As a HR leader whose influence creates social change, what do you feel has been your most impactful action to date?
There are two aspects of change that create impact, the micro and the macro. Firstly the micro level requires knowing that, on an emotional basis, there are small things you can do that create big impact. HR is about systems, made up of many actions, many people, over time. We lead HR with the Unilever Way; understanding ourselves, our own triggers and how we impact others. Small things we do and say as HR professionals can make a big impact. For example, when I was a Personnel Manager at a factory at Grimsby, I was often asked by employees to read their personal mail – we realised there were literacy problems, which we acted to solve by organising literacy classes for employees. I remember a colleague coming to thank me, explaining that at the weekend he had read to his grandchild for the first time. This small moment made me think, wow, we can make a huge difference. These ‘small things’ multiplied over time, create culture and change. The second, an example of a macro aspect of change is the Unilever Future of Work programme, which I’ll summarise next.
At the moment, in your industry, what do you think is the most exciting opportunity for HR to change the world?
Unilever ensures that every one of its brands has a purpose. In a purpose driven business, and in an era of significant disruption, the old ways of managing change don’t work anymore; we face the paradox of greater opportunity but fewer jobs. We need to identify how we manage change to accommodate this era of paradox, now accelerated by the pandemic. The pattern of education – work – retirement is over. Lifelong learning is at the centre of our change agenda, the Future of Work programme. Each employee at Unilever has a Future Fit Plan. We’re looking at developing a new style of employment contract, one that provides agile employment, but with security. Under the new contracts, you can work at Unilever for a certain number of hours and you’ll be able to work for others at the same time, plus do your own training. We’re working to ensure our employees are prepared for a world of disruption and we’re having the conversations with them, not at them. We’re also working on systemic interventions, we need to work with other companies to apply this approach, creating partnerships and alliances, even where appropriate to share employees... Airlines for example, already share many business functions - why can’t we share people too - in a way that suits peoples’ lifestyles, provides security, secures livelihoods and even increases total employment? HR must lead this transformation.
Which particular areas of social and environmental injustice are you most passionate about, and see that your role gives you the chance to create change?
It’s hard to pick out one, but an issue I’ve done a lot of work in is the rise of casualisation. There is a huge issue of people working 365 days a year but never being an employee of the company they work for. This has knock on social consequences including child labour and gender discrimination. At Unilever we’ve done a significant project; it’s taken ten years, looking at all our temporary employment contracts. We have worked with the International Union of Foodworkers to face into dilemmas and seek to solve deep systemic issues. We’ve accepted where we've gone wrong; for example, in one factory in Pakistan, we had 800 employees but 745 didn’t work for us. Following an agreement with the International Union of Foodworkers, we made about 500-600 permanent, and there was a subsequent baby boom! I mention this as it shows how secure employment contracts radically transformed lives. Exploitation of temporary labour is an issue that businesses need to tackle systemically, I feel passionately about this. If you think about it from a macro business perspective, how can you have people working for you on wages that mean they cannot afford to buy your products?
How have you best used your position to create a more equitable and inclusive environment in ways that deliver your business goals?
Business goals depend on the perspective of the era we are living in: until the 2008 financial crisis there was a real emphasis only on the Profit perspective in the western world, now we see more and more businesses are becoming more People and Purpose centred, particularly in light of C-19. Our next perspective will be the need to address issues around emerging ‘say-do gaps’ as we face into the paradoxes of the modern world. HR is uniquely positioned to lead this agenda. There has to be a new symbiosis between social and financial measures, how we do this going forward will be the next breakthrough in HR.
What is the one specific action you would like to see all HR Leaders take to make a positive change for the world?
Have a point of view. You can work to the world view that’s around you or you can have a point of view about where you, as an HR Leader, want the world to be. In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote; “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Solving this problem, is the future of HR.