Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Crystallised Thinking

Small actions can make a big difference, both in and outside work.  However, the recent advice from Roy Stokes, a spokesperson at the UK’s Environment Agency, to make “an army of snowmen” for a “balanced thaw”, as a way of reducing severe flooding, made me smile.  It conjures up such a wonderful image – by way of an explanation for his proposal: compacted snow thaws at a slower rate than free lying drifts, so the inevitable melt-water will be produced over a longer period, thereby enabling more effective drainage.  http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/build-an-army-of-snowmen-government-advice-on-how-to-stop-floods-8463536.html
Compacted snow shares some similarities with employee engagement – you need a culture where everyone is bound together, so that, as things hot up, the individuals don’t melt and leave; the greater cohesion helps to ensure that the business is sustainable and that employees are happy to make a greater effort than perhaps their role at its most basic level demands.  I have slight concerns over the analogy, as it sounds as though success depends on putting individuals under pressure.  However, in the current economic environment, almost every business is under strain and they need their people to perform as a united and durable team, working together to overcome obstacles and achieve clear objectives.

I must confess to still being a child at heart and I love snow.  Despite the obstacles experienced recently in the UK: disruption to travel and other inconveniences, I revelled in it while it lasted.   The usual urban noise was muffled, irregularities were evened out under the deep white blanket that swathed my neighbourhood in its chilly folds, the lime trees outside my front door were frosted “with pearl”, people smiled and greeted each other as they passed in the street and everything was beautiful.  It was hard not to think of J R Lowell’s poem, The First Snow-Fall:
THE SNOW had begun in the gloaming,
          And busily all the night
          Had been heaping field and highway
          With a silence deep and white.

          Every pine and fir and hemlock
          Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
          And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
          Was ridged inch deep with pearl

Snow and snowflakes are a good example of how little things have the capacity to make a significant impact – each individual flake is so fragile and small, but when their numbers are combined they have the power both to encourage people to undertake extraordinary things (as is illustrated by the numerous pictures posted on social media of families and friends sledging, playing in the snow and creating amazing snow sculptures) and also to effect undesirable outcomes, such as forcing people and businesses to a standstill – witness much of the UK over the past few weeks with schools, airports, wider transport systems and businesses closed.  I am surprised that no trade union has chosen the snowflake as its emblem - the ability to negotiate and bargain with employers often depends in many ways on the numbers of individual members whom a union represents. 

Since the 1980s there has been a notable decline in union activity across both the USA and the Europe (union membership in the UK has halved since 1979 dropping from 13.5 million to circa 6.5 today), but, with economic austerity biting and people struggling in many countries to make ends meet, some are wondering if this trend will reverse.  I suspect that significant union growth is unlikely.  Global competition, outsourcing, legal constraints and the break-up of national bargaining structures, as well as legislative changes to cease “closed shops” (i.e. organisations where union membership is a pre-requisite for employment) have all contributed to the decline in union membership.  However, despite the evidence of decline, the trade unions are not toothless – in Greece there have been regular public sector strikes against the austerity measures; Slovenia experienced its largest public sector strike for twenty years last April; the UK public sector arranged a series of co-ordinated strikes in 2012 and further incidents are anticipated this spring; and a significant number of workers of Unilever are currently on strike, in protest against changes to their pensions http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16615297.  Despite these strikes, the capacity for unions to take industrial action has been reduced (both legally and organisationally), but this does not mean that employee dissatisfaction has diminished – workplace conflict is evident in the increasing number of employment tribunal applications.  However, perhaps unions are finding a new role in the workplace - a noticeable trend is that of unions helping to resolve workplace disputes through mediation rather than blunt protest.

I find UK’s current trade union membership figures thought provoking.  It is noticeable that:
  • there are considerable gaps between public and private sector union membership (56% compared to 14%);
  • small employers tend to be less unionised than larger workplaces (15% in workplaces with fewer than 50 employees vs. 35% in organisations with 50+ employee); and
  • membership seems to be influenced by age (only 10% union membership is to be found in the 16 to 24 age group compared to 33% of those aged 50 or over). 

Union membership is more prevalent in certain sectors than in others – there has been a rise in union membership over recent years within Education in the UK (currently circa 52% of the workforce is unionised) – perhaps because economic constraints are making these workers feel insecure.  The IT and Communication sector has only 13% penetration.  I do wonder if this is due to individuals’ ability and ease to have their opinions heard.  Technology has given people a voice that they formerly never enjoyed – witness the graphic photos and videos taken by people on their mobile phones, depicting atrocities occurring in various parts of the world, posted on YouTube or other sites on the web, resulting in global awareness and support.   The power of a tweet or blog can be immense if it strikes a chord with readers. 

There has been an extraordinary response to a series of postings on a well respected UK HR blogger’s site, Alison Chisnell a leading HRD.  It started with a brave and honest post, published as part of a seasonal selection by a self-nominated guest writer: http://thehrjuggler.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/day-43-courage/.  By writing candidly about what it is like to suffer from mental health problems whilst in employment, the author brought a traditionally taboo subject out into the open.  I suspect that for many HR professionals who read it, the impact was all the greater because the writer comes from our own community.  It is telling on the state of public and typical workplace responses to mental health that the writer wanted to remain anonymous - they feared potential repercussions if their identity was known.  However, even without having a name, there have been some wonderful consequences: other individuals have spoken out about their own experiences; people have been jolted into wanting to be better informed; an action group has been established HR for Mental Health; the issue is being taken up across the globe via social media (the Twitter hashtag #HR4MH can lead you to more information) and an event is occurring in London on 5th February in association with the charity Mind, at which mental health in the workplace and the ways in which HR can support individuals will be discussed http://hrformentalhealth.eventbrite.co.uk/.  There must have been something in the air in the second week of January as the day before the amazing Courage post, I had written suggesting that people should speak out and confessing to my own experiences of destabilising mental health and how that changed my attitude towards fellow sufferers.  People cannot simply “snap out” of poor mental health – in the same way as you cannot mend a broken bone with the click of your fingers.  Better understanding and awareness is vital.  I am so glad that the wind of organisational and cultural change can be heard whispering words of hope.  A few green shoots are appearing...    

I do believe that from small beginnings true change can occur and that an army of like-minded professionals can create "a balanced thaw" in the prejudice towards and misunderstanding of mental heath, to make the world a better place.  The snowflake like writer (a fragile individual with the courage to speak out and whose words were crystal clear and strikingly beautiful) has now been joined by others... together we can unite and set off on the right path for the future.

With this in mind, I will sign off with a short piece by JP Priestley that can be appreciated on many levels:

“The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?”

Friday, 11 January 2013

Speak Up

Just before leaving the office last Friday evening I was invited to participate in a survey by one of the world’s leading specialists in recruitment solutions and consulting, they were seeking my opinions on the employment of individuals with criminal records.  I was interested to see the manner in which they classified criminals, the range stretched from murderers through alcohol or substance abuse addicts to individuals with driving offences.  By coincidence, I have also recently been interviewed by an individual undertaking academic research into the provision of counselling support within the work environment.  There’s a fine line between criminality, addiction and illness.  Illness, if not treated appropriately, can make people behave in antisocial and potentially even criminal ways.

A few years ago, my other half and I went on what should have been a dream trip to India.  Don’t get me wrong, much of it was amazing – and I intend to return.  I often think of Shimla – a hill station retreat, with magical views of the Himalayas, providing a welcome escape from the searing heat in the plains during the summer – in parts the town is very English, with Tunbridge Wells style mock tudor houses, a typical stone church, local theatre and Edwardian era hotels (with hard mahogany beds, beaded lampshades, billiard rooms, stone hot water bottles and names such as Savoy and Cecil), perched on the vertiginous hillside; monkeys regularly disrupted the electricity by severing the cables strung between the roofs.


Shimla monkey and Himalayas
I too was disrupted – I was suffering from an adverse reaction to the Malaria tablets prescribed by my UK doctor and swooping depression gripped me in its darkness for much of the time, making life seem futile and myself loathsome.  It was with difficulty that my companion persuaded me to come out of our room and I found the precipitous fall into the valley below dangerously alluring.  It was not until I had this experience that I fully appreciated how debilitating mental illness can be and how little control an individual has over it – you cannot “just snap out of it” and often, while suffering, your thoughts and reactions are not rational.  I am ashamed to admit that, although I thought I comprehended mental illness and the impact that it can have on an employee and their work, my understanding was purely on an intellectual basis and I needed the actual experience of being trapped inside a deep well of despair to make me feel differently about the issues and how I approach mental health in the workplace.

It is extraordinary what an impact emotions and mental well-being have on us physically - I am sure you are familiar with the wobble that affects your voice when you are distressed.  I currently have a paralysed right vocal chord and hence I am dependant on my left in order to speak.  It is noticeable that if I am stressed (for example when I have to present at a demanding meeting or hold a difficult conversation with an employee) there is an audible effect on my voice (it loses tone, rises in pitch and becomes "breathy").   I was in a video conference early yesterday and had some challenging facts to communicate, a colleague in Switzerland noticed the change in my voice and, unable to hear me easily, asked me to speak up.  He and I were both embarrassed when I explained that I could not.  I would have made things easier for both of us if I had let people be aware of the current challenges that I am trying to overcome.  I’m not quite sure why I haven’t made my predicament common knowledge amongst my colleagues – perhaps I don’t want to be seen as weak, called names (even as a joke) or viewed as incapable...

People often don’t speak out – especially when they view their problem as being embarrassing, emotionally or mentally based or of a personal nature and hence inappropriate to be raised at work.  The big news story in the UK today is the joint report by the Metropolitan Police and NSPCC (National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children) into the sexual allegations made against the former UK celebrity Jimmy Savile, "Giving Victims a Voice".  Without wishing to diminish in any way the awfulness of the experiences that the victims had to endure, there are some serious learnings for all of us both in and outside work.  The problem was not unearthed (and hence some incidents prevented) because many of the victims chose to be silent and the few who did speak out were not given credence by people in authority.  It now transpires that there were at least 214 crimes, impacting children from as young as eight.  Savile indulged himself in numerous locations, including care homes, at the BBC, in schools and NHS properties and hospitals.   There is no doubt, from the comments of those who have now spoken about their experiences, that Savile's predatory behaviour has had a permanent impact on their lives. 

I am concerned at what prevents people from raising issues before a trouble escalates.  My reticence about my own health is a small example of an individual not wishing to stand out or to be viewed as problematical or incapable within a particular situation.  We need to be mindful of the fact that times change and so do attitudes.  Perhaps the Savile victims did not speak out because of the environment at the time (witness the descriptions now being provided of the internal culture at the BBC in the 1970s in which women felt it easier to accept sexist behaviour than complain http://www.independent.co.uk/arts- )entertainment/tv/news/bbc-bosses-showed-cavalier-attitude-to-culture-of-harassment-8229941.html ).  Returning briefly to the survey I was asked to complete last Friday – even fifty years ago, by knowingly employing a homosexual in London I would have introduced “a criminal” into the work environment (homosexuality was not decriminalised in England and Wales until 1967).  Mental health is still seen as a taboo subject and seldom raised by employees (unless they plan to take you to tribunal for “work place induced stress”!).  But if people don't speak out things will never change.  

Mental health is explored to a significant degree in Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Lear is driven to madness by the indignity and circumstances he brings upon himself (with friends and family turned against him); his Fool (in effect his court jester) is often the only sensible voice, speaking the truth and saying how things should be in a difficult world; Poor Tom (whose madness is feigned by Edgar as a form of disguise and protection) is deemed by Lear to have become insane due to suffering similar misfortunes to himself.  Poor Tom makes the audience question what madness is (much as the reader does when reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch 22).   We live in challenging times.  Increasingly organisations need to employ a diverse workforce who can help them navigate a successful path through the rapidly changing business environment.  We must create a workplace where people are not scared and where they feel safe speaking out for the benefit of themselves, others and the business. 

King Lear, Act III, Scene IV engraving by John Boydell c1792

Given the at times disturbing subjects covered in this blog, I think you deserve a smile for making it this far.  The below video shows what can be achieved if you are prepared to utilise your knowledge and skills but operate in a different way from the norm, especially if you are a little baaarmy (excuse the poor pun): 

Many of the world’s most notable people are those who have been/are prepared to stand out from the crowd, say what they think and achieve unusual things.  It is up to us as employers to create a workplace where a diverse range of individuals are able to thrive and contribute and where their differences are embraced and seen as adding value.  

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

End of Year Quiz 2012

The same rules apply as in previous years, i.e. there are twelve questions, one for each month of the year.  The questions (and hence the answers) are about events and news that occurred in the specific month they represent during 2012.  If you take the first letter of each answer (in chronological order) they will spell out my hopes for you for at this start of 2013.  I hope you enjoy the challenge and that it reminds you of some of the many things that have happened.


What was the name of the failed Russian Federal Space Agency Mars probe, launched in November 2011, parts of which were anticipated to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere during first week of January 2012?  The Media tried to create hype around the concern that people might be hit by debris.


On 8 February artworks by Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas were sold for £13.7 million at Christie’s in London.  From which famous film star’s personal collection did they come? 

Vincent van Gogh's autumn landscape Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Remy

Which city’s main dam, Warragamba, reached capacity at the start of the month, resulting in the emergency evacuation of residents and significant flooding after the dam overflowed?

Warragamba dam

On 26 April, the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague delivered its verdict in the trial of the former President of Liberia.  He was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Sierra Leone Civil War.  What is his surname? 

Former Liberian President

Which nation decided on 9 May to stop its plans for the reintroduction of the cheetah, as to do so would rely on importing animals from another continent?  The last Cheetah became extinct in this country in the 1940’s. 


Which planet’s solar final transits of the century occurred June 5-6?  The next pair of transits by this celestial body are predicted to occur in 2117 and 2125.


Bob Diamond, the Chief Executive of Barclays was compelled to resign on 3 July following the financial scandal in which the bank tried to manipulate interest rates systems, namely Libor and which other?


What is the name of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission rover, which successfully landed on Mars on 6 August?

Artist impression of NASAs Mars Science Laboratory rover

Which Czech-born actor (born 1917), famous for his portrayal of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, Inspector Clouseau’s long-suffering superior in the Pink Panther films, as well as roles in many 1950’s and 1960’s classics, including The Lady Killers, Spartacus, El Cid and Fire Down Below, died September 27?      


Name the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, announced on 12 October, and awarded for “over six decades (of having) contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights”.

Nobel peace prize medal

The head of state and senior ministers of which Middle Eastern country brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hammas on 21st November (the Foreign Minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made the announcement)?


What is the nationality of Milner, the founder of the Fundamental Physics Prize, the most financially lucrative academic prize in the world (three times the size of the Nobel Prize and more than The Nobel and Templeton Prize combined)?  As well as the nine winners for 2012 (who will elect a winner for 2013), two special awards were made on 11 December 2012: one to the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes and his quantum analysis of gravity and space; and the other to eight scientists involved in the discovery of the new Higgs-like particle at CERN.

Here's wishing you a wonderful 2013 full of good health, happiness, success and growth.