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HR is trapped in a reversal of the old catch-22


<b>You cant shunt employees around like pawns anymore. They want to manage their own careers, says Richard Donkin</b>

Do you work in one of those companies where handling staff turnover is like playing a game of three-dimensional chess?

It used to be like that at my former employer. In fact, when I was recruited there was no immediate vacancy. There will be one by the time you turn up, I was assured by the head of HR, and he was right. I was interviewed for two separate jobs a few days later.

About 15 years ago, the regular circulation of staff at that time was part of company policy because there was a realistic belief that people grew stale doing one job for more than two or three years.But things have changed. Today there is much more external turnover, and handling the chessboard requires a dexterity that is beyond one manager. No wonder then that many of the biggest companies are taking career management seriously.

In the old days, your career was managed for you and, using the chess analogy again, it was easy to feel like a pawn. Now, after the re-engineering craze of the 1990s when we were all told that we could no longer count on a job for life, the message has been digested and understood. The priority is to look after number one. Your career belongs to you and no one else. The downside of these changing attitudes for employers is that they can no longer play the long game with staff.

Where once a company may have earmarked a few among its graduate intake as potential chief executives of the future, today the idea that anyone will hang around that long would seem absurd. Why should anyone stay anywhere for more than a year or two at the start of their career when they have been conditioned to avoid being perceived as part of the furniture?

The reality of self-managed careers means that people are perpetually looking at other possibilities, learning opportunities and ways of developing their interests into ways of making a living. As you, the HR manager, are contemplating a new role for Smithers, he is weighing up half a dozen options of what to do next, and staying with the company may not be one of them.

This means that HR managers are caught in a reversal of the old catch-22. In the book of that name, remember, the bomber pilots are asked to fly ever more missions. The only way to avoid doing so is to be certified as insane. Wanting to fly on a mission, however, is considered insane and a request to be grounded is viewed as perfectly sane, hence catch-22.

In the workplace it would seem like madness to make it easy for people to leave. But restricting their options is likely to drive them away sooner. It is a truism that the people you want to keep are those that could easily walk out of the door to go elsewhere.

Some companies have come to understand this and provide career consultancy for certain staff. Richard Chiumento, founder of outplacement and human resources company Chiumento, says that career management has become a big source of business emerging from the original outplacement consultancy.

When the company started nearly 20 years ago, outplacement was used mostly to resettle expatriate employees who were returning from lengthy overseas postings. As white-collar redundancies became more common during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the typical executive receiving outplacement was a man in his early to mid-50s. Today, the average age has fallen to the early 40s, there are more women among these executives, and people tend to be more qualified and confident about their prospects.

If companies are to accommodate changing attitudes they will need to be able to cut their employees a bit more slack than used to be the case. My nephew, for example, has just negotiated a three-month leave of absence from his banking employer to tour Australia and New Zealand with his girlfriend. Will he come back? There is every likelihood that he will and hell probably be a more rounded individual because of the experience.

The flexible labour market can only work successfully as a two-way street. Those who see it just as a convenience for the employer will never succeed in building committed, creative workforces. None of us wants to be shunted around like pieces on a board anymore. Those days ended in stalemate.


Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times