May 9, 2013

Consistently Different

Many of you know of my prejudice against those HR policies, procedures and practices that proudly endeavour to create “consistency”; consistency in tone, content and moreover in their application. Why are HR practitioners so anxious to engender consistency? In reply, most people talk about the importance of equality and fairness. But if we really wanted to manage people fairly (which we do) then let’s simply say that. Consistency isn’t the same as fairness, because people are different. For example, I want my employer to treat me fairly but it will struggle to do so if it has to treat me the same as everyone else, who are undoubtedly different from me and different from you. 

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have structures, frameworks and guidelines. We do need these, but we also need to enable individuals to be themselves, to be expressive, to be distinct, and to be different.  As an organisation – a collection of people – we need these different perspectives, skills, experiences and behaviours to flourish and then come together to generate positive corporate outcomes; whether it be innovative research, engaging teaching or solving tricky people problems. 

We’re currently working with Simon Fanshawe, co-founder of Stonewall and he recently signposted us to a book called The Difference by Scott Page. Page indicates that progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalising on their individuality. He shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. So don’t “great minds think alike”? Maybe, but let’s not forget that other maxim: “fools seldom differ”.

Simon illustrated how diversity and difference isn’t particuarly prevalent in the corporate world, describing how a large ‘magic circle’ law firm employs fewer women Partners than it does male Partners called “Dave”. But surely we’re not that homogenous here at Sheffield? My HR colleague ended Simon’s story by suggesting that perhaps we are - substitute the word “Partner” with “Pro-Vice-Chancellor” and “Dave” with “Tony”. Indeed, only this week the THE published their Global Gender Index, reporting that “academia is characterised as being cutting-edge, innovative and hypermodern, yet wherever you look it is underpinned by the archaism of male domination”. 

However, the picture is improving. I was recently reading the coverage of Lady Thatcher’s death and was struck by a reproduced image taken of her Cabinet in 1989. The paper caption dwelled on the duplicitous smiles of the Ministers whilst they were secretly preparing to oust their Prime Minister. But what I noticed was that those 22 people that stood behind their leader were all white, middle aged men, none of whom had declared a LGBT orientation nor a disability. This wouldn’t be the case now, regardless of the political party in power. Simon perhaps presented this more eloquently when suggesting that discrimination was still an “everyday event” but no longer an “all-day event”.

As you know we are now playing an important role in supporting the University, its leaders, managers and staff to embrace difference and diversity. Part of this work is for us to guard against slavishly applying our policies, procedures and processes in a ‘consistent’ manner when the result, however unintentional, may be to fetter individuality, diversity and fairness. This isn’t always an easy task for us, but it certainly makes our jobs consistently different from many others.