive ‘no’.

According to Mark Grimley, chief people and transformation officer at the Government of Jersey: “There’s no need for a dedicated union. A union’s role is about representation and defence, so I don’t see why existing, more general unions can’t do the job.”

Although most public sector bodies deal with between one and three such organisations, Grimley works with 12 and, unusually for the profession, is unionised himself.

“Many professionals find it strange that their HR colleagues don’t generally belong to one, but HR professionals often feel there would be a conflict of interest if a union represented both them and employees,” he says.

“I belong to a union as I feel it’s important to have the same rights as everyone else, but it’s a separate one and isn’t recognised for collective bargaining purposes – it would only come in if there was a problem.”

Another reason behind his scepticism over the need for a dedicated union is the belief that the HR sector is now too diverse to offer blanket protection for roles ranging from learning and development to global mobility.

Moreover, other functions, such as marketing or finance, do not have their own unions either. If HR were to go down this route, he says it could start a trend that would only generate more organisational complexity with little additional benefit.

Claire Williams, chief people officer at software provider Ciphr, who is not a member of union, takes a similar view.

Working in unionised environments is quite tough for HR professionals and slows the pace at which they can implement change, so many people don’t have positive associations as they’re usually on the other side of the table,” she says.

“Legislation means employers can’t treat someone unfairly for being in a union, but many haven’t had positive experiences either, so there could be a question mark over why you required union membership anyway.”

If such representation is desired, Williams, like Grimley, believes that membership of a general union, such as Unison or the GMB, would suffice.

If requiring legal advice personally though, she would turn to either the Citizens Advice Bureau or the CIPD.

As HR’s sole professional association, the CIPD offers many similar services to a union, Williams says. These include confidential helplines, training and professional networking opportunities.

A further option would be to consult with peers via other networking channels. But in terms of direct representation, Williams would choose to take on a lawyer.

Another less well-known possibility, meanwhile, is to obtain pay-as-you-go support from the HR and Workers Trade Union. Set up three years ago by former HR director Aime Ayrehart, its aim is to represent individuals in roles that have not been traditionally unionised, such as CEOs and HR leaders.

This means that if trouble strikes, people can access help without having to pay the usual minimum subscription to be eligible to access services.

As to the circumstances in which HR professionals are most likely to seek help, there are three key scenarios, says Ayrehart. The first is if they wish to raise a grievance but feel it would be beneficial to have support through the process.

The second is if they find themselves in trouble, such as demotion, suspension or redundancy. The third is if they feel a second opinion would be useful.

“It’s about wanting to discuss it as people wonder if they’re being over-sensitive and don’t know who to talk to,” Ayrehart says. “If you’ve been suspended, you’re not going to tell your mates as shame is a big thing. Even if you’ve messed up, everyone deserves a fair hearing.”

While HR professionals may be familiar with employment law, internal policies and procedures, the added personal pressure, she says, can make it difficult for them to process even obvious information logically or represent themselves effectively as emotions get in the way.

But Ayrehart is also not convinced there is significant demand for a dedicated HR union. “I’d agree a dedicated union isn’t what’s needed, but I do think everyone can benefit from help from time to time.”

"I do think everyone can benefit from help from time to time"

What is needed, however, believes Williams, is a tighter focus on professional standards. At present there is no formal way for individuals to prove their competence in HR.

Qualifications, accreditation and/or membership of a professional body are required for members of regulated professions, such as doctors and lawyers, to practise. But the same is not true of HR.

This situation makes it difficult for employers to know if they are getting value for money as there is no accepted way to validate skills and expertise within the profession’s growing number of specialisms.

It’s about professionalising the industry,” says Williams. “There’s definitely more that could be done to raise credibility, which would both protect HR professionals and their employers and make the profession slightly more robust as it becomes subject to higher expectations and requirements.”

Peter Cheese, the CIPD’s chief executive, acknowledges that many practitioners are not either qualified or members of the professional body.

This is at a time when HR is increasingly being seen as a central business function and organisational culture, recruitment and retention are viewed as strategic business imperatives.

But he also points out that, while it is a core principle of the CIPD to promote both professional development and ethics, it has neither the legal nor the statutory powers to mandate people to adhere to them.

Still, he says business needs to have confidence in HR. “There’s a range of tools and qualifications we promote under the banner of professionalisation,” he says.

“As part of this, we’re working directly with many organisations to help them bring more people into professional membership so we can assess their skills against our standards.”

The fact the CIPD is not a regulatory body also means it has no legal enforcement powers in relation to professional conduct either. Therefore, unlike regulated professions, HR practitioners cannot be struck off the register in cases of malpractice, although members are subject to its Code of Conduct and Ethics. So, they can be sanctioned and potentially excluded from the organisation, if deemed necessary, but not prohibited for practising.

Cheese asks: “To accelerate change, do you need to mandate? I think we’re some way from that, but who knows if we’ll see more regulation for HR.”

This article was first published in the May/June 2023 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.