People should be HR’s priority, not policy

HR leaders should look to do the right thing for the people in their organisation even if it goes against existing procedures, the audience of the CIPD ACE 2022 was told yesterday (9 November).

When it comes to making difficult decisions, HR teams often rely on existing policies to guide them on the best course of action.

Speaking at CIPD ACE 2022, Sally Austin, chief people officer at Wincanton, said HR leaders should not be afraid to rely on their gut instincts when it comes to making decisions in the interest of the people in the organisation.

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She said: "The art of great HR is finding that balance. Investors and shareholders are predominantly interested in financial performance, but they’re starting to ask more questions about engagement and attrition, so the role of HR is vital. It’s an absolute skill to find that balance.

"There’s already so much policy and we can all read the books, but it comes down fundamentally to 'what’s the right thing to do? What feels like the right thing to do?' If a policy is pushing you one way, it can often feel not right and almost as if like the tail is wagging the dog.

"It comes down to that human behaviour and judgement, which is why skilled HR professionals are so key."

Vicky Wallis, chief people officer at Direct Line Insurance Group, highlighted the pressure created when HR teams are pulled in different directions between the organisation and its people.

She said: "We have to sit in the middle. It’s not always an easy place to sit as it can be a bit of a seesaw between company and colleague. As a profession we do a really good job of managing that balance. During Covid the seesaw tipped more towards the colleague and we stepped more into colleagues’ lives and supported them really heavily.

"Going through a downturn it might feel like we’re tipping more towards the company in terms of driving what we need to drive. That puts a lot of pressure on HR functions but I think we know that’s part of the deal in terms of what we do. What we need to do is make sure the colleagues in HR see the purpose of their organisation, see their individual purpose in driving that. It’s not an easy balance to achieve."

Andy Dodman, chief HR officer at Leeds City Council, said it is possible for HR to serve both the people and the business.

He said: "Don’t tell me what the policy says, tell me what you think – what’s your judgement on that issue? I’m not very interested in policy and procedures, which sounds peculiar for a HR practitioner but it's not.

"I don’t think it's one or the other – you can have both. If you put a lot of effort into the care and compassion into your workforce, but at the same time delivering your business goals. I don’t think you can just pick one. It’s tricky, but I think you just have to do both and find a way through."