Why – at a time of uncertainty – are people bulk buying, of all things, toilet paper?

Carole, who is regularly on the check-out when I do our weekly shop, told me she’d had a conversation with a customer who is a doctor.  He commented there was no logical justification for bulk buying loo roll.  So, what’s it all about?

Opinions vary.  Retail pundits say that loo rolls are big, so people notice when they start to disappear from the shelves and react accordingly.  I think there’s something more profound going on here.

At a time of crisis, we hang on tightly to any certainty we have.  We stock up to make ourselves feel safer.  We fear a possible loss of dignity in the event of attack by an unknown – and in this case invisible – assailant.

5 years ago, my last remaining aunt was terminally ill and in hospital in North Wales.  My mum – at that point nearly 90 herself – was desperate to see her and we decided to go together.  I liaised with the hospital and agreed a day for our visit.  We booked rooms at a lovely B&B we know.  It was late February and the weather was terrible.  We got up early, got ourselves and our luggage into my car and were both in the car and about to set off, when my mobile rang.  It was a nurse on my aunt’s ward, saying that my aunt had specifically asked us not to visit.  I explained that we were literally about to leave.  The nurse repeated the request.  The call ended and I said to my mum that I thought we had to respect the request.  I saw no point in driving over 200 miles in the rain to visit someone who had expressly asked that we do not come.

My mum was devastated.  As a former nurse, she knew that she would not see her sister alive again, and she was right.  My aunt – who was always slight anyway – had lost a lot of weight and was not eating.  She was quite a vain lady and did not want to be seen looking gaunt and terrible.  She died alone – and that was her choice.

My point here is that people hang on to their dignity and their self-respect to the bitter end.  I reckon the loo roll panic reflects a deep-seated anxiety that dignity may be at risk – albeit in a prosaic way.

I guess there is a message here for HR practitioners and others.  When dealing with people under pressure or in difficult circumstances, even at times when we feel it may not be deserved, we should always respect someone’s dignity.

Anxiety waxes and wanes.  I saw loo roll the other day for the first time in 3 weeks.


Good cop, bad cop – politics and the workplace

Over the last few months, I have often found myself pondering the invisible people behind the, albeit selectively, visible politicians.  Boris and Dominic Cummings spring to mind.  I have just discovered that Lynton Crosby (Cameron’s amanuensis) protegee Isaac Levido masterminded the recent Tory election campaign.  Whatever one’s views on that campaign, and as a passionate Remainer I have many, it was ruthlessly successful.  The power wielded by these unelected, unaccountable individuals is worrying.  However, the ‘good cop bad cop’ dynamic whereby the public face can be jovial and persuasive, while the nasty stuff happens out of sight, seemed oddly familiar.  After a while I worked out why.

On at least 3 occasions earlier in my HR career, I have worked in organisations where very affable CEOs presented themselves as friendly people who cared about their workforce – and to be fair, they probably did.  However, all of them had tough (in one case positively draconian) HR directors.  These were the people who for example abolished flexitime, initiated group redundancies, disciplined a union rep etc etc.  A relative of mine once referred to HR at his workplace as the angel of death, and said you only saw him if your job was going.

The same dynamic can occur lower down the management food chain too – “It’s not me, it’s HR”.  Any HR professional can probably recognise that scenario.

What’s to be done?  I think as HR professionals, we must insist on joint accountability and never allow managers at any level to scapegoat us.  Easier said than done maybe, but let’s aspire to that?


Christmas cheers

I’ve been reading with interest various warnings about behaviour at Christmas parties and outings.  It’s been intriguing to learn that some organisations are doing things differently to avoid embarrassing outcomes.

A few years ago, around this very time, I was invited to a very swanky ‘Do’ by the organisation I was about to join.  We foregathered in our finery at a posh central London hotel.  There was live music, food, dancing – and masses of booze.  The CEO does not do things by halves, as it were.

Trouble was, our wine glasses were huuuuuge and very attentive staff kept filling them up – to their considerable capacity.  I started to feel decidedly squiffy after a couple of hours.  Knowing I had to get myself home from central London unaided, at a certain point I realised I had to stop drinking alcohol.  Unfortunately, not everyone did the same.

I left said ‘Do’ in full swing about 11 o’clock and started working with this organisation the following Monday.  On my first morning, I learnt that we had a potential disciplinary on our hands, arising from events that occurred after I left.

An employee (whose role involved daily contact with vulnerable children) had got very drunk and behaved aggressively towards the partner of another employee and a member of the venue’s staff.  He was suspended and an investigation ensued.  He was so mortified when he learnt what he had done – he was too drunk to remember –  he resigned.  In the process, we learnt he had a troubled past and considerable psychological baggage.

The CEO bemoaned the fact that several other staff had also drunk themselves senseless that night, to the extent they did not give full attention to his end-of-year address.  I was new in post and trod gently.  He struggled to accept that his generosity had been a contributing factor.

I think it’s wise to remind people they are expected to behave professionally at company festive events.  As adults, we should of course control our alcohol intake.  But, if you offer unlimited alcohol, huge glasses and waiters who constantly top them up, trouble is likely to ensue. Sensible employers should consider that.

On that note, enjoy your Christmas cheer, be it Aperol Spritz or apple juice, prosecco or Pepsi.  I’m going to enjoy coffee and mince pies tomorrow afternoon with one of my clients. It remains to be seen if anything stronger will be on offer!

See you on the other side.

Social, me dear?

I’ve had a colourful week on the social media front.  Last Sunday, my husband and I joined 36 other twitterers from all round the UK and beyond, swimming, cycling and running as part of #Irontweeps to raise money for Sport Relief.  We had it lucky, in that our contribution merely involved trotting out of our front door and back for a couple of miles in very cold, but not snowy, conditions.  We both run (well he runs, I jog) but given he’d had a bad foot infection and I’d been ill, it had been a bit touch and go.  Others elsewhere in the country had it much tougher.  Karen Teago, for example, cycled 25 km in the snow and cold, wearing a red superwoman cape.  Collectively, we made more than double our £3K target and the camaraderie was fun too.  Take a look at Ady Howes’ great film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_uBKRLeFHo

and feel free to donate too!    #irontweeps

All downhill from there?  Well, yes and no.  The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle broke next.  I do find it very disturbing that critical mandates won with slim majorities, like the US election and the Brexit referendum, may have been influenced by covert forces.  I think the big social media players are going to have to be more regulated and we, the public, need more than ever to realise that there is rarely any such thing as a free lunch.

On to Thursday in London.  I had the good fortune to attend an employment law seminar delivered by the employment team at Goodman Derrick. They covered a number of social media related tribunal cases.  And ooh yes, it was fascinating. The number of employees who appear to think they can trash their employers in public, without repercussions, amazes me.  Sometimes, the issues are far from clear.  Who wrote it?  Not necessarily the sender.  Who saw it?  Not necessarily those the sender intended.  Etc etc.  Sometimes, employers have just not followed their own policies – in one case, a major retailer.  Tribunals clearly struggle with this brave new digital world.  Often they find in the employee’s favour, but equally often compensation is halved, especially where the employee shows no remorse.

I also had the good fortune to discover a free lecture at the National Gallery, entitled “Four weddings and a funeral” given by the quite brilliant Dr Jenny Graham from the Uni of Plymouth.  As I’m an art ignoramus, I thought I’d go.  Dr Graham explored, in a really accessible way, both the content of the painting and the 4 different couples who – at various times – were thought to be the couple depicted.

Jan van Eyck, active 1422; died 1441
Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife
Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm
Bought, 1842

Fake news was around in the 15th century.  One of the 4 couples was dead before Van Eyck painted this.

And later on Thursday, I got a ticket for one of the last performances of ‘Beginnings’ by David Eldridge.  Two lonely, unhappy individuals approaching middle age attempt to forge a romantic bond amid the debris of her flatwarming party.  A brilliant tragi-comic play and great performances from actors Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton who hold the stage – and our attention – for nearly 2 hours non-stop.  Some plays and films never leave you – for me this was one such.  One of its many themes was how connectivity may enable internet dating, but doesn’t solve loneliness and may even create it.

So what do I conclude about social media?  It can be a force for good, as I believe #Irontweeps was.  My experience of Twitter has been largely positive and I have learnt a lot from it.  But, social media can also be sinister, misleading, empty, competitive, combative, addictive.

To use an overworn phrase from the 2016 referendum, we – as the consumers and/or the product – need to get a grip and take back control.

Killing time?


The latest edition of People Management is bit of a shocker.

Apparently, more than 10% of all employees have imagined murdering their boss. I have to say I’ve fantasised about confronting several of my former bosses, and I will admit to relief when I heard the worst one had died (because he was dishonourable in both his personal and professional life.  I once took a call from his mistress……….). But murder?

Then, PM also reports that – according to CABA, a benevolent body for accountants (do they need such a thing?  Biased, moi?) – more than a quarter of the workforce gets into conflict with a manager or a colleague at least once a fortnight.  Struth!

All this got me thinking.  We have a productivity issue in the UK – and we’ve had one for a long time.  I researched and wrote about it when I was doing my CIPD course in the early 1990s and little has changed since.  Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium all have a much better productivity quotient than us, according to the Office for National Statistics.  Why??

Productivity is a tricksy thing to measure and a lot of the data may be inaccurate. However, in a recent Guardian article, Howard Davies, Chair of RBS, pointed to weak management in the UK in comparison with other Western European countries.

The alarming extent of dissatisfaction in the workplace indicates he is right.  If we improve management, perhaps employees will waste less energy on conflict and resentment and become more productive.

Happy = productive?  I’d say yes.

The sky’s the limit? Pay differentials

I’ve followed quite closely the furore around Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell and her recent resignation as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath.  Like many, I thought her £465K basic salary was a bit of a shocker (although I wonder if there would have been quite so much kerfuffle if she had been a man).  According to their website, senior academics at the University of Bath are paid around £50-£55K a year, so Dame Glynis’ salary was theoretically worth 9 of them.  At the lower end of the spectrum, she was earning more than twenty times the salary of her junior staff.

Dame Glynis’s defenders claim she has put the University of Bath on the map.   Payment by results then??   Hmmmm.  According to the Academy Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), the Uni of Bath ranked 203 in 2007.  In 2016, its ranking had fallen to 301-400.  Nuff said.

One of the folk I met today at the HR/L&D co-work get-together in Brighton works with universities.  He says there is a marked difference in the opulence of the offices of the top brass in universities, compared to those of the rank and file.  I wonder what effect this has on staff morale.

I remember being told that Japanese companies had much narrower pay differentials than European ones.  Is this still the case?

According to Pernille Rudlin, a UK-based specialist on Japanese business, the pay multiple at Sony and Panasonic is about 10#.  The biggest multiple in Japanese companies is around 16#.

With gender pay gap reporting becoming the norm, it looks as if we are heading for an era of greater transparency on pay.  My millennial son has twice worked for employers who tried using a pay rise as a retention tool.  This failed both times in his case.  He may not be typical, but I wonder if that generation will, in the future, passively accept massive pay differentials such as those at the Uni of Bath.  I suspect not.

All you need is love?


I have a sense that, recently, HR has been overegging the need for soft skills.

In recent years, I’ve had several job interviews where I wasn’t asked a single technical question, or asked to prove I knew a damn thing about employment law.  While I’ve been asked myriad questions along the lines of “how would you influence/persuade/convince/challenge?”, the number of “what?” questions has often been lacking.  Would the same organisations employ an accountant without checking out their numerical competence?  Maybe they would.  I was once involved in what turned out to be a disastrous IT Support appointment, where the recruiting managers dismissed as unnecessary my suggestion that candidates should be asked to rectify a software issue.  3 months later, I escorted the unfortunate appointee out of the building.  He couldn’t do the job.

Reliance on formal qualifications is risky too, as you cannot be sure the candidate has kept up to date in their field.

I once worked in HR in a large public sector organisation with someone who was great fun, but technically risky.  On two occasions, she colluded with naïve managers and attempted hasty, high-risk dismissals, in ignorance of the potential consequences.  I found myself almost in a whistleblowing situation, working with directors to undo the damage.  We succeeded, by the seat of our pants.

Issues such as TUPE transfers, redundancy, sickness absence, positive action in recruitment – to name but a few areas – require employment law knowledge and technical competence.  I acknowledge that teamwork and emotional intelligence matter in HR.  However, while good communication skills are a huge asset, they are not enough.

“I don’t do illness”


A CEO I once worked with uttered these immortal words.  I kept my own counsel at the time, but I thought they were bunkum.

I accept that I am responsible for my health and I do my best to maintain it.  However, staying illness free is not always within your control, as I discovered last summer when my chronic, one-sided, debilitating headache turned out to be shingles.

I was reminded of my erstwhile CEO’s comments when Jeremy Clarkson recently apologised to his fans for having contracted pneumonia, and said he hadn’t had a day off in over 30 years.  This is laudable and – if true – remarkable.  But I am wary about folk who tout their attendance record as a badge of honour in this way.

I have worked in organisations where sickness was seen as being for wimps.  Not so long ago, I worked with two senior women who had short spells of time off, following surgery, and were apologising to the rest of us via email for not being at work.  One of them, who was also diabetic, returned before she was fit and caused several colleagues – myself included – some anxiety.  While working there, I went down with a chest infection in mid-winter, partly brought on – I suspect – by conducting a long disciplinary meeting in an ice-cold meeting room in a swanky hotel. (The heating turned out not to be functioning.)  I returned to work sooner than I should have done, and a week later felt so awful, I went off sick again.  When I went to the doctor, the reason for my abnormal fatigue soon became apparent – I didn’t have full lung function.  Rest and antibiotics soon did the trick and, while my team were very understanding, sympathy from my managers was notably absent.

Sickness absence does of course need managing.  Malingering can happen and must be addressed.  However, a healthy organisation must surely aim for balance and accept that illness, operations and accidents are an unfortunate, but unavoidable, part of working life.  Such episodes, if met with understanding and compassion, build loyalty.

We can live without your barbs for a few weeks, Jeremy.  Get well soon.

Thank you for reading this.  Have a safe, healthy and happy Bank Holiday.


Justice, like the Ritz, is open to rich and poor alike

There seems to be some doubt about who actually said this.  It is of course nonsense, as the rough sleepers I used to pass on my way to work, waking in the shop doorways opposite the Ritz in London’s Piccadilly, would doubtless have confirmed.

So, the Supreme Court has declared employment tribunal fees unlawful.  I am surprised and relieved to see that over 56% of HR professionals agree with this ruling, according to the CIPD’s poll on the subject – and I am one of them.  Over 35% disagree with it and that does not surprise me either.  Dealing with an ET claim takes up a huge amount of time and is pretty stressful.

I have handled 4 employment tribunal claims in the last 18 years and would say 3 were spurious and the 4th – and most recent – unfortunate and unnecessary.  However, I have worked for relatively benevolent employers and know full well that they are not entirely typical.

The daughter of former neighbours of ours won a claim against her employer who simply sacked her for being pregnant.  If she had had to find £1200 to bring that claim, she probably would not have been able to pursue it.

I acknowledge that this ruling will probably have me spending many hours refuting another daft claim in the not-too-distant future.  However, I think this is the price of justice and one that I am prepared to pay to ensure that vulnerable, low paid employees cannot just be rolled over by unscrupulous employers.

Rules is made to be broken

Like many, I have been shocked by the plight of nurses facing parking charges and – worse – massive parking fines.  There are parking issues at all my local hospitals.  25 years ago, I had lunch with one of my CIPD student group.  This necessitated my picking her up from Addenbrookes Hospital, in Cambridge, where she worked at that time, so she wouldn’t lose the parking space she’d secured on early arrival that morning.  When my aunt died in hospital in North Wales 3 years ago, my mum and I had stressful trips to the hospital – in a situation which was already stressful enough – in order to view her body and do the admin which death of a loved one presents you with.  Parking was problematic on each trip and the hospital was miles from the nearest town.

I have no easy answers to all this.  Maybe hospitals need to start thinking about 24/7 reliable public transport, so that staff and patients are less reliant on their cars? The only other option is more parking and that requires space, which isn’t always available.

26 years ago, my son Noel – then aged about 20 months – was at the childminder.  I was at home writing an assignment for my CIPD qualification.  He developed a bad cough and high temperature.  In the space of 4 hours, we went from the childminder to the GP and then 6 miles to A and E.  A cautious GP thought there might be something seriously wrong and was taking no chances.  Armed with a letter, I drove to the hospital (Addenbrookes in Cambridge) with my wheezing, red-faced infant in the back.  On arrival, a man at the barrier looked into the car, paused for 2 seconds and let me in to a central area used – I think – for emergencies only.  I parked and took my son into A and E.  A nurse gave him a whopping dose of Calpol and his temperature went down visibly as we watched.  He was kept in overnight – at which point he was declared “a toe rag” and despatched by the doctor doing the ward round.  Neither my son nor I had slept much that night and I witnessed some very ill and distressed infants and saw and heard much about the plight of their relatives.  A grim education.  I was lucky – it turned out Noel just had croup and it soon passed.

When I got to the car, I noticed for the first time all the huge notices saying you weren’t allowed to park there for any length of time.  My car had been there at least 16 hours at that point – and overnight.  Luckily, no grim missives on the screen.  I drove Noel and I out of the emergency area, back into the outside world.  The man on the barrier clocked me again; a moment’s pause and we were off.  No fine, no harsh words.

I do wonder if this would happen today.  At a really stressful time, someone just took a punt and made a decision not to hassle me or impose the rules.  Sometimes, that’s the right judgement call.