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Wendy Cartwright
Head of Corporate Services at the University of East London
Wendy  Cartwright

HR and employee relations in the 21st Century

Authors: Wendy Cartwright Director of Corporate Services at the University of East London

16 December 2014

Last week's event on ‘the contemporary role of HR’ which brought together The Work Foundation and Prospect Union posed a question for the function to consider: Essentially, is HR a ‘custodian of organisational conscience, a deliverer of financial targets or a strategic business leader?

Lord John Monks, former General Secretary to the TUC, opened the event with a provocative challenge to the profession, arguing that HR has lost influence since the 1970s, that it needs to be much more assertive and ‘re-establish a sense of leadership where people matter’, even if that involves being ‘at war’ with an increasingly influential Finance department. 

My personal view of that latter point is the exact opposite. I think that HR needs to work in partnership with Finance colleagues, rather than declare war on them, but I completely agree with the point about HR needing to be assertive about the importance of people issues to rebalance what, in some organisations, can be a skewed focus on purely financial matters. 

Both Peter Cheese CEO of the CIPD and Professor Rosalind Searle from Coventry University spoke about trust - and both cited benevolence and integrity as key factors in building a good organisational culture. Professor Steve Bevan argued that organisational performance management systems have not improved over the past 30 years and are still not doing what we need them to do. Mike Clancy, Prospect General Secretary, spoke about the importance of collective voice within organisations, saying that ‘ we are at a tipping point… where 85% of people in the private sector do not have a collective independent voice’ .

Prospect talked about their Manifesto for Good Work which reiterated the importance of fairness and trust, the need for provision of secure and fulfilling jobs, and for providing employees with a degree of control over the pace of their work and their environment. There may be some nuances in the debate about these issues, but I would be willing to bet that most HR people would agree with a large proportion of this manifesto.

This was a very stimulating event, with great speakers, and covered a lot of ground. But in the days that followed I was still left with a feeling that we had skirted around some of the key issues. This may have been because the debate felt at times like we were doing a bit too much inward thinking, or because we didn’t really answer the question that was posed about the role of HR.

Moreover, although the room was full of HR and trade union representatives, we didn’t address the question of how that relationship should work in the 21st century for the benefit of employees, organisations and the economy. But then again, this is really just the beginning… . I’m looking forward to both following and participating in this debate as it evolves.

To take part in this debate go to https://twitter.com/WorkFoundation #HRfutures on twitter

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