Picture the scene: I was chatting with my nephew, a newly inducted graduate trainee in a global engineering company.
‘I am not happy with the plans for my next placement’, he says.
‘Have you discussed this with HR?’ I ask.
‘Oh I don’t bother with HR, they’re useless.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘I’m not sure; it’s just what everyone says!’
I was shocked by this belief, this ‘meme’, that seemed to be floating around his company like a ghost. A moment’s thoughtful reflection and he’s bright enough to see through it, yet it seems to be a belief as pervasive as it is pernicious to the unreflective.
How would it be to disrupt this story about HR? Whilst there are loads of examples of excellent HR practice, what would it take to enhance its reputation as a profession; to create a new meme? This would be a more positive story, that HR is a vital source of practical solace and supportive good counsel; a useful, critical friend in hard times. How could we spread the view that this valuable and valued resource enhances the capacity of people like my nephew and their managers and leaders to solve their own problems? This is the vision of an initiative which has been developed by Surrey County Council, a UK local government body with whom we are working in partnership. The initiative is called ‘Restorative HR’.
The origins of Restorative HR (or RHR) for Surrey County Council is in the thinking behind youth justice. Their youth service’s practice of Restorative Justice was proving remarkably successful, reducing the number of formal cases going in front of the courts by 60%. Their simple yet brilliant idea was: how could we export this approach into other activities within the Council, such as HR? The essence of the practice is the same. When faced with a problem, rather than hiding behind the formal, policy-driven route, how would it be to move towards the difficult conversations and solve the issue before it went to lengthy (and often costly and draining) due process? ‘Confront the difficult whilst it is still easy’ as the 2500 year old Chinese book of changes ‘Tao Te Ching’ says.
What this looks like in practice, and the development process we at Mayvin have created for it, is not rocket science. It is about an everyday craft, using a series of tools and skills you might recognise, springing from different roots in organisational and personal development, as well as restorative justice and conflict resolution. We have added our own, unique twist: a post-graduate accreditation process, to give the experience some containment and provide these practitioners, with a greater sense of confidence and credibility in their RHR work.
Surrey County Council has a growing canon of stories about good practice flowing from this approach:
- Tricky issues such as workplace alcoholism, bullying and other no go areas are being more sympathetically faced
- Persistent underperforming is being tackled both with more compassion and more assertively
- People are able to leave the organisation or change roles with dignity
- Engagement and motivation are on the up
- Fewer policies are being invoked so that people are freed up to use their initiative
- Formal grievances are down
- Beyond the everyday practices, RHR points to a change of culture and mindset, both within HR and in the wider organisation. Senior management have to be ready to back people going down the restorative route which inevitably involved some risk. It takes some guts to step away from the policy and towards the human side of the issue; leaders have to be prepared to model this too.
Within Mayvin, we believe that RHR represents a big opportunity to disrupt the story about HR, helping it become a partner of the business with a reputation it deserves. It won’t solve all ills, and ultimately people can’t be made to take the restorative route. But as we often say to our RHR practitioners, if you don’t try, you will never know if there was a better way.
By James Traeger
Martin Saville continues…
A couple of weeks ago I was telling the story of our work on ‘Restorative HR’ (RHR) to my friend Catherine Howe. She had recently been appointed to a senior position in Capita with a brief to drive innovation by championing ‘Disruptive Technologies’ within the organisation. It struck us that RHR was just such a ‘Disruptive Technology’ for HR. By shifting the emphasis from formal policies to brave conversations when things get difficult between people, RHR has the potential to fundamentally shift the way in which HR does what it does.
What might be the broader impact of this?
- As James Traeger shares above, we are already seeing better outcomes for individuals created through an approach that has more dignity, humanity and authenticity.
- This has implications for HR practitioners, managers and leaders and more broadly for organisational culture.
- It presents a way to enable organisations to ‘live their values, not laminate them’.
- Where the unions are embracing RHR it is forging a new and different partnership between the unions and the organisations whose employees they represent
- Grievances are coming down and the expectation is for days lost to absence to do likewise.
- It offers the potential for HR’s case load to reduce and to foster a less dependent relationship between HR and the organisation.
In straitened times for the public sector, maybe RHR offers creative possibilities for genuinely doing more with less? James rightly warns about looking to RHR as a panacea to cure all ills. But consider that for our local authority client, Restorative Justice produced a 60% reduction in cases going through the youth courts. What could Restorative HR help organisations save by enabling them to have the right ‘difficult’ internal conversations?