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Do employees' perceptions match the reality?

Published: 25 July 2016 at 11:43

Diane Keeble-Ramsay

By Dr Diane Keeble-Ramsey, pictured.

Do employees’ perceptions of your HR interventions match the reality? There’s much debate among HR and L&D professionals about strategic HR, and how our skills can make a lasting, positive impact. But how often do we stop and ask if employees’ perceptions of our work match up with our own?

Over the past few years, I’ve been working on a series of research projects examining employees’ perceptions of organisations’ reactions to changes in the workplace as a result of the global financial crisis. Having carried out interviews with workers in 2011, 2013 and 2015, we’ve identified persistent evidence that staff regard their working environment as increasingly harsh and unfriendly.

Perceptions aren’t necessarily the same as realities, but how you think and feel about work relates closely to productivity. We asked employees – in the context of the financial crisis – what are your impressions of how your company has dealt with workforce challenges? The HR and L&D profession may say it’s better at training, development and engagement, but do employees agree?

We wanted to find out if employers recognised that a more progressive approach to people development would make their businesses more sustainable and resilient to market fluctuations. But in our 2011 research, we found companies were using cost-cutting and restructuring as the default response to the global financial crisis.

In 2013, the issues were around culture change and a lack of communication. There was also evidence that workers viewed IT as being used as the cheapest way to ensure everyone complied with the minimum learning requirements – through basic e-learning courses. When organisations were thinking about their response to a crisis, we found many of their choices were ones that diminished their relationship with the workforce.

Even in 2015, when the economic climate had improved, we saw the same, backwards trends: companies taking a cost-based approach to development.

Rather than implementing an employee development policy that increased workers’ skills ready for an upturn, they either eroded skillsets by not developing people, or lost skilled people to better-paid roles elsewhere. The exception was the ‘Canary Wharf bubble’, where businesses were making excessive reward payments to retain vital skills.

We need to rethink management development, and how managers think about their relationship to the global environment. Management education today is focused on ‘what isn’t measured doesn’t matter,’ and responds quickly to continuous changes. Instead, we must stop and think: how can we put the human element back into our relationships with employees? Where is the ‘human’ in ‘HRM’?

British workers also appear to have a more negative-sounding relationship with employers than those in other countries. If we don’t address it, what will this – and the resulting drop in productivity – mean for Britain in the business world? We shouldn’t be ignoring the needs of the workforce in favour of financial needs. And with the decision that the UK is to leave the EU, it is more important than ever to consider the perceptions of the workforce in terms of engaging talent, rather than disengaging them through measures focused on the bottom line.

This article first appeared in People Management Magazine.