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P&O sackings remind HR to be the radical voice of the business

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Reflecting on P&O Ferries’ recent mass sackings, leadership and culture specialist Blaire Palmer urges HR to uphold their role as the people’s champion, even during the most testing times.

21st Mar 2022
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When a company (in this case P&O Ferries) does something so unanimously shocking (like making its staff redundant with immediate effect in a two-minute thirty-second pre-recorded zoom), two things happen.

First, we imagine ourselves being told to gather our things and leave our place of work with no notice whatsoever. We imagine the incredulity we would feel, the sudden rush of fear about how we will survive with our income cut off, and then the horror of having to explain to our families what’s happened. 

Second, we imagine the conversations around the HR table that could have led to such a course of action. What would we have done? Would we have spoken out or towed the line? 

And it’s this that we all need to reflect on. 

The real test of leadership is what you do when things take a turn for the worst.

HR should be a radical voice

HR should be an outlier in a business. The days of being a mere service provider to the organisation are in the past. Our job today is to be a radical voice that stands for the values of the organisation, and a representative of the people who work in the business. 

Yes we of course need to be commercial too and, without doubt, P&O and every business in the Hospitality and Transport industries was badly hit by the pandemic. P&O aren’t the first to let people go as a result. It’s the hardest job to balance up the business case and the human case. But that is our job. No one else in the organisation has that in their remit. 

A quick glance at the company’s vision shows us what it claims to stand for: 

‘Inspire our people and continue to develop outstanding teams who are determined to exceed customer expectations…Lead the industry in setting standards for best practice in wellbeing’. 

The mission is, apparently, ‘to build the best possible business for our customers, our people and our communities’. There is actually a typo in that statement on their website which does make me wonder how often someone in authority reads it.  

Whoever comes up with mission and value statements in a business (and let’s hope HR has something to do with it) sets the bar for us as HR professionals. The values and mission are then our HR values and mission and we are tasked, overtly or not, to apply them to every decision we are part of. And if we aren’t part of those decisions, we have to be very vocal about that. 

Unlike any other function in a business, we have to be willing to be fired over these conversations. We have to be uncomfortable, perhaps daily, as we hold these statements under the noses of senior leaders. 

The real test of leadership

No one said leadership is easy. It’s easy to say people are your number one asset and that their wellbeing is your priority when business is good. 

The real test of leadership is what you do when things take a turn for the worse. When it’s hard to stand for your stated mission and values is when we see what your true mission and values are. 

If any HR people from P&O are reading this you may well have the insider story. Perhaps you did vehemently speak out. Perhaps you are sworn to secrecy because of an NDA. Perhaps you even lost your job as a result. Sometimes we do everything we can and it still doesn’t prevent transgressions like this. If that describes you, you have my utmost respect for your bravery. 

For the rest of us though, instead of being self-righteous, we have to ask ourselves whether we are genuinely brave, every day, when it comes to standing up for our people and standing up for what our company says it stands for. 

If HR isn’t on the side of people, who is? If people in your organisation worry when HR is present in a meeting, or they won’t go to HR because they don’t trust you’re on their side, you’ve got a problem. Rightly or wrongly, people don’t think you are their champion. Every day you have to prove you’ve got their back. 

Questions to ask every day

How often are we holding up the bold, inspirational statements on our company website and forcing the conversation ‘Does this decision align with what we tell people matters to us?’ How often are we saying ‘We have to find a way to protect the interests of the business and do right by our people and not stop working on this problem until we’ve found a way’. 

Even when the values are being created we need to ask ‘Do we really mean this?’ and play with scenarios that would test our resolve. ‘What would we do if…?’

We should know those values by heart. They should be the success criteria for every decision. 

  • ‘If we really were leaders in wellbeing, what would we do now?’

  • ’If we were building the best possible business for our people, what would our options be?’

  • ’Looking ahead six months, what is the consequence of the decisions we are making today for our people in future?’ 

You simply can’t prioritise commercial over people – the two are completely linked. And it’s our job as HR to make sure everyone knows that. 

Use your emotional intelligence and leadership skills to discuss these matters in a way that’s most likely to be heard. It’s not about storming around being holier than thou and putting everyone off. At the same time, we must be willing to be ridiculed, told that we aren’t being commercial or even left out of conversations because we’ve become troublesome.

Listen, challenge, encourage better ideas. Be wily if you need to. But don’t give up. Never give up on the people. 

Stories like this are discussed on the The Human Revolutionaries Show with Blaire Palmer and Natasha Wallace on Apple Podcasts. Each week Blaire and Natasha explore a business story through an HR lens and share their opinions about leadership, culture and wellbeing at work. 

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