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Is HR brave enough to play its role in developing a meritocratic society?

Sandy Begbie, one of the UK’s most respected people leaders, believes big business needs to regain the trust of citizens but HR needs to step up and challenge its practices and customs

Meritocracy in HR

People leaders have the power to be a force for positive social impact but they need to be ready to challenge the business, according to Standard Life Aberdeen’s global head of people, organisation & integration Sandy Begbie.

Begbie, who has been recognised as one of the UK’s most influential HR practitioners of the past decade, says HR’s evolving role is as the “conscience of the company” and HR leaders should be considering the impact of the business in terms of its community, people, customers and investors – and articulating this to the board.

“Business has the power to make a difference. But is HR being brave enough in challenging business custom and practice? HR needs to be bold with ambition and remind itself of the human impact of what it does and the difference it makes. It is very motivating when you have got barriers to knock down,” he says.

Begbie says a focus on meritocracy is important to enable equality of opportunity and to rebuild trust in financial services and large corporations as a whole.

“It enables diversity of thought, increased engagement, has reputational benefits, helps with attraction and retention and it’s just the right thing to do. Good business is sustainable business, and that is good for investors. You can still make tough decisions,” he says.

HR is in prime position to champion meritocracies by focusing on board diversity and helping social mobility through adopting practices like blind recruitment and progressive policies such as agile working and enhanced parental leave pay. A meritocratic organisation will be naturally diverse and a genuinely diverse organisation will be instinctively meritocratic, Begbie says, adding that it is vital this diversity is in its broadest sense and not “box ticking”.

“It’s important to look at areas such as gender inclusion but we need to look at how we avoid the unintended consequence of raising the barriers to other minority groups,” he stresses.

On wages, Begbie says HR must “take a stance” and “be passionate” in arguing the case for raising the economic pay level and paying a living wage. He says it needs to be “brave” when it comes to executive remuneration, influencing the business in terms of transparency and simplification around pay.

A number of recent events in the UK make a focus on rebuilding a meritocratic society all the more urgent. These include the decision to leave the European Union, which will necessitate reconfiguring the country’s labour market to maximise people’s potential as barriers to overseas talent are erected, as well as enabling the skills and talent to create a more entrepreneurial economy as the UK seeks to find its place in the new order.

Added to this is the Taylor review of Modern Employment Practices, published in June 2017, which sets out a series of recommendations to create ‘good work’ for everyone.

Begbie’s comments echo those of Morrisons’ chairman Andrew Higginson, who recently wrote that rediscovering the need for a meritocracy has never been more important.

“Business has a number of important roles to play in society, but one of the most important is as a conduit to a meritocracy,” Higginson said in The Telegraph.

“Yet I believe we are less of a meritocracy today than we were when I started work nearly 40 years ago. Corporations are bigger and more remote. Online application forms and computerised ‘sifting’ of applicants cement the bias towards particular universities and degrees. And, disappointingly, the importance of a private school education to ‘getting on’ seems to have grown,” Higginson added.

Begbie believes there are five takeaways for HR if it is to help to create a meritocratic society:

  1. You have the power to make a difference and be a force for positive social impact
  2. You need ambition, belief and focus – keep it simple with a small number of clearly defined goals
  3. Be bold with your ambition
  4. Collaborate and get involved– you create bigger possibilities when you work with others
  5. Remind yourself of the human impact of what you do and the difference it makes

Begbie was addressing a select group of people leaders at an event held by global payroll & HR service provider and The People Space Brand Partner SD Worx.


Good business is sustainable business, and that is good for investors. You can still make tough decisions

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