The New Year’s Key Workplace Challenges
What HR and management professionals must consider going into 2017
The world is not all that predictable right now. Politically speaking there is an elephant in the room, which means that making predictions is challenging especially in business. People once scoffed at the idea of a Trump win, and now that it has happened no one is quite sure what will happen next. However, a few noted members of the iHR Australia team have drawn on their years of experience and expertise to place their thoughts for 2017 ‘fairly and squarely’ on the table. So, what will be the key challenges and areas to consider for HR professionals and management in 2017 and beyond?
Our Managing Director, Stephen Bell is first and foremost an entrepreneur. He founded iHR Australia and World Learning Hub and has worked extensively in Australia and Asia. Stephen is also regarded as a leading thinker around workplace culture, conduct and behaviour. His Custodians of Culture programs continue to be a source of inspiration and a values compass to organisational leaders at all levels across Australia and Asia.
Tougher economic conditions will impact HR and L&D professionals
Australia is facing a productivity crisis in an uncertain economic environment not because we are vastly unproductive but because the boom is now over and people must be more productive. Put simply, organisations want just as much or even more for less. 2017 will bring with it a greater pressure on workers to perform.
Relatively high and inflexible salary and wage rates across many professional and semi-professional industries are problematic for a country that is losing opportunities because in so many fields it is just not competitive. As people are being expected to work harder and longer and to change their job functions, HR departments will be dealing with higher incidents of challenging behaviour that result from growing levels of anxiety, frustration and dissatisfaction. Expect increases in absenteeism, complaints about poor behaviour and work-related mental health claims.
The answer is to do your due diligence and get those policies, reporting procedures and compliance training programs sharpened. It won’t hurt to be clear about culture and behavioural expectations and to build the resilience of your leaders.
HR and L&D professionals will also be presented with the challenge of producing more with less. These are not the ideal circumstances for achieving best practice, but it should be looked at as a great opportunity to implement simple, back to basics strategies that can be seen to make a difference.
As for government, the so called ‘attack’ on workers’ pay and conditions, in particular the reform to penalty rates, may well gain greater momentum should there be continuing major industry ‘shut downs’. The values of jobs in some industries are growing daily.
A one-dimensional approach to learning will be problematic
Small, medium and large organisations that are really committed to the skill and knowledge development of their people will need to provide a range of learning solutions. One key reason for this is that the large differences in the ages of professionals in the workforce means that there is a wider range of learning preferences than ever before. While budgets and efficiency are typical reasons organisations are turning to eLearning as a prime learning methodology, there is a growing thought that some people learn better through an eLearning experience than in face-to-face training-especially if the eLearning experience is based upon cognitive loading principles. But the truth is, this isn’t the case for everyone.
There is still a degree of scepticism among Australian learning professionals that eLearning can be a ‘be all and end all’ learning methodology which may be healthy. 2017 will see an increasing use of eLearning as a methodology, but wading through the good and the garbage will be a prime role of L&D people. At the end of the day, it’s much better to have access to five quality-learning experiences than 200 that have no learning principles behind them at all.
In 2017, try diversifying the learning experiences available to your people. Don’t be constrained by their personal biases and do some simple analysis by age-group and function to determine what does and doesn’t work.
Political correctness versus the maverick workplace leader
The election of Donald Trump was without a doubt a shot in the arm for the ‘free-stylist’ leader. This is the type of leader who calls his or her subjects to action on the basis of claims with little substance. It is the type of leader who appears to speak their mind without significant consideration for the impact it will have on others. Some would say Trump is just ignorant while others believe he is simply commencing work on his own political and social agenda. While I believe there is a question mark over whether or not Trump will even see out term one of his presidency, his election has signalled a growing resentment toward the ‘politically correct set’ and among people being forced to speak and behave in away far removed from their true feelings. This resentment also exists in Australia. (See the results of the 2016 election.)
Trump is first and foremost a businessman and his election may well give the nod to business leaders (and boards) across the western world to be a little less considerate or even backward in relation to what they say and whom they offend. If this extends to Australian workplaces, some senior HR people may find themselves walking the tight rope between supporting their chief and dealing with disenfranchised management teams and workers who have often been protected from ‘hard talk’ by a system that has demanded leaders think deeply before making public statements. For senior HR people, 2017 may well be the year of being the ‘meat in the sandwich’.
Dr Leigh Hodder is a consulting psychologist with 20 years’ experience in corporate psychology and private practice. Leigh is one of iHR’s Senior Workplace Relations Advisors. She conducts independent workplace investigations and inquiries, team dynamics diagnostics and interventions, mediations and other consulting activities. Leigh is also our Lead Facilitator for the Mental Ill Health in the Workplace workshops and Workplace Mediation Skills workshop.
Employee engagement: Is the ladder against the wrong wall?
In 2017, HR practitioners will, again, measure employee engagement and attempt to improve it, with mixed success. Could the time and money spent on these activities have a greater ROI if focused directly on productivity? Think about the following:
- Employee engagement may contribute to productivity, but it is not productivity.
- An employee may be fully engaged but without the proper organisational support and ability to manage their energy, it is unlikely their output will improve.
- Emotional states, such as engagement, are hard to understand and measure, while behaviours and productivity are not.
- A more holistic diagnostic approach, looking at all the factors that increase productivity, is needed.
Mental health in the workplace: a joint effort
We have three years to go until depression replaces cancer as the second leading cause of time lost to the global economy. In Australia, 48% of us will experience a mental health condition at some stage during our lives. When this is added to the increasing legal and practical complexities inherent in managing mental health in the workplace, HR practitioners are, understandably, concerned and challenged.
Buy-in from all layers of the business to implementing a genuine culture of well-being is needed, in addition to upskilling all members of your organisational community in how to effectively and compassionately manage their mental health concerns and those of others.
Managing negativity: one bad apple can spoil the barrel
Nothing affects employee morale more insidiously than the persistent negativity of a fellow team member. It saps the energy of your organisation and impacts on performance. Negativity is an increasing problem in the workplace – without doubt, this includes 2017. “He/she is just so negative” is one of the top comments I hear when conducting team dynamics diagnostics.
Negativity is a highly infectious mind-set. Whatever the cause of the workplace negativity, you must address the issues. Or like a seemingly dormant volcano, they will boil beneath the surface, and periodically erupt to cause fresh damage.
Dr. Verena Marshall has a PhD in Organisational Behaviour, MBA, Juris Doctor of Law, Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, and is an admitted Solicitor to the Supreme Court of New South Wales. As well as a Graduate Certificate in Migration Law, Verena holds Certificates III and IV in Investigations, and is a Licensed Investigator in Western Australia and Nationally Accredited Mediator. Verena undertakes workplace investigations, mediations and training on behalf of iHR Australia.
Casual discrimination and causal harm
I was recently on holiday in New Zealand, and in the first week of January 2017 read media articles about a controversy over Sir Peter Leitch (distinguished retailer in the butchery industry) describing Waiheke Island to Ms Lara Wharepapa-Bridger as a “white man’s island”. Ms Wharepapa-Bridger,resident of the island and of Maori descent, was offended when she heard Sir Peter say that to her as she considered the comment to be racist. Sir Peter’s spokesperson, Ms Michelle Boag, added to the incident by dismissing Sir Peter’s comment as racist, because Ms Wharepapa-Bridger was “… barely coffee-coloured.”
Dame Susan Devoy, New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner, entered into the debate. While referring to SirPeter as a “…very good person at heart, that [comment] was offensive to Ms [Wharepapa]-Bridger…and it needs to be fixed up.” Further, in response to Ms Boag’s follow-up, Dame Susan said the ‘coffee-coloured’ comment was out of line: “This is quite an ignorant thing to say, someone’s skin colour has nothing to do with anyone else except that person. Your colour doesn’t define your ethnicity or your culture.”
As is often the case with such incidents, there are many sides to the same story reflecting perceptions and stated intentions of those involved, as well as interpretations of those who witness or comment on them. At the heart of such incidents may be what Dame Susan refers to as ‘casual racism’; that is, people say or do things to others without realising that what they are saying and doing is offensive. While Dame Susan’s focus in this incident is on racism, I contend that such ‘casualness’ can be seen in all forms of discrimination and areas of life, including the workplace, causing potential or actual harm to others.
Discrimination legislation in New Zealand and Australia seeks to protect individuals’ personal attributes in the workplace; nonetheless, there still remain ‘casual’ or ‘quiet’ discriminatory encounters that never feel casual or quiet to those on the receiving end of them. Even if these encounters are not intended to be discriminatory, it is not the intention that matters. In the words of Dame Susan, “The important thing is being able to recognise when we have offended someone, to work with them to resolve it…and to make sure we never do it again.” It is equally important to nurture a culture (in and out of the workplace) where the voices of those who face intolerance are heard, because:
“We suspect many of us don’t realise when something we say is unfair or biased, but we would if someone pointed it out to us” (Dame Susan Devoy).
It was later reported in the media that Sir Peter ‘unreservedly apologised’ to Ms Wharepapa-Bridger, and Ms Boag said that she “…has learned a thing or two in the last couple of days about casual racism”. I believe there is always room to learn ‘a thing or two’ about casual racism, and any other form of discriminatory communication and behaviour.
This may well be one of the key challenges for HR and management professionals in 2017 given the current political and social climate.
John Boardman is Director of Workplace Relations at iHR Australia. He has an extensive background in human resource management and industrial relations. His expertise includes high-order analytical skills, strategic options assessment, negotiation, advocacy, and presentations. He has over 30 years’ experience in human resource management, many spent at senior executive level.
John is a ‘hands-on’ technician and has researched, prepared and conducted complex cases before both state and federal tribunals. These include full-bench appeals, arbitrated wrongful dismissal cases, award variation, the making of enterprise agreements and Australian Workplace Agreements, and construction site allowances. John has also provided advice to employers involved in major industrial relations disputes.
John has considerable experience in conducting independent workplace investigations into allegations of bullying and harassment, and has conducted major investigations in most industries including the health, manufacturing, energy, mining, education and transport industries. He co-facilitates iHR Australia’s Workplace Investigation Officer Training for Human Resource practitioners around Australia.
Flexible working and challenges of the changing workforce environment
I was listening to a radio segment the other day and the commentator said that retirement was going the way of the fax machine. It is not many years ago that men could qualify for the old age pension at 65 and their female partners at 60. It is common for one partner to be 3-5 years older than the other partner in any relationship. The current retirement age has been increased to 67 years which means a couple in many cases may have to work until the oldest partner is in their seventies before they both qualify for a couple’s aged pension. Superannuation rules have also changed and are changing further affecting transition to retirement arrangements and the age at which you can access preserved funds.
From 1 January 2017 changes in the qualification tests for the aged pension means that many older people will now consider re-entering the workforce or changing their already flagged retirement date.
This also presents a challenge for employers, not in the distant future but in 2017. While employers are aware of the Fair Work Act 2019 provisions allowing for flexible working for parents with carer responsibilities they are less aware that the same provisions exist for employees over the age of 55. The flexibility provisions include working arrangements such as changes in hours of work, changes in patterns of work and changes in location of work.
Job design and career succession plans are just two areas that will need reassessing and not only in terms of the older employees but in terms of their impact on younger employees. We will need to consider how to avoid burnout in young executives who might now have to extend their time at the top of the corporate ladder for up to another 10 years or who might be readjusting their career ambitions in the knowledge that their boss is now going to work for another 10 years.
Opportunities now exist for employers to utilise older workers in mentor and coaching roles with younger staff. Government should review employment policies and legislation to further support transition to the extended retirement age. Awards have long recognised that junior employees should be paid less than their adult colleagues in recognition of their inexperience and lack of skill and judgement. Older experienced workers may not have the physical capacity to work as hard as younger employees and may be happy to take a reduced wage for less physically demanding and/or stressful tasks. Extending the period of time a person works is complex and needs to be underpinned with sound policies and legislation if everyone is expected to remain in the workforce for more than 50 years.