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Jonathan Broadhurst

Emenex

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Heathrow: Ensuring staff actions line up with corporate values

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I think it was Napoleon who said that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers. 

It’s certainly true that we know a thing or two about queuing – it’s pretty much a national past time. 
 
So it seems strange that we could get it so wrong at Heathrow Airport. It’s not as if it’s something new. Back in 2007, the Competition Commission slammed Heathrow and Gatwick for their unacceptable passenger delays in a move that cost operator, BAA, £2.6 million in compensation and fines
 
Joan Collins complained bitterly to her 68,000 Twitter followers about the three-hour wait that she had to endure in order to get into the UK. But she should have known better.
 
For a mere £1,800, it’s possible to hire a limo to transfer you from the plane as well as obtain the services of your own personal immigration official. They will help you avoid queuing up alongside those less fortunate (and less well off) than yourself.
 
For the vast majority of us, however, the £1,800 celebrity lane isn’t an option. So, what could Heathrow do to make it easier to get into the country, not least in anticipation of the influx of visitors for the Olympic Games? 
 
Having seen the media coverage, it’s probable that some of them are already wondering if they should pack a pop-up tent and sleeping bag, just in case. Are they right to worry?
 
The immigration officials strike on 30 November last year tells another story. Despite less than half of the desks being manned that day, there were almost no queues at all. And, while passenger numbers were down, of the normal 1,200 flights, only 30 inbound and 30 outbound flights were cancelled (around 0.5%).  
 
After introducing a few innovative ideas and a more collaborative approach with the airlines and other airports, Heathrow managed to virtually eliminate queuing, even though it had only 50% of its usual staff available. 
 
The value of values
 
So why is the prospect of further queues during the Olympics still in the news, with Eurotunnel now flagging up concerns of its own? 
 
Many commentators highlight planning and resource issues – simply having enough people on duty at the right time and in the right place. Both Seth Troxler, a US DJ and regular traveller between his homeland and the UK and immigration minister, Damian Green, put the delays down to red tape and inflexible staffing provision. 
 
Personally though, I don’t see it primarily as a planning issue. At the heart of the matter, in my opinion, are the values that drive the UK Border Agency and how those values are played out through the behaviour of its managers and staff.
 
This scenario has a direct impact on employee engagement levels and, ultimately, the quality of service provided.
 
On the UK Border Agency’s website, it says that a key value is: “We deliver for the public”. What does this mean? How does making passengers wait around for more than three hours “deliver for the public”? 
 
When a decision was made to reduce checks in a bid to speed up movement through immigration, the repercussions were severe and Brodie Clark, the head of the UK Border Force resigned following a dispute with home secretary, Theresa May.
 
Some years ago, there was a police force that wanted to change its image. The perception was that, being a policeman was a real macho job. You got to wear a cool uniform, drive a fast car and carry a gun. 
 
Your job was to catch criminals – and everyone was a potential suspect. But that image doesn’t make it easy for the average law-abiding person to approach a policeman for help. Nor did it do anything to help promote the idea that the police cared or were there to help.
 
The key to affecting change was to shift thinking  among officers about their role and move the focus from catching criminals to protecting the community. It wasn’t easy getting hard-nosed officers to change their attitude and behaviour, but the results were amazing and led to a subsequent sharing of inspiring stories involving life-changing events.
 
Practice what you preach
 
One sergeant, for instance, told of how, while on the beat, he saw a young homeless person walking towards him. His usual approach would have been to stop and search the individual for drugs and then, most likely, to lock him up. 
 
But this time, the sergeant engaged the homeless man in conversation, enquiring about his life and how he had ended up at this point. Six months later, the same person, now well-dressed, walked up to the sergeant and thanked him for helping him to turn his life around.
 
Another example of how values play out in operational decision-making is Southwest Airlines. It actively promotes its corporate values and uses them as an integral part of its decision-making process in order to achieve its goals.
 
There is a well-known YouTube video of a flight attendant rapping the in-flight safety announcement. This footage serves to demonstrate three values that Southwest cherishes: 1: a warrior spirit. 2: a servant’s heart and 3: a fun-loving attitude. 
 
It also helps to make their safety announcement the most listened to of any US airline and contributes to making it one of the world leaders in its field.
 
What these anecdotes highlight is the need for HR professionals to focus on their organisation’s mission and values and ensure that they become part of the everyday behaviour of every staff member. While most organisations have a mission statement and list of values, the majority do not practise them.
 
HR professionals are increasingly known as HR business partners on the basis that they are an integral part of operational and strategic decision-making, with a focus on people. If this is the case, then a primary challenge should be to align corporate values and employee behaviour.
 
BAA’s mission statement for Heathrow is to “become Europe’s hub of choice by making every journey better.”
 
But the real questions for BAA and the UK Borders Agency are: What is it that you really value? How is this communicated in the behaviour of and decisions made by your managers? And what are the three most important behaviours that all of your staff must demonstrate tomorrow in order to fulfil your aims?
 
 

Jonathan Broadhurst is a partner at organisational change consultancy, Emenex.

One Response

  1. Never mind the values, here’s HMRC

    If you want to change the people, change the people.  Every time I pass through her majesty’s customs, I see about two people working and ten watching them work.  I don’t think values workshops are the answer.  For once I’m on the side of Sir Alan Sugar – fire the people watching the work and start over.

    Tesco’s would be out of business with such appalling behaviour. 

    Also it is a shameful sign of public services decline in morality when bad service = an opportunity to make money from that bad service.  I have little time for this – the clue is in the title public and service.

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