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Human Resources: We are all Thatcher’s Children now…..

9th Apr 2013
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It is almost impossible to write an article about Margaret Thatcher without mentioning your own political leanings.   Commentators seem to be divided into three categories – Thatcherites who can only see greatness, anti Thatcherites who can only see the damage she caused and then there are those who fall into the ‘I was never a Thatcherite  or Tory but….’  I am one of the Buts (with one ‘t’).

 

I was a child in the 60’s and a teen in the 70’s and studied Politics at university.  My first job was in industrial relations in the then infamous Ford factory at Halewood on Merseyside.  It was one of the front lines of management/union relations during a recession that may not have been as technically deep or as long as the current one, but I can assure you was considerably worse for many, many people.   At the time I was in the anti Thatcher camp.  As a student I went on CND rallies, student protests and was not a supporter of sending the Task Force to the Falklands.    But with time comes perspective and looking back, she had a tremendous impact on our profession, whether we like it or not.

 

Her impact on Trade Unions is well documented and seen by many as one of her defining achievements.   For those who did not live in the seventies, I can assure you, the music was good but the economics, politics and society was not.  The oil crisis, three day week, the winter of discontent and the general feeling that we were on a permanent slide into a crumbling third rate country was very prevalent.   Our industry was not well managed (as a former colleague of mine used to say – management gets the trade unions it deserves) and our trade unions were in many cases too powerful and misusing their power.  Margaret Thatcher changed the legal landscape and changed peoples’ beliefs and expectations about what trade unions should concern themselves with and in what circumstances a strike would be reasonable.   For those of us who specialised in ‘industrial relations’ and negotiating with unions – we became an endangered species!

 

Thatcher’s second impact , connected with her attack on trade unions, was to focus on the individual.  This affected companies but also affected individual employees.   Psychologically people began to focus on their own contribution, their own negotiation with the employer and the value that they brought to the enterprise.   With employers no longer offering ‘jobs for life’ people were moving jobs more frequently, expecting to be paid what they were worth and prepared to move elsewhere if not receiving their perceived value.   This freeing of the labour market was good for those with economic value and talents – but not so good for those with skills that were in plentiful supply or without higher value skills.  At its worse it was ‘devil take the hindmost’ and at its best, it released talent, set fire to aspirations and saw greater mobility than ever before.  In HR we saw the rise of the compensation and benefits function.  Bonuses, shares and other performance related pay was driven by the new work ethic and focus on results.

 

Margaret Thatcher was an outsider.   She was not an old Etonian.  She was not one of the boys.  She was a meritocrat and ‘free marketeer’ in an almost American way challenging the old class system (ironically the US is now inventing its own class system and becoming less socially mobile).  She was a major challenge to the establishment in the same way that Gorbachev was within the USSR.  Organisations in the City which were run by ex-public schoolboys in wood panelled offices with pictures of dead people hung on the wall were now challenged, after big bang, by US, Japanese and German global firms and in many cases found wanting.  Ability, not who you know, became more important than ever – and technology became increasingly important.   Although Thatcher was not a feminist she was a meritocrat and that principal became more important in British society.   It could be argued that talent development, rigorous recruitment processes and a focus on ability became increasingly important as a result of the free for all for talent.

 

One area of HR (or personnel as it was then) that changed was the traditional welfare function.  In fact some HR people would scoff at the old-fashioned welfare people who used to be employed by firms like Ford.   The Thatcherite statement that there is no such thing as society has moved management and human resources to a more transactional function and whilst there is a renewed interest in ethics – the space for empathy, sympathy and concern for colleagues and employees has diminished.

 

In fact it could be argued that prior to Thatcher our profession was personnel but post Thatcher it became Human Resources as a result of the free market and social changes that she ushered in.   Whether we have lost something along the way, I’ll leave for you to consider.   In that sense we may all be Thatcher’s Children now.  I have to say, I am not sure she would be my ideal Mum!

 

 

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