Duncan Brown: Issue avoidance puts us in peril

Award-winning Chinese writer Yan Lianke last month accused fellow intellectuals of avoiding their responsibility to push for social reforms in China, in the face of government censorship.

Even without the threat of imprisonment, avoidance is a well-known psychological phenomenon, affecting individuals and organisations, according to Ralph Kilmann, chief executive and senior consultant at e-learning conflict resolution firm Kilmann Diagnostics, who co-developed a technique to measure it. A short-term focus and superficial actions are common symptoms.

I think there is a lot of avoidance going on in UK HR and reward circles at the moment.

On the surface, not much has changed in the past four years. Rewarding high performers and better communicating and delivering a valued total reward package remain the stated top priorities for most employers. Organisations’ websites and intranets continue to assert that this really is a great place to work. We read surveys that tell us that more creative job perks (such as half-day Fridays, on-site massages and nap rooms) help staff morale and retention (McCafferty, 2013).

But scarier, much more difficult issues lurk beneath, requiring a strategic and courageous response. Take pensions. Aon Hewitt’s latest 2013 Global pension risk survey, published in February 2013, shows that 90% of organisations now have a stated pensions strategy, incorporating common goals such as self-sufficiency. Yet our analysis concludes that there is widespread confusion about the meaning of such terms and a common failure to answer the fundamental question: how certain is it that members’ benefits will be delivered?

The report likens the current situation to a donkey pursuing a carrot on a stick, where the promised land just keeps getting further away. Similarly on pay, Aon Hewitt’s forthcoming 2013 HR barometer of HR directors’ priorities, like last year, shows cost reduction and achieving challenging profit targets as, overwhelmingly, the most
powerful drivers of HR initiatives.

Three-quarters of organisations regard labour cost reduction as a major strength. Yet data from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that in our ‘pay slump’ economy, real wages over the past four years have fallen more quickly here than in any other developed country, including Greece and Italy. No wonder almost two-thirds of HR directors report no positive impact on staff engagement levels.

We are currently working with an organisation that is planning to introduce the living wage as a minimum pay rate for its UK staff. As a Chinese proverb puts it, ‘Brave men have visions’. And act on them.

Follow Duncan Brown on Twitter: @duncanbHR