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2011: That was the HR year that was


If it were possible to sum up the key preoccupations of 2011 in just a few words, for me, they would be ‘fairness’ and ‘democratisation’. 

At the macro-economic level, the climate has got steadily worse as the Eurozone crisis has deepened and economists increasingly start to warn of a double-dip recession. 
This situation has contributed to the UK’s worst unemployment rate for 17 years, with young people being particularly badly hit and the spectre of a ‘lost generation’ of workers being raised – with all of the potential for future social unrest that such a scenario implies. In fact, we had a taster of what it might look like in August when the UK was gripped by its worst riots in 25 years.
But unrest has taken other forms too. Many public sector workers have expressed themselves unhappy at the Coalition Government’s austerity measures of which they feel that they have had to bear a disproportionate brunt – at the same time as bankers appear to be enjoying rising pay and bonuses again.
The final straw for most, however, were Government attempts to change long-standing pension arrangements, coming as the move did on top of widespread wage freezes, changes to pay and conditions and seemingly endless streams of redundancies – in the wake of reductions in the overall value of redundancy packages anyway.
The end result of such disillusionment was a day of national unrest on Wednesday 30 November. 
But, while private sector workers may have been less militant, job losses, pay squeezes, increased workloads and high stress levels here too have all taken their toll, contributing to disenchantment, low levels of employer loyalty and elevated sickness absence rates.
No wonder then that topics such as how best to boost staff engagement, cultivate employee resilience and undertake effective change and performance management have been on most HR professionals’ lips.
But other matters relating to fairness have also been high on the agenda. 
For example, the pay gap between the UK’s highest and lowest paid is now hitting unprecedented levels. Hikes of 4000% in the pay of some top FTSE executives over the last 30 years as the average wage of workers has only trebled, has consistently raised questions about whether such individuals provide value for money – particularly in a down economy and especially when their renumeration does not reflect company share price growth.
Issues of gender diversity, which include Lord Davies’ report on how to boost female representation at board level – and the limited progress of his recommendations to date – have likewise rarely been out of the headlines, bringing about talent management headaches that will only continue to reverberate into both the near and more distant future.
But sex discrimination is not the only topic to have generated attention over the last 12 months. While 2011 was the year of religious discrimination claims, particularly in relation to workers’ rights to wear such symbols of their beliefs as crucifixes, 2012 is likely to be characterised by legal action relating to age discrimination following the abolition of the Default Retirement Age.
Given the current economic climate and the fact that fewer and fewer staff can now afford to retire, HR departments are also going to have to find ways of managing increasingly mixed workforces, often with very different requirements.
A key challenge in this context will simply be catering adequately to the needs of older staff, which will often be quite different to those of the emergent Generation Y as its members increasingly begin entering the workforce. 
While the former are likely to demand both physical support and progressively flexible ways of working, the latter, who have grown up with the internet at their fingertips, simply look at the world differently. 
Millennials, so the characterisation goes, are ‘digital natives’ and inherent multi-taskers, who want things done immediately and have higher expectations of both relationships and services than their older colleagues.
No wonder then that social media – their signature tool, with its democratising effect on both information and personal interaction – was a massively hot topic last year. 
But from an HR perspective, the debate moved on from whether access to social networking sites should be allowed or whether usage should be restricted or even banned, to how HR professionals might start to exploit such tools for their own ends.
While social networking sites such as LinkedIn became de rigueur for recruitment purposes, voices also started to be raised about the possibilities of employing more sophisticated concepts such as online communities for the same purpose. 
The first understandings likewise started to emerge about how enterprise social networking tools might be employed effectively to fulfil collaboration, information-sharing and knowledge management goals – although the debate here was controlled and driven less by HR and more by colleagues in marketing and internal communications departments.
While grasping the nettle is likely to pose a key challenge for HR professionals over the year ahead, it also opens up a world of opportunities to demonstrate value as the business attempts to exploit the growth potential offered by this new channel in a bear market. 
As those ageing rockers Motley Crue once said: “You better use it, before you lose it. Don’t throw it away.”
Cath Everett, Editor, HRZone

One Response

  1. HR – A Motley Crue


    Nice to see Motley Crue quoted in here and I very much agree with the sentiment of the article – I recently presented to the CIPD Senior Practitioners group and you pretty much sum up the mood.

    As far as Chrustmas in HR goes, I'd like to also mention 'The 12 Days of HR Christmas' Blog by Alison Chisnell at




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