In a recession ditch human resources, employ people

In the 1980s the term Human Resources came into vogue. We had human resources management, human resources departments, human resource development and just plain HR. Familiar terms such as personnel, staff and workers were considered old fashioned in some quarters. In the meantime other countries and their economies were overtaking us.

Are the two factors connected? I suspect so.

Recessions can entrench us in bad practice – or make us think again.

Businesses have a variety of resources, whether plentiful or rare, cheap or expensive. Often these depend on market forces, which may be outside our control. But how businesses treat their staff is largely within their control. People may be treated with respect, with indifference or with contempt. The HR approach rarely encourages respect.

People may be hard-working or lazy, motivated or unmotivated, interested or indifferent, loyal or disloyal, prompt or dilatory. Some like to do the best they can; others prefer to do the least that they can get away with.

A good deal has to do with past experiences. People’s expectations when joining a new company or business will depend a good deal on its local reputation as an employer. This is truer of small towns than of cities.

Few people move easily from one attitude extreme to the other, but it is a long-established fact that intelligent management and supervision can attract staff from mediocrity to productivity, and the opposite can drive them from mediocrity to ineffectiveness. We get the staff we deserve, and ultimately, the quality we deserve.

The Second WorId War ended 66 years ago. Goods were in short supply for a long time. Almost anything would sell in a starving market; I recall some of the rubbish my parents paid good money for.

Sometimes British firms lagged complacently as the market recovered and “quality” became the key word.

When the market is flooded with goods and services, only the best is good enough. Quality requires all-round dedication; and that cannot be achieved and maintained without the commitment of the entire workforce. It requires loyalty and pride in the product or service, and at least a degree of loyalty to and pride in the company or organisation.

In 1952 I fell in love with a Borderer and the Borders. Here I found staunch loyalty and pride of belonging, whether to community, company, or church.

As a young infantry training corporal in the mid-fifties, the best two intakes of National Servicemen I trained were from the Borders, diverted from the KOSB where they would normally have been drafted.

After 30-odd years in the army and some time as a training consultant to a successful national company, I returned to the Borders, expecting to find the same splendid attitudes I had known before.

But all too often I found that “It’s aye been” did not extend to the employer-employee relationship, which was worse not better. Too few people were now proud to belong. I never had any difficulty in finding consultancy work elsewhere, but found it almost impossible to interest local employers in the kind of personnel management training that was considered essential further south. Having sung the praises of the Borders far and wide, I was disappointed.

Deepening recession has done nothing to change the picture. I am long since retired, but often encounter the “If you don’t like the job, you know what to do about it” attitude.

Of course employers are not welfare organisations or benevolent societies. It’s tough out there and if work is not coming in, we may have to reduce the workforce. But we can at least treat staff with consideration and avoid mucking them about more than we have to, having the confidence to share problems when it is appropriate and sometimes even asking for their views. Good people management pays dividends.

We are already handicapped by the lack of dual-carriageway roads, fuel costs, rail links and the diversion of European funds to the Highlands when our own case is equally deserving. There is little if anything we can do there.

But we can at least make the most of what we do have, and that is an abundant supply of people seeking work, particularly work which offers at least some job satisfaction. Job satisfaction in staff reduces stress and blood pressure in employers!

There are still many good employers around. If we are fortunate enough to work for one of them, it is up to us to remember that their survival in a cut-throat business world means our survival in a desperately competitive employment market.

Nobody can buy the loyalty of an employee; loyalty has to be earned. But where it is deserved, let us not be stinting with it. Unhappy workers are rarely, if ever, intuitive, creative, supportive or courteous thus lacking the most essential elements of true business prosperity.

Donald Cameron has contributed to Modern Management and Training Journal. His fourth book is currently awaiting publication