politics

As ballot papers drop through the letterboxes of Labour members throughout the country, Vista’s Darren Maw discusses the implications the leadership contest is having on HR.

Two months ago, a huge political event caused debate around employment laws and the EU’s influence on them. In the politically tumultuous weeks that followed the referendum, a new campaign has cast worker’s rights back into the spotlight. The Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is a battle for the support of the left-wing and trade unions, with much of the campaigning focused on bolstering employee and trade union rights.

The vote to leave the EU should not be used as a reason to increase already advanced employment laws, of course Parliament can continue, even post Brexit, to keep the current legislative framework.  However, Corbyn and Smith are aiming to appeal to the increasingly far left bias of Labour’s membership base by increasing the scope of workers rights. Employment law has to balance competing interests and be wary of policies created purely to win an election on ideals, without first reviewing the potential implications for the economy and employment as a whole.  They must be based on careful assessment of the impact on the interests of employees, and the commercial decisions for UK businesses – upon whose success employees and future employees rely –  a balance has to be struck between the two. Policy should always be created in consultation rather than on a soapbox.

Another heavy weapon in the leadership battle is the race for equality. Last month, Corbyn was slated for choosing a 40% female shadow cabinet, when he had previously pledged that it would be a 50:50 representation of men and women. Smith has recently committed to to using all women shortlists in targeted seats, until half of Labour MPs and half the shadow cabinet are women. This re-opens the discussion on the legitimacy of positive discrimination. Overly prescriptive discrimination can perhaps have a negative effect, as choosing someone based on minority status rather than merit is not in itself going to advance sustainable change in barriers and expectations.

Earlier this month, Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts was forced to resign after comments he made about that the lack of women in executive roles. His comments, seen as dismissive of gender bias, could have perhaps opened up some serious debate, but instead he was placed on leave for ‘embarrassing’ the company. A debate thereby thwarted as people queued up to condemn.

What we are seeing in the HR space is an increasing degree of trepidation and increasing cautiousness around these issues, which sees a retreat to a safe position of treating everyone identically. This stifles Human Resources, when strategy should be about creating a diverse workforce and taking advantage of that diversity. Instead of anodyne policies and approaches, we need to remove barriers so that employers are liberated to be creative, bold and pragmatic in the HR space, bringing equal rewards and respect to employees, but also make the best decisions for the company.

We are in danger of letting the race to be the most ‘equality oriented’ leaving us paranoid and over cautious. Companies want to be seen as being careful to enshrine further rights. But this isn’t about treating men and women as identical beings – they are equal in terms of respect and opportunity, but in a broader sense, men and women can each bring different characteristics to a workplace and to achieve the real value of diversity perhaps more confidence is required to acknowledge this.

We should avoid hitting a wall where HR professionals are too sensitive to acknowledge the distinctions. Equal does not mean identical. There should be equality in terms of the right to respect, opportunities and not to be adversely discriminated against, but diversity in its true sense is why mixed teams usually thrive, when the best of everyone can be fully realised.

It’s easy to make the wrong decisions on employment policy, albeit for the right reasons. Worker’s rights and equality are not games to win political points. If they want to create change, Corbyn and Smith should allow HR policy to reflect their values in a dynamic, pragmatic and real world context, not posturing and appeasing the symbolic demands of their short term in house electorate.