In conversation with Karen Grave
Karen Grave is the President of The Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA) and will be speaking on the panel: What role HR plays when things go wrong at the Public Sector Solutions Expo on 25th June 2019
What is the biggest challenge when training and educating the workforce on whistleblowing?
The biggest challenge firstly is definition. What is it that makes an employee a whistle-blower? Whistleblowing legislation was introduced to protect people who were raising concerns at work and often being bullied and harassed because they spoke up. The key difference with whistleblowing compared to other complaints is that the issue(s) must be shown to have a direct public interest. The issues within the NHS that gave rise to The Francis Report are a direct example.
Legislation sets out what the test for these issues are – this is really important because it helps both the whistle-blower and the organisation determine what the best approach to addressing the complaint might be. Personal grievances, e.g., someone who believes they are being bullied, but which does not impact on the public interest must use the organisation’s usual HR processes. From a public service perspective, every organisation should have a policy and nominated officers to deal with whistleblowing complaints. This usually involves the HR Director and the most Senior lawyer – for Local Government this is usually the Monitoring Officer.
It’s not always easy to make the distinction so good policy/process, should clearly define what type of incident is classed as whistleblowing and set out what an employee should do. Not all employees will necessarily ever come across such an incident, but all public service organisations should, as a matter of course, send out the organisation’s policy to new starters and run refresher training. Raising awareness of what is a hugely sensitive and difficult matter appropriately is critical.
Many organisations see whistleblowing as a negative thing. However, one of the most helpful descriptions I have heard comes from Protect, which is a charity set up to help whistle-blowers. They’re definition is really illuminating:
“Whistleblowing ultimately protects customers, staff, beneficiaries, and the organisation itself by identifying harm before it’s too late”.
This is really important to recognise, because whistleblowing can and has saved lives, improved services and kept employees safe. And that is what we should all strive to ensure, whichever part of public service we work in.
How have wider attitudes to harassment in society changed the HR challenges with harassment in the workplace?
This is an interesting question! It is sometimes the case that societal attitudes can help and hinder our work in HR at the same time. So, for example, must of the publicity around #Metoo generated a lot of noise but not a huge amount of real change on the ground. Noise does not always equal meaningful action.
I am pleased to say however, that the Women and Equalities Parliamentary committee held some important hearings in 2018 to consider the use of NDA’s and a government consultation on the use of settlement agreements closed on April 29th, 2019. PPMA submitted a response and it’s always good that Government is listening and working on this issue. This is not an easy area to navigate and the feedback they get will, I am sure be seriously considered.
Sometimes people are cynical about consultation, but from a PPMA perspective it is absolutely critical. Issues such as harassment can be seen through many lenses and it’s essential that in developing good legislation, we look at the matter from all perspectives. It doesn’t mean that you give all those perspectives equal weight – it just means they have to be considered. This is mostly to ensure that a lot of publicity and short-term action on a top doesn’t cause longer term unintended consequences. We will have to wait and see what the outcome is, as that will drive practice in future.
From a HR perspective, recent publicity hasn’t been new to us. We’ve been dealing with harassment for a long time and the legislative framework offered by the Equalities Act 2010 has been the professional framework through which our policies and practice have been driven. There is however a real question around whether the Act is delivering what was hoped for. Arguably, setting out how we want society to treat protected groups should serve to eliminate the instance of discrimination happening – and most harassment involves discrimination of some sort. The irony of this however, is that attitudes that are discriminatory are often pushed under the surface and legislation is not always nuanced enough to deal with that. This means that we get backlash and certainly in the area of Diversity and Inclusion, people have become very cynical about the reasons for a lot of the initiatives we undertake, and we don’t see much progress.
So for HR professionals, we will continue to champion the development of healthy workplace cultures, that comply with legislation, but we will continue to work with key stakeholders to ensure that we really understand what the root causes of harassment are, they best ways to tackle it and the best ways to ensure it does not happen in future.
What are the key long-term solutions to maintaining transparent relationships and processes in the workforce?
This is another interesting question and I think one for a dissertation…. Or several! There are a number of solutions here and my view would be that maintaining relationships and effective processes is an ongoing task and one that everyone in the organisation is responsible for. Ultimately leadership should be accountable for delivering healthy and thriving workplaces, but it should never be the case that this is a leadership activity alone.
HR & OD functions should be at the heart of this work. Fundamentally, setting out a people strategy that clearly identifies the link between leadership, employee wellbeing and engagement and organisational performance/productivity is key. Being clear about values and the behaviours we expect from everyone will ensure that employees know what it is they are expected to deliver, and it will allow people to own and actively contribute to the shaping of the workforce. HR & OD colleagues should be sourcing the best evidence-based theories and models, working with colleagues to shape that within their organisations, understanding what works well, developing programmes and solutions that enable leaders, managers and employees to co-create and maintain health workplaces is key.
There are so many more things that I could say here. But I’d be here for months. What I would say in summary is come to www.ppma.org.uk to find out more about the work we do.