Can HR ever see humans as more than resources?

Winter 2023 #40
written by
Liam Barrington-Bush
illustration by
Nay Groves
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Management has ruined the idea of internal policy for most progressive folks who’ve ever given it half a thought. But is there a way to write down and share the ways we want to work together, that can help us live our radical values – in all their complexities – rather than undermine them? Liam Barrington-Bush of RadHR.org explores this question.

I looked on as one person’s impassioned argument for paying colleagues who have inherited wealth a lower wage than those who haven’t, was quickly rebutted by their comrade’s case for the complexities of different people’s financial circumstances and needs, which wouldn’t be recognised by such a crude financial metric. Strong cases were made by both and collective gridlock ensued. The pay policy that came out of that round of review looked much like it had going into it. It wasn’t that there was no interest in change – it was more that everyone in the small NGO had just got a bit stuck and tired. In the face of external job pressures and the inevitable complexities of thinking about pay in this way – a first for several in the group – they had reverted to the easier option.

Conversely, the organisation’s next pay review managed a big step forward – agreeing to pay staff with parental or caring responsibilities more than their colleagues without. This felt like a significant shift away from the mythical ‘even playing field’ logic – that everyone is starting from the same baseline – that frames most institutional policies around pay; the agreement of a more ‘needs-based’ approach.

Both of these proposals – which I’d been a part of shaping in a very part-time staff support role in this small activist organisation – had come from a place of trying to make our pay structures reflect the kinds of equity we were fighting to create in the wider world. But even amongst a half-dozen folks who deeply shared those values, it didn’t mean we’d agree on the steps needed to live them out in our work.

For some, inheritance was going to be their only escape route from a life on the hamster wheel that endlessly feeds pay-into-rent. The anxiety of losing even some of that real-or-imagined lifeline landed as a personal threat. For others, the perception that they had colleagues who could significantly increase their take-home pay, for no additional work, felt like the kind of injustice built into every other part of a class society. It fostered a sense of resentment to think that these wider resources wouldn’t be accounted for in a collective space.

When a parallel proposal regarding redundancy pay came up in another group I was facilitating, the idea that those with financial dependents would be paid more at the point of redundancy sparked major backlash. A member of this team who had no intention of having children, was vocal in arguing that by being single they would always have higher costs than anyone in a coupled arrangement – kids or not – and thus should be getting paid more, by the same logic.

Illustration by Nay Groves

As a recent parent, I found myself bristling at this suggestion, with prospects of £80/day nursery fees just around the corner, and a never-ending need for more clothes, food, and peripheral baby junk draining my bank balance. But I couldn’t deny at least some of this person’s perspective – over a longer timeframe, my partner and I have more earning potential than many single people, by virtue of there being two of us.

As it turns out, no matter how much we believe in one approach or another, these kinds of questions rarely have straightforward answers. Does the complexity revealed push us to default back to the status quo of how pay is decided? Or can we slowly build, bit-by-bit, towards new approaches of sharing money together?

Many of us will live our whole lives without ever having the opportunity to be part of deciding what we should get paid. Or indeed, to shape so many parts of our work, whether it be who makes what decisions, what support we could rely on if our health were to deteriorate, or what will happen to a colleague who causes us harm.

All of these questions (and so many more) come with answers that can reinforce or undermine the wider power structures we live within. The default organisational approaches we find in the world today – via countless employment law firms, Acas policy templates, or even pop culture reference points, like The Apprentice – tend to play to the interests of the already-powerful.

Do colleagues with more formal education get paid more than those with less?

Does our sickness policy acknowledge a range of gendered health concerns that might land unequally across our team?

Does our disciplinary procedure distinguish between staff who’ve caused harm, and those who’ve struggled to meet their aims because the organisation hasn’t sufficiently accommodated their disability or caring responsibilities?

But when you open the Pandora’s box of radicalising ‘human resources’, you quickly realise that you’ve got your work cut out for you. “I’d like to be getting on with my campaign work right now”, Izzy, a member of worker-run campaigning organisation, Coal Action Network (CAN), tells me while working through a raft of alternative policies the group has realised they need to have. “I know this [HR work] is also social change work, but lately I have been spending far more time doing it than I would in a traditional organisation because of lack of access to learning from other radical organisations and space to figure things out, outside the paradigms we’ve already got.”

CAN is not unique in this sense. As a small team of activists who didn’t want some of their comrades to become bosses to others, or for one person to see their campaigning time lost to admin, they adopted flat pay and decision making structures.

Not having bosses meant doing things collectively. Doing things collectively meant having systems to do those things. Having systems typically meant figuring those systems out from scratch, because most of the available options were as unaligned with the group’s values as having bosses would have been. So they started on the long road of figuring out what alternatives could fit their needs and their beliefs, only to find that most of the answers were as complex as the pay review process described at the start.

Challenges aside, the results have been tangible at CAN: “A great outcome has been a system to divide up and rotate the operational duties so that they don’t all fall on one person – so no one is the ‘admin person’ or the manager”, Izzy tells me. “It means we can all engage equally in using our campaigning skills to continue our mission.”

Illustration by Nay Groves

Who can *actually* get involved?

Alongside questions of values are the interrelated questions of accessibility to those outside of dominant groups, marginalised by their experiences of class, race, disability and so much else. A core part of practising radical values is figuring out how to do so across differences of power.

“If you want to get someone helping on a budget, you might need to go 10 steps before that and help them to use a computer”, Andrea, a volunteer from migrant-led East London community organisation, Akwaaba, shared. “That can be a real barrier.” In response, Akwaaba undertook a six month collective process to develop a decision making policy that meant more of the membership could play a role in more group decisions. The process involved members communicating with members who couldn’t attend meetings or for whom there were language barriers, as well as ongoing consensus process skill-shares, to ensure those less familiar with the practice knew how to engage and what they were taking part in.

In the ongoing pursuit of a non-hierarchical organisation, getting rid of the explicit hierarchies of job roles and pay is only step one. Often it involves finding new or alternative ways of working, to enable folks with different educational backgrounds, communication styles, language abilities, and work capacities to start to engage on more equitable terms. And doing so tends to involve writing things down...

Is ‘radical policy' a thing?

As dirty a word as ‘policy’ can be in many radical groups, some of us keep finding ourselves coming back to it. While most of our experiences of organisational policy have been about the rules that management use to exert power over the rest of us – or potentially, a couple of key lines of hard-won gains, following a successful union dispute – this might not be the entire story.

“The revolution is relational”, argues Janey, a co-director of feminist campaign platform, Level Up. “It’s a revolution that we get to enact every day – and the best way to enact that revolution with integrity, and not be massive righteous hypocrites, is by creating strong internal policies that uphold our external principles.”

At Level Up, this has meant policies which offer staff unlimited time off, and collective agreement that operations shut down in August and December for periods of rest and reflection. In a women’s sector where burnout is the norm, these commitments to rest and care are both practical and radical.

Without policies, it is too easy for agreements like those Janey describes to be forgotten, or for power to remain with those who’ve been around the longest or have the best memory for administrative details. Neither option feels like a strong reflection of equitable or anti-oppressive values.

Introducing... RadHR!

These were the kinds of discussions that brought Kiran Nihalani, Rich Hawkins, and myself together in late 2021, to start to map out what would become RadHR.org. None of us necessarily planned to start a new organisation to facilitate radical policy and process sharing between a mix of activist groups, worker co-ops, mutual aid networks, and small community-based charities, but our respective versions of the kinds of experiences described above kept pointing us in that direction. We’d seen the costs of groups not doing this work, as well as the challenges presented when every tiny collective attempted it in isolation.

Following a year of research and development, RadHR transitioned from a geeky side project into an actual organisation of its own – with a few of its own internal policies. RadHR.org hosts a free, open source library of radical HR and operations policies and processes, shared by members of the site community. There’s also a forum for folks working on ‘radical HR’ in their respective groups, to compare notes, request policies, discuss how ideas have played out in practice and most importantly, to feel less alone in this critical – if often underappreciated – part of social change work.

Do we think of this work as a replacement for the wider efforts to create change in the world? The campaigning, the organising, the creation of prefigurative alternatives and collective care networks? Absolutely not. But we do believe that all of those things might work a bit better if they had a hivemind of similarly-principled comrades to explore the kinds of thorny organisational questions often left in the hands of top-down management.

Are you part of a group that has done its own experiments in shaping policies and processes that mesh with your collective, anti-oppressive, or co-operative values? Join RadHR.org and share them with the community – they don’t have to be perfect to make another radical group’s lives vastly easier!

Liam Barrington-Bush is a facilitator, writer, community organiser & co-founder of RadHR.org and morelikepeople.org. He tweets as @hackofalltrades

Winter 2023 #40
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