It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it ...From some recent posts, you might think we were either consistently sceptical about the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) or picking on them for some social media kudos. We do understand the merits of keeping our fingers on the zeitgeist and cutting a certain profile, even if we haven’t necessarily mastered it (a quick ‘back of a calculator’ moment indicates we’re 9,250 hours short of the mythically required 10,000 hours), so today we are going to use the ‘f’ word in the opening paragraph. Yes, fairness. And we’re going to applaud John Philpott, CIPD’s Chief Economist. You might want to sit down.

At CIPD’s Annual Conference in Manchester, delegates heard employment minister Chris Grayling calling for employers – and their HR functions – to support the government in providing ‘good work’ and to support the Government’s Work Programme. (As you would imagine, there’s been commentary: here and here, for example.)

As spending cuts impact, there will equally be a lot of coverage of the numbers – not just of the number of unemployed, but the number of vacancies and opportunities. (Not a subject that John Philpott has shied away from: his comments have generated headlines of their own.) The temptation to argue that any work will be ‘nice work for those that can get it’ will be strong, and a range of political and economic arguments will be deployed to fuel the arguments. Which was why it was refreshing to see John Philpott remind us that quantity isn’t everything and that work needs to have a qualitative element too.

To quote from an article at the People Management website:

CIPD chief economist John Philpott, who has been a vocal critic of the spending cuts, said that one main role that employers could play to was to offer “good work” and engagement, and he wanted to see the government talk about this aspect more. “The quality of management is not really part of the public policy conversation at the moment – one of the challenges for the coalition is to raise it up the agenda,” he said.

And he added: “Engagement’s got to come first. You can’t say – we’re coming for your job, we’re coming for your pay and pensions, and by the way if you are unemployed then you are a scrounger and we are coming for your benefits. That’s no way to approach engagement. It’s akin to somebody mugging you and expecting to shake your hand afterwards,” he said.

Times change, of course, but pervading attitudes to and perceptions of work are informative. I’m not sure if Philpott’s remark about mugging was a deliberate subtle reference to David Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ incident, but I was left pondering Philip Larkin’s poems Toads and Toads Revisited (follow the links to read them, along with readers’ comments). Dating to 1954 and 1962 respectively, these are subtle and ambiguous pieces of writing where the heavy “toad” of work has a companion – a lack of courage. If work is better than not working by the time of the second poem, neither is it the subject of a hymn of joy. The sense of purposelessness of not working rings familiar down the decades, but “Give me your arm, old toad; Help me down Cemetery Road” hardly resounds with the joy and passion of engagement. A 42 year old man who has progressed to the post of University Librarian should, you would hope, be a little more joyous about … well, anything frankly, but work at least (as the later poem indicates work is his chosen companion).

We’ll never know if retirement might have brought a change of heart: Larkin finally travelled down Cemetery Road at the age of 63. Although his headstone, we might notice, describes him as ‘Writer’ rather than ‘Librarian’. But I hope I’m not the only that feels a little sad that the 25th anniversary of his death was marked not only by the positioning of 65 giant fibreglass toads around Hull (where he lived, worked and died), but by an article in The Telegraph citing “a scandalous misuse of taxpayers’ money”.

Larkin’s Times obituary described his work as a ‘writer’ as ‘restrained to the point of reticence’. In the here and now, one reason for our wish to offer John Philpott a round of applause is his unwillingness to follow suit. Two weeks ago, he celebrated an anniversary of his own in his blog – ten years spent as CIPD’s Chief Economist. He writes with a degree of pride in helping CIPD to gain “a more influential voice in debate about economic and policy matters relating to work and the workplace”. Recognising that CIPD does not have what he calls the political clout of the TUC or CBI, he understands that thought, analysis and the willingness to “be bold, independent and willing to say what you deem to be right even if that at times makes you unpopular” are ways in which a voice can find ways of making itself heard.

Reading the piece – which provides an important commentary of the conundrum of HR’s position – reminded me strongly of two other issues. The first is the argument that CIPD itself supports that HR will gain or retain its place at the mythical top table (itself subject of a blog post by Jane Sullivan at The Work Foundation) by learning to speak in the (largely fiscal) language of those who already have seats. Although he doesn’t express his subsequent experiences in terms of a warning, the blog post makes it clear that merely speaking out won’t mean HR’s viewpoint is taken on board. Far from it:

What I find disappointing, however, is the attitude of those who for whatever reason challenge the CIPD’s right to comment on this matter. And even more disappointing is critique delivered in the form of personal attack. On Tuesday, almost as soon as the CIPD published its latest view on the possible employment effects of the austerity drive, the news wires were buzzing with a warning from the Institute of Directors that the CIPD was harming economic confidence and that our statements risked tipping the economy back into recession. If this were true the CIPD would clearly have become more powerful than I could ever dream of.

The second is echoed in Philpott’s review of a book, Nick Isles’ “The Good Work Guide”, in which he comments as follows:

Good work is…a counter-cultural notion – which makes this book so important, especially for a post credit crunch era in which societies are looking for ways of combining the dynamic power of capitalism with economic, human and environmental sustainability. The operation of simple cost based business models which treat workers as a disposable commodity remain widespread, even in the richest of developed economies. With so much to be done to promote and foster good work Isles’s book is thus a practical call to arms – showing the road that needs to be travelled and illuminating the path.”

It seems to me that if HR can follow John Philpott’s lead and speak out – in the language of the debate – about the importance of ‘good work’ and ‘engagement’ and the quality of the experience of work, HR can make more visible its potential as a function that isn’t just there to sweep up the messy human factors that wind up on the workshop floor after decisions are made elsewhere. Work, organisations and society are changing, and the relationships between them need to be reviewed.

It’s a point made by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her own blog post, Jobs 2.0: Nice Work If You Can Get It. ‘Jobs 2.0’ is shorthand for portfolio working, and our individual patchwork quilts of consultancy and part-time work – or, as she puts it, “not exactly jobs in the classic sense”. And as we’re all seeing in every aspect of life, hard times have ripple effects. Her following words struck me as another indication of the importance of HR finding the boldness to step up to the plate and speak out:

Free Agent Nation, as Daniel Pink called it, is a grand land of liberation in good times — nice work if you can get it. But a Jobs 2.0 economy becomes a sad place of stress and economic insecurity in bad times. Uncertain earnings. No benefits. High health insurance costs and retirement on your own. A scramble to find projects. Individuals have been cast adrift before institutions have caught up with the life preservers. Turning Jobs 2.0 into nice work requires an underlying support system […]

I momentarily found myself thinking of HMS Titanic, where an iceberg revealed not only an unforeseen flaw in the structure of the great vessel but went on to show that there too few lifeboats (even though their quantity exceeded the legal minimum of the day). Even with more, the crew could probably not have launched enough of them in time. Maybe the Titanic is too sensational a metaphor, but I guess those that were lucky enough to live to tell the tale don’t speak in terms of the quality of the experience.

Yet odious comparisons do get made when the HR world speaks out. Philpott writes about his experience as a CIPD representative to an enquiry into the Comprehensive Spending Review:

[…] I’ve never before been the target of a personal attack on my professional and analytical capability. Whatever the merit in challenging me on the basis of my estimates, and I perfectly well expected this, some of the committee members seemed to be out to destroy my credibility as a public commentator. One said my job estimates were nonsense and less credible than those of a ‘dead octopus’ (a jibe in reference to the recently deceased Paul the octopus of World Cup fame, whom I did in response point out was accurate in his forecasts when still alive and happy in his tank).

As far as I’m aware, Philpott is healthy and relatively young, and his comment makes me suspect that he might find parks a more joyous experience than Philip Larkin did even if he clearly does value the role of work. But I’d hope that, in many years time, the HR profession will have found the courage and the occasions on which to raise its voice, win arguments for their role in creating that underlying support system for Jobs 2.0 and gained the ears of those that mock. Statues in the park would be too much to expect, but Philpott’s example deserves a better memorial that 65 giant dead fibreglass octopi in tanks.

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