Turning People Into Data

Turning People Into Data

By Andy Shettle
28 September 2016

We’ve all, at some stage in our career, taken a look at what the actual definition of our job role is. With Human Resources and Employee Relations, you’ll find variations on a theme around consultation, facilitation and resolution strategies for workplace issues, staff retention, training and improvement, learning and development, which are all commonly used terms to describe the job function.

In reality, we all know that our jobs encompass far more than any dictionary definition can accurately describe.

Using Employee Relations as the example, we typically see employee relations managing underperforming staff, sickness and absence, disciplinary cases and similar. No employee is the same and each individual employee relations case will have multiple variants around why there may be issues for them in the workplace. 

The HR professional needs to be able to understand the business needs and what’s required of each employee, but also understand how to be able to get the most out of staff. Or, in the case of underperforming or challenging staff, know how to work with them help them improve and engage with their work in a productive and supportive way. 

HR professionals are naturally good mediators, confidants and, generally speaking, people-oriented. Finally, they’ve got to be approachable.

A successful HR professional is one who can manage an entire workforce, developing the best staff into great leaders, and helping to engage underperforming or unenthusiastic staff. Employees are the lifeblood of an organisation, and the HR professional can be seen as the heart that keeps that blood pumping!

Turning people into data

However, a key function of any role within a company is being able to report on their business area. The finance guys have it easy, numbers translate well into reporting. But people and personalities really don’t.

An employee may be enthusiastic and motivated, but due to unrelated circumstances (perhaps troubles in their personal life) can mean that their work performance isn’t meeting the company standard. As an HR professional, you know that this is a dedicated and hard working employee. But on paper, does this really come across? Will business leaders, when reading reports understand this?

I’d argue that’s a no.

And that, I believe, is where we’re going wrong in employee relations. The data we track is ‘flat’. We record dates, times, incidents, and various actions taken with specific cases, but we fail to address the root causes and fail to record data that helps us identify the ‘whys’ of a case.

Imagine if you will, a manager within a department who is not as professional as they should be e.g. a bullying attitude, favouritism, lewd comments, insufficient level training skills etc. The employees working under that manager are likely to suffer.  Potentially, those employees will be the ones that take more sick days, or will underperform. It’s the employees that will ultimately end up with some form of disciplinary action against them. If we don’t record information about where in the business, or who in the business an employee works for, then the ‘blame’ for poor performance nearly always falls to the employee…even if that’s not the case.

The key to improving, and reducing, future employee relations cases is to be able to take a person and their personality and turn it into useful data. I am male, I’m in my mid-30s, I have been with Selenity (formerly Software Europe) for two years, and I’ve recently become one of the company’s directors. That’s all information about me that’s accurate, but it tells you nothing about who I am as a person, how well I get on with colleagues, or how good I am at my job.

Moving from flat to multi-dimensional

The steps are two-fold – you want to be able to understand, from a business perspective, how long cases are taking to complete, and the costs involved in settling or closing each case. For this you need to understand each step of a case – how long did it take before a letter was sent, how long did it take for the employee to respond and so on. Then you add in the costs, whether that’s from legal, mediation costs, or from tribunals. 

That data alone can bring about efficiencies within the HR or employee relations teams – streamlining the processes to make sure that there aren’t delays in cases, which can be costly.

But, more importantly, as you start recording and tracking more case data, you’ll start to be able to infer more into the causes of cases. That’s the second point; if you’ve got detailed case information on the employee (demographics such as age, race, gender, alongside the level of training they’ve had, their department, or their line manager etc.), you will soon start to see new insights. 

As HR professionals, I’d argue, we need to move away from simply recording case data, completing specific disciplinary actions and moving on. We should be, as the people-centric professionals we are, using data and information to help us understand our workforce better. To understand that our employees are committed, and that they are dedicated, and that sometimes, they need help and support rather than discipline.

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