Black Lives Matter points towards frameworks for ethical practice in HR

HR is frequently viewed as a nuisance, yet to meaningfully address inequality a whole institution approach is required, says Simon Stone.

The Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates how universities continue to get caught out on their approach to diversity and how to react to events.

This fact reveals a more fundamental issue, and it is worth examining this through the lens of strategic human resource management, the purpose of which is to ensure that organisations have talented and motivated people who are adaptable to change.

The roots of the HR profession

Human resources within higher education, along with other professional services, (possibly with the exception of finance), is often viewed as a back-office function and an overhead. One of the many transformations required in the sector is to change the paradigm from prioritising the proficiency of the academy to the excellence of service delivery, moving from an institution to an organisational mindset and one that is centred on people, both staff and students, understanding that employee satisfaction is a prerequisite for producing student satisfaction.

In my view, regardless of what they are called, most universities still practice traditional and functional personnel, not strategic HR. This is for several reasons. Without going through too much history, the HR professions’ roots were in administration and welfare, and then, in the seventies, following a big increase in employment legislation, the “personnel function” took on the role of the specialist advisor, ensuring that managers do not violate the law and that cases did not end up in industrial tribunals.

Following the wide-scale adoption since 1995 of what is known as the Ulrich model – encompassing administration, partnering and expert services, the profession widened to include organisational development and psychology, which was then practised through Human Resource Management (HRM), and/or Organisational Development (OD) or a blend of both.

However, in practice, and certainly within higher education, what institutions get may depend, in part at least, on the knowledge or preference of a particular HR director, rather than a genuine strategic partner helping to drive the organisation forward.

The leadership model in HE is primarily based around academic, not organisational leadership. Consequently, the focus of HR is on the core activities of recruitment, learning & development, employee relations (including casework), and pension/payroll administration. While it behoves HR to get this “core” right, several of these activities can be streamlined. Moreover, with the advent of artificial intelligence, many of them may soon become automated.

What HR should be doing as part of the leadership team, is constantly scanning the external environment ensuring the organisation has the capability and capacity, through its people, to adapt as necessary to change.

With everything the sector has been through and is now facing, this is required more than ever. The prime value proposition of HR management, therefore, should be on leadership, talent management, and development and this should be seen as part of the strategic architecture, not just a functional or professional activity. Championing, advising and supporting an appropriate and adaptive culture must become central to the purpose of human resources, and I would argue, one built on ethical values.

However, having worked in seven different HE HR teams and spoken to the same number of vice chancellors about their own HR teams, I was left with the strong impression that some regard HR as, at best, a necessary nuisance.

Indeed, some actively wish to reduce the influence of HR and pursue an agenda of relegating the function into traditional personnel. Some more enlightened universities are appointing people directors while others bury the activity under chief operating officers whose span of control resembles all trades rather than mastery.

The other is more nuanced. Given the role, HR has in organisational design and restructuring, and in recent years redundancy, HR is often seen as part of the neoliberal attempt to commercialise and commodify education through the adoption of managerialism.

Perhaps a convenient scapegoat for some academics, including some in leadership positions, to hide behind, but also an issue of how HR presents itself to the organisation, or not, as too often preferring to operate from behind a computer screen. Academia needs to adjust to new realities but HR equally needs to properly understand academia and academics.

So, HR is not blameless and yes, needs to up its game, including getting out of functional silos and actually working with the academic community. Recent events provide a good example of why and how HR needs to change.

Adopting an ethical HR framework

Black Lives Matter! And it matters if some lives are more unequal than others. The HR profession cannot take responsibility for the society in which it operates, but it can be in the vanguard for change. It is almost breathtakingly disgraceful that fifty years after equality legislation was passed, we still discuss gender and race pay gaps.

It is ingrained in the British psyche that improvements and changes come incrementally and via the application of standards. We are replete with models, laws, policies, and procedures and narratives extolling commitments to equal opportunities. Yet scratch the surface of any large UK company – public as well as private – and discrimination and unconscious bias is lurking beneath the surface.

Whilst good may come through educating people to be aware of bias, it actually requires a fundamental shift in attitudes and behaviours. You cannot process yourself to equality – it must form part of your belief system. No longer can anyone be a silent witness to discrimination or worse, blind to it.

It is not acceptable to claim, as many do, that gender and pay gaps are caused by the fact that the lower grades are disproportionately female and/or people from ethnic backgrounds, and that this distorts the data. the very fact that the organisational pyramid changes colour and gender the higher you climb is itself evidence of ingrained inequality at the institutional level.

It is surely incumbent on the leadership, supported by HR, to address this issue. To be fair, many leaders are not overtly sexist or racist and many genuinely wish to promote “equality of opportunity” but far too many do not have the faintest idea what this might entail.

Talking of the HR profession, how is it that there are more women than men in HR yet more HR directors are men than women, and even fewer, male or female, are from ethnic minority backgrounds? HR cannot credibly advise clients on these issues without getting their own house in order.

Recently an institution, that shall be nameless, was rightly castigated on social media for using a wishy-washy phrase about how they represented diversity, with students coming from all over the world. To be fair they later apologised but the reaction seemed to take the leadership by surprise – and that is because they failed to see what is the reality of the lived experience of many of its staff and students.

Higher education would make a good case study. The sector tacitly supports equality and many institutions are attempting to gain Athena Swan and – albeit somewhat fewer – Race Equality charter marks.

Most vice-chancellors and their senior teams aspire to achieve these, yet their organisations consistently fail. The reasons are deep-seated and cultural. But even a cursory analysis of gender and ethnicity data exposes the issue immediately. The higher up the organisation you go the whiter, and more male it becomes.

And that is not just professional staff. Look at any academic cadre, such as professors and the same pattern exists (and I believe will continue so long as the senior teams are dominated by academics). A model that was designed in and for “privilege” is not fit for purpose in today’s world, and the system, as well as the structures, need to change.

Some progress has been made with the more progressive universities looking at new pathways to promotions that give equal weight to education and professional practice as research. In theory, at least- but the evidence to date is less positive. Perhaps it is too early to tell. However, the appeal to “wait just a little longer” might ring a little hollow in the ears of those who have waited for many years, if not generations.

A recipe for institutional change

Language, titles, organisation and committee structures, reward, and promotion promotional practices all entrench cultural norms and if the culture is to change then the systems and structures that support them also need to change.

While each organisation will have specific issues to address, by way of illustration they might include a commitment, within a fixed timeframe to:

  • Have a truly representative organisation at all levels. That does not require blunt instruments such as affirmative action. They too discriminate. It requires organisations to identify barriers to advancement for BAME and other disadvantaged groups and to remove them.
  • Eliminate all gender and race pay gaps within two years.
  • Introduce coaching and mentoring schemes for all disadvantaged groups, where appropriate
  • Embed cultural awareness and equality in all learning and development activities, and make the evidence of understanding and advancing equality and diversity an essential requirement in a promotion.
  • Create BAME and gender-specific leadership opportunities and programmes
  • Research causes of poor attainment such as awards of professorships or barriers to promotion
  • Publish all gender and race-related metrics

All this is not enough. The only way to understand the other is to walk in their shoes. Or at least go for a coffee and engage them in a conversation. This should happen throughout all organisations based on a diagonal slice, starting with the VC and others in leadership positions, meeting the most junior staff.

Other opportunities for both formal and informal meetings should be designed into the normal ways of working, including in quality improvement and task and finish improvement teams. Not everything requires the same group of senior white men (and the occasional woman) to fix everything. And Covid must not become an excuse why this cannot happen.

There are many other ways and means to develop equality strategies and actions based on real engagement. Do not just develop central top-down solutions. Use the creative talents of all employees and tackle this important issue head-on. The point is that equality will never be achieved through good intentions alone – it requires planned interventions for systemic change, visible and role modelling leadership, and to be given the right strategic priority.

Here then is where good leadership supported by ethical HR must make a difference. Not just with policies and procedures, KPIs and targets but through new methods and ways of working. Link senior pay to achieving equality through cultural change and it just might happen. There is no better time to start than the present.

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