Business & economics Editors Picks

How seriously are companies taking their reporting under the Modern Slavery Act?

New research by MDX academics suggests companies focus on the risk to their reputation instead of labour rights when following laws on Modern Slavery

As a lesser known element of the agenda to deal with ‘modern slavery’ (commonly seen as a problem of people trafficked into the UK to work under ‘unfree’ conditions) has been a reciprocal concern over the abuse of workers in overseas operations of companies in the supply chains of UK companies. To this end, the Modern Slavery Act 2015: section 54 (MSA) was introduced to entice companies to ‘get to know’ their supply chains more. Specifically it requires companies to report on what actions they are taking to uphold supply chain labour rights in an ‘Annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement’ (ASHTS).

However, new evidence from a study by a Middlesex University research team led Dr Sepideh Parsa and Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi together with Dr Ian Roper from Essex University, suggests that this ‘soft law’ approach may be granting companies with too much flexibility, leading to inconsistencies in reporting where many challenges and complexities related to labour rights never get reported.  

While concerns have been voiced before over the credibility of information reported on ASHTS, little has been known on how companies select and focus on their reporting options. So researchers carried out a detailed examination of the largest 100 companies’ statements to shed light on some of the nuances in their reporting.

The research team developed a comprehensive index. Under the MSA, companies have the option to report on a number of categories. Based on these together with the recommendations by the CORE (2017), the team concentrated on five main categories: Organisation and Structure of supply chains (OS), Due Diligence (DD), Risk Assessment (RA), Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies (CPS) and Training and Collaboration (TC).

Each category included sub-categories that were informed by the recommendations of the CORE (2017) and in consultation with The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

The findings revealed that just over half of the companies prioritised reporting on their Risk Assessment and Due Diligence processes, followed by Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies and then Organisation and Structure of their supply chains being reported by similar number of companies. Upon closer examination of the two latter categories, reporting on CPS were closely linked with reporting on RA and DD processes (Figure 1). The hierarchy of priorities reported suggests, maybe unsurprisingly, an emphasis on those issues which are of more concern to investors, with an emphasis on risk to reputation, rather than to other institutional stakeholders – for example those concerned directly with labour rights. These three aspects (RA/DD/CPS) were at the epicentre of reporting, forming a strong, mutually supporting triangular relationship (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Correlations between different reporting categories

Notes: Figures in brackets show the percentage of companies reporting on each category.

Falling outside the reporting focus, Organisation and Structure of Supply Chains was linked, but to a much lesser extent, to RA and CPS. For example, only 60% of companies that raised their reporting on their RA or on their CPS also provided more information on the Organisation and Structure of their Supply Chains (OS). Details on how companies organised and structured their supply chains, especially in geographical locations that were identified as being at ‘high risk’ to violations of human rights combined with the challenges companies can face in certain areas were unreported. These were often in areas that fell outside their national jurisdiction. Similarly, just more than half of companies (57%) that increased reporting on the organisation and structure of their supply chains enhanced their information provisions on their due diligence processes. This conveys further hesitation by companies to disclose details about those part of their supply chains that were more at risk and hence had due diligence processes specifically devised for them.   

Maintaining a low profile on their supply chains is an illustration of companies’ reluctance to draw attention to challenges and problematic areas that may be hard to resolve within a business context or simply too complex and politically too sensitive to report on. In the UK regulatory environment for corporate governance where shareholders’ interests are prioritised, releasing information that may lead to uncertainties could adversely affect share prices, so there is an incentive for companies to avoid drawing attention to problematic areas. While this can be acceptable in the absence of any mandates for reporting on complex and sensitive issues, the same justification somehow falls short of explaining why companies made limited efforts to report on their Training and Collaboration programmes, where solutions could potentially be proposed to address problems identified.  

Training and Collaborations was the least reported category. Companies remained largely silent about their collaborations with external organisations, such as trade unions or labour NGOs. All this raises questions over how in-depth corporate efforts have been in finding out and understanding and dealing with challenges they face on this labour-rights issue, or how willing they have been in reporting on such efforts. It is unclear how much effort has been put into raising and changing corporate awareness and culture on labour rights issues and whether or not all the relevant issues have been identified and responded to. This can ultimately have implications for how risks are managed and due diligence processes are devised.

While it is convenient to prescribe the need for companies to engage with external ‘social partners’ who can inform their processes, we need to learn a lot more about sensitive labour issues along companies’ supply chains, especially those aspects that were often in geographical areas outside companies’ national jurisdictions with circumstances that are outside their expertise and their business remits. While Sepideh and her team remain critical of ‘soft law’ approaches, unless we know more about supply-chain challenges and complexities, any attempt to take a harder regulatory approach would be meaningless. 

The whole report is available online.  For any queries, please contact:

About the authors

Dr Sepideh Parsa is Associate Professor of accounting in the Accounting and Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.
Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi is Researcher and Associate Lecturer in Accounting & Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Business & economics

MBA students need to be taught ‘information resilience’.

Following the case of ANZ, Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy, highlights the importance of ‘information resilience’ for MBA students

While business schools the world over teach marketing, communications and stakeholder engagement, few, if any, seem to recognise the burgeoning significance of information warfare and therefore the importance of information resilience across our economies. 

Sean McFate’s recent book Goliath provides a powerful wake-up call. It makes the case that in a new and looming age of information conflict, few leaders in business, civil society or government currently have the training, skills or knowledge to deal with the rising tide of information threats. Disturbingly, McFate even goes so far as to suggest that our militaries are behind the curve and struggling to catch up. 

Three male students sitting around a mac computer with business and economics information appears on the screen

The ANZ attack and example

As tensions between the US and China mount, ANZ, one of Australia’s major banking groups, got into trouble recently when they reputedly became subject to a co-ordinated information assault aimed at one of their employees. Lacking the requisite skills and understanding, instead of backing the seemingly innocent co-worker, the bank apparently took the side of the aggressor.

No doubt unaware of what was going on, ANZ’s leadership appeared to crumble between the shafts of their own professed tolerance and the adversarial objectives of an increasingly authoritarian regime eager to impose their will on innocent bystanders. By silencing one employee, the assailants appeared to be sending a broader message to subdue dissent further afield. 

While this episode may subsequently have cost the bank’s former chair, David Gonski, his position, it nevertheless serves to highlight the epistemological challenges facing today’s business leaders. Not least when it comes to such matters as strategy, reputation and investment. 

For example, how could ANZ’s leadership have known that by placing the bank’s leading data centre in the Chinese city of Chengdu things could go so politically awry?  As tensions mount in the region, how could ANZ have known that cyber-attacks on Australia were set to follow, or that US diplomats would be expelled from the very same city? 

Likewise, how could ANZ have known that their data centre would become a political football putatively putting sensitive customer data and information at risk?

Senior executives are not politicians. Instead, they are often talented people focused on serving customers in a quest for organisational success. 

What this means for the future

When it comes to academia, this area of contestability is increasingly important because targeted disinformation campaigns can not only challenge organisations, enterprises and democracies but they can also undermine shared values such as tolerance, diversity and trust; underlying institutional architectures vital in free and open societies. 

It is in this context that McFate’s book is not just a good and timely read. Nor is it merely a wakeup-call for those tasked with defending collective security and the rule of law. Over and above all of these things, it is also a seminal read that lays down the gauntlet to business schools and universities across the democracies.

Nearly century on from Edward Bernays’s book Propaganda, and his placing of public relations on the commercial centre stage, scholars now need to understand and teach aspiring managers and senior executives how to cope with the looming realities of information conflict.

Together, we need to think through the wormholes of a new business-related discipline focused on the production and maintenance of ‘information resilience’.

Business & economics Coronavirus and COVID-19

Hosting a successful writing boot-camp online

Professor Anne-Wil Harzing is dedicated to research mentoring in the Business School at MDX. Here, she discusses how her annual writing boot-camp was taken online during COVID-19 and how a community was still maintained.

From Cumberland Lodge to virtual boot-camp

In 2017, we decided to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising an off-site writing boot-camp. The key aim of the boot-camp is to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field. Expert mentors assist them to fine-tune and polish their papers in order to reduce the chance that their paper is desk-rejected, i.e. rejected by their targeted journal without receiving reviews.

The following years saw great success as we ran the bootcamp three times in January 2018July 2018, and July 2019 at the stunning Cumberland Lodge. We were therefore devastated when the June 2020 bootcamp had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

However, we were determined to ensure our colleagues would continue to benefit from research support. So we moved the bootcamp online, running it over three separate days with two 1-day breaks in between.

Fourteen academics participated and I had the support of three great bootcamp mentors: Richard CroucherCharles Dennis, and Paul Gooderham, each of us working closely with three or four academics.

Building an online community

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to replicate the strong MDX community feeling online, reinforce the existing connections, and get to know the staff members who had not participated before.

The fourteen participants came from four different departments in the Business School, CEEDR, Economics, Management Leadership and Organisation, & Marketing, Branding and Tourism.

Most participants were Lecturers and Senior Lecturers and relatively early in their publishing career. Although I had some trepidation about whether the format would work at all online, the response was generally very positive: 

Although I look forward to being able to return to Cumberland Lodge this format had its advantages. It’s time efficient and time-keeping was generally very good; it allows colleagues with family commitments to participate rather than having to shoot off in the middle of the boot-camp; and I think spreading it over Wed-Sun with two 1-day breaks allows for reflection and development.

Thanks very much for Anne-Wil’s excellent organsation and arrangement of the virtual boot-camp. Before I was a bit disappointed by not being able to go to Cumberland Lodge with a face-to-face boot-camp but with the virtual boot-camp, I found I was ‘forced’ to focus more on papers when sitting behind the screen. Also, as the sessions were going, I discussed with and learned from others the same as that in a physical boot-camp.

I like the current format. I found it challenging working from home with children, so would prefer Cumberland lodge but overall, I really enjoyed the boot-camp. I thought the three days worked as well as possible virtually through Zoom. The start together as a large group, then smaller breakout rooms, and time to work, was very productive. Anne-Wil did a wonderful job of running the programme online!

The set up

Prior to the boot-camp, all participants had been matched with a senior mentor who works with them during the whole process – from paper submission to the final stage of the revise and resubmit process. They also received the slides which outlined a seven-step process on “how to avoid a desk-reject“.

I learned a lot from Anne-Wil’s presentation which was very informative, and educational. I would like to thank Anne-Wil for sharing the slides and her valuable experience. It’s worth attending the boot-camp just to listen to her presentation.

Day 1: Crafting a memorable, descriptive and easy-to-read title and abstract

We worked in groups of 2, 3 or 4, facilitated by a mentor to improve manuscript titles and write an abstract that is easy to read and guides the editor to the “right” reviewers.

This is the second boot-camp I’ve attended. From a practical point of view the bootc-amp allows you to create space and time to think on your research critically which will lead to improving your work. Besides this, I really enjoy the conversations during the plenary sessions. Last, working on titles and abstracts in small teams makes the process fun

Day 2: First and last impressions count: Polishing the introduction and conclusion

The next steps involved working on the introduction and conclusion sections. After a plenary session, academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback in the break-out rooms.

The best for me was to deal with such professional people like you all and I really appreciated your constructive feedback and your professional approach to us as new researchers. I found it also a good opportunity to develop good research and professional networks. Thanks a lot.

Day 3: Referencing and the journal submission process

The last part of the boot-camp dealt with issues such as using references strategically to signal you are part of the journal conversation. We also discussed the importance of writing a good letter to the editor to help them see the paper’s contribution and pick the right reviewers and getting the paper edited and/or proofread.

What do these boot-camps deliver?

Some Research Deans and Vice-Chancellors reading this post might wonder whether to invest in these activities in their own universities. For them, an important question might be: do they “deliver the goods” in terms of research output? Of course not every participant manages to get their papers published within a reasonable time-frame. That said, our first three boot-camps have resulted in more than thirty papers that are either published or under revise & resubmit.

The feedback we receive from participants demonstrate that they think the boot-camps are effective. However, what is crucial for the success of these boot-camps is that your institution has a collegial culture. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each others’ papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cut-throat competition!

The virtual boot-camp was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues about our research. The boot-camp was the motivation I needed to re-visit an almost-finished paper that I had been pushing to the bottom of my to-do list. The feedback I received was very helpful in reminding me to consider my audience and an incredibly valuable opportunity to preempt problems which would otherwise be identified in the review (or reject) process.

Please keep organising this event in any form. Physical or online, you leave the boot-camp with having gained a really positive experience.

The boot-camp gives us a chance to focus on one paper for a couple of days and this can make a big difference. Discussing problems with mentors and mentees helps to develop new ideas to improve not only the parts of the paper we focus on during the boot-camp, but the overall structure. It is also a very good way to interact and exchange ideas with people outside our own department.

The boot-camp offered concentrated feedback and discussions which are not accessible otherwise. It is a great way to support a research environment and offer colleagues with support and shared experiences. This is a very unique opportunity offered in Middlesex.

This is a shortened version of a post on Anne-Wil’s own academic blog.

Business & economics Education

Creating a supportive research culture

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. Since joining the Middlesex University Business School, Anne-Wil has been working with colleagues to foster a more supportive and collaborative research culture. Here, she outlines some of the strategies that have proven successful.

After spending thirteen years in Australia at the University of Melbourne as PhD director, Assistant Dean RHD and Associate Dean Research, I was looking for a new challenge. Rather than join another traditional research university, I wanted to work somewhere where I felt I could make a real difference. Middlesex University Business School in London fit the bill perfectly, with its strong focus on research that matters – both to society and to its students – and a vision that focuses squarely on “transforming potential into success.”

Middlesex is a post-1992 university. Hence initially its main focus had been on its teaching mission. However, over the years its research performance continued to grow. In 2014 it was ranked #38 on the REF power ranking for Business & Management in the UK (out of 101 universities). It was the 2nd ranked post-1992, very narrowly pipped by Portsmouth. It also outranked a lot of “red-brick” universities and even a few Russell group universities. Even so, its strong academic staff potential meant that there was considerable scope to improve even further; in 2014 I was therefore appointed to help transform its research potential into success.

Collective research support initiatives

Working closely with Deans Anna Kyprianou and Joshua Castellino, Research Deans Richard Croucher and Stephen Syrett and Departmental Research leaders we set out to provide an even more supportive environment for research in the Business School, actively fostering a collaborative rather than a competitive research culture. This didn’t mean spending bucket-loads of money, but rather to develop a range of targeted, but strategic initiatives. In addition to the “standard fare” of research allowances, conference funding, a research leave scheme, departmental research seminars, and departmental newsletters, this included:

  • Research Facilitation Funding: Academics can apply for seed-corn funding (up to £2,500) for developing impact, small research projects, knowledge transfer, and larger funding proposals, as well as feeding research into teaching. To date over fifty projects have been supported.
  • Research Clusters: Support to develop new and existing research groupings within the Business School and across the University to facilitate collaboration in funding applications, research networks, impact, knowledge exchange and published outputs. 
  • Research lunches/coffees/teas: An informal – walk in walk out – monthly platform to discuss anything related to research. Features updates by the Research Dean, Research & Cluster Leaders, and Q&A. Allows academics to get to know colleagues [especially outside their own department] and find research collaborators.
  • Staff development groups: 6-weekly opt-in meetings for five groups of 5-8 academics, with the specific group size and composition varying depending on availability. These meetings are explicitly multi-purpose/­flexible in format. We provide feedback on each other’s draft papers, research ideas, and R&Rs. However, meetings also serve as a forum to meet new colleagues, solicit advice, and have (un)scheduled discussions on any academic topics. Every round is supported by a follow-up email with collated resources related to the topics discussed in the five meetings. This means everyone benefits from the discussions in each of the groups even if they haven’t been able to attend one of the rounds.
  • Research methods skills development: A range of research methods training courses on topics such as action research, multi-dimensional scaling, econometric methods, working with big data. Usually organized by one of the Research Clusters.
  • Wider academic skills development seminars on topics such as Networking and External Engagement for Academic Success, Publishing in Management Education journals and How to ensure your research achieves the impact it deserves.

Individual support for academic career development

These collective events are supplemented with individual career development meetings for junior staff, as well as “on-tap” email support for quick questions and advice on anything related to academic work. From March 2016 onwards, these efforts have been supported by my blog on all things academia, with postings in the following categories: Academia Behind the Scenes, Academic Etiquette, Announcements, Classic Papers, Conferences, CYGNA, From my Inbox, Middlesex, Positive Academia, Publish or Perish Tips, Research Focus, and That’s Interesting. In the first three years the blog has seen more than 170 postings, including guest posts by some of my co-authors and Middlesex colleagues.

Taking it to the next level: Writing bootcamp

In 2018, we decided to take to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising a Friday-to-Sunday off-site writing boot camp. This boot camp was intended to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field to fine-tune and polish their papers. Thus in the third week of January eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge working on their papers, an experience which was repeated in July with another twenty-three academics.

The feedback provided by the attendees illustrates that the supportive atmosphere in which these events were run was much appreciated. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each other’s papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cutthroat competition!

“I really appreciate the opportunity to interact with colleagues (junior and senior) during both formal working time and ‘informal’/social time (at meals and in the evenings). Equally important, the boot-camp really strengthened my sense of belonging to a supportive research community at MUBS. Thank you so much for engendering this core aspect to help build my confidence professionally.”

 “The best thing for me was the non-judgemental nature of the bootcamp. No one needed to get nervous of their own work. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging each other to reflect on and sharpen their arguments, and presenting the best work possible for their target journals. Everyone shared their work and their thoughts about their papers freely, knowing that they will get constructive feedback from peers and mentors.”

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia Network

A lot of my female Middlesex colleagues are also participating in CYGNA, a network supporting female academics in the broad area of Business & Management. CYGNA is meeting five times a year at different London-based universities for half-day events, with seminars focusing on academic and personal development as well as plenty of opportunities for networking.

A quick overview of all the topics covered can be found here. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. In May 2019 we’ll have our first “branch” meeting in Leeds and we will celebrate our 5th year anniversary with a full-day writing bootcamp at Middlesex University in September 2019.

A bumper year for international research rankings

Obviously it is impossible to conclusively establish a direct link between investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have dramatically improved their position in the two major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking and the ARWU Shanghai ranking.

Times Higher Education – Success all around

Middlesex University was featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the first time three years ago when the list was expanded from 400 to 800 universities; Middlesex debuted in the 600-800 band. We quickly moved up to 501-600 in 2017, to the high 400s of the 401-500 band in 2018 and to the low 400s of the same band in 2019. We are hoping to rank in the top-400 in the 2020 ranking, which will come out in September 2019.

Figure: Middlesex THE ranking 2016-2019

Likewise, we entered the THE Young Universities ranking for universities under 50 years of age when it was expanded from 100 to 150 universities in June 2016. Although we have been ranked in the 101-150 band for the last three years, we have moved up within that band every year. It therefore looks like we are on track to be ranked in the top-100 in June 2019. We might even become the top-ranked UK University in the Young Universities ranking.

In the 2019 THE ranking, Middlesex also ranked for the first time in no less than three of the four main disciplines that we are active in: Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities and Clinical, Pre-clini­cal & Health, with a world-wide top-300 ranking for the Social Sciences. We also ranked in four of the five specialised subject rankings that THE publishes: Computer Science, Business & Economics, Education, and Psychology, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Law because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

ARWU Shanghai ranking – Business School success

Since August 2018 we are also ranked in the ARWU Shanghai top-1000 universities worldwide. This is a remarkable achievement given that 70% of the ranking is determined by criteria such as publications in Science and Nature and Nobel Prize winners amongst staff and alumni. These criteria do not tend to favour the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering, disciplines that make up the bulk of our research activity. Universities highly ranked in the general ARWU ranking typically have a strong presence in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that are not substantively represented at Middlesex.

As a result, the ARWU Shanghai subject rankings are a much better yardstick for our research performance. These rankings focus largely on Web of Science publications, field-normalised citations, international collaborations and the number of publications in a small set of top journals in each field. In 2018, Middlesex was ranked in no less than seven of the eight subject rankings related to Business School: Management, Business Administration, Tourism, Economics, Law, Sociology and Political Science, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Finance because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

Figure: Middlesex ARWU Shanghai ranking for Sociology

We are the only post-92, and one of only ten universities in the UK overall, to be ranked in all seven subject areas. In Management, Business Administration, Tourism, and Sociology, we rank on par or even above many redbrick universities, as well as quite a few Russell group universities. The screenshot above shows our ranking in Sociology, reflecting Middlesex’s strong focus on the Sociology of Work, with research topics such as return migration of highly skilled migrants, the living wage, modern slavery, corporate citizenship in South Africa, microfinance and women’s empowerment, social security and welfare reform, and social and sustainable enterprises.

These research topics reflect another thing that attracted me to Middlesex University Business School. It is one of the most diverse institutions I have come across, both in terms of disciplinary background and in terms of national background. Many of my colleagues have a background in the broader Social Sciences and Humanities representing disciplines such as History, Political Science, Law, Education, Sociology, Psychology, Public Policy, and Development Studies. They also come from all corners of the world; we often have as many nationalities as participants in our meetings.

More generally, it is interesting to see how rankings that focus purely on metrics provide a result that is quite different from those that focus largely on reputation surveys. Predictably, post-92 universities such as Middlesex do better on the former than on the latter. Hopefully, their research reputation will soon catch up with their strongly improved research performance!

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website,

Business & economics Social commentary

No quick fixes for fair recruitment

Joy Warmington is Chief Executive of BRAP and holds an honorary doctorate from Middlesex University. Roger Kline is research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School. Here they highlight some of the issues with recruitment processes that are preventing organisations from becoming more diverse.

With Ministers announcing targets for ensuring diversity amongst public sector leaderships, organisations are increasingly asking how can they diversify their workforce? A growing number of organisations are insisting on diverse panels as one means of doing so.

We know current recruitment practices repeatedly favour some groups of staff at every stage of recruitment, development and promotion leading to a loss of talent. We know that the evidence shows that diverse workforces and leaderships that are inclusive are likely to be more productive, creative, innovative and engaged. We now know that the reasons women, BME and disabled staff fail to get fair treatment in recruitment is because of multiple forms of bias that influence appointment panels to choose people who ‘fit in” or are “like us” so that too often individuals are hired because of who they are – rather than what they can do.

Understandably, the focus for helping change this lands on the recruitment process. How we shift this pattern depends on two simple things:

  • what we believe are the reasons behind un-diverse appointments?
  • what steps are we prepared to take to challenge the status quo?

The lack of diversity in appointment processes, has been, and often still is seen as the fault of the applicant. There are a range of measures employed to ‘fix’ this – including widening advertisement processes so that it is likely to attract more marginalised communities, using a range of innovative means (open days, tasters, shadowing opportunities) to help demystify roles and encourage applications, and getting further down-stream by reaching into schools to promote opportunities. This “deficit” model may be helpful but doesn’t tackle the core of the problem.

Unconscious bias in interviews

Interviewing has historically been seen as an essentially fair process, but research is beginning to recognise its inherent faults. In our attempt to address these faults, organisations have spent more time ‘tweaking’ the interview process than we have recognising that people work within a system that replicates unfairness, and that they too become part of this system.

Unconscious bias training is one step that organisations often take to address unfairness in recruitment processes. Fundamentally, it can be right to point out that all of us have biases, and that we actively replicate these in our lives – including as part of the recruitment process. This type of training is very varied – it ranges from the application of the implicit bias test (which analyses bias through an algorithm), power point workshops, through to more active training and development opportunities. As we have pointed out previously, and as the recent EHRC review shows, although some experiences are no doubt better than others, all come with the health warning that understanding our adverse biases doesn’t mean that we are capable or indeed willing to change them.

The ‘diverse’ panel

Another increasingly popular strategy is the inclusion of a ‘diverse’ individual as part of the interview process. This has become increasingly common yet the evidence base for it is pretty thin. The impact of ensuring selection panels include women, for example, is mixed. Some studies show that as the numbers of women on a panel increase, the more likely it is that women will be selected but other researchers have found the opposite. One study found that when a woman was the only female member of a high-prestige work group and was asked to vote on another candidate for the group, she is much more likely to choose a male candidate than a female one. In summary the evidence is mixed.

That does not mean diverse panels are a bad idea. Intuitively they can be a positive step, but its significance can easily be over-stated especially when done in isolation. We have unfortunately seen some organisations make this the cornerstone of their approach, yet it can easily risk becoming tokenism.

In one organisation BME staff were invited to be panel members but not be part of the shortlisting process.

In another organisation the main role for BME panel members was to ask “the equality question.”

In a third organisation, BME staff who were significantly more junior than panel members were invited to join panels, but without equal authority on the panel that would make up for their more junior status.

In a fourth organisation BME staff were mandated to join panels without more than token training and irrespective of whether they wanted to join the panel or felt able to contribute substantially.

All these approaches (and there are variants including one where the only panel members required to have unconscious bias training were the additional ones with protected characteristics) have at their core the idea that the responsibility for recruiting diversely is substantially remedied by the inclusion of someone who is diverse.

Interview processes are inherently flawed – even before you include someone in them who is more diverse. There is a tendency for those who interview not to have received any proper training on the specific ways in which bias creeps into the best-intentioned interview and their role on the panel is simply based on their position – rather than their skills in choosing good candidates. Furthermore there is no point in doing this training unless it is put into practice as part of the interview process. How many processes discuss and review biases and their decision making – and recognise this as part of the journey to a fairer decision?

This shortcoming is compounded by the seniority of the line manager who generally chairs and who can ‘trump’ other panel members. If the appointment is specialist in nature, then again, the final say on the appointment may well rest with the ‘specialist’.

There are all sorts of specific ways in which bias can be mitigated within the appointment process – from how the job is described, where it is advertised, what the “essential criteria” are, how shortlisting is done, how the core competencies and behaviours required are tested, and including the interview itself. Without serious attention to these, an additional “diverse” panel member will not make a serious difference.

Setting an expectation

At the heart of successfully building diversity into recruitment processes, including interviews, is accountability. When departments and professions are held to account over patterns of recruitment which show it is much more likely that men will be appointed, or white applicants will be appointed, or staff with disabilities rarely get appointed, then a “comply or explain” challenge – explain the data or change the outcomes, does work. That does not mean telling individual panels which individual to appoint. But it does mean setting an expectation – a performance indicator that says that irrespective of their backgrounds and characteristics, once shortlisted there should be no radical differences between the likelihood of different groups of staff being appointed. There is evidence that targets linked to accountability do work.

In an imperfect system run by imperfect people our willingness to recognise our “faults” can bring us closer to realising the opportunities that often lie right under our nose. Let’s think more critically about the whole process of recruitment rather than just trying to put in quick fixes that have limited fixing ability. And lastly, let’s be clear about the expectation – boards should be concerned about shoddy or unfair decision making – poor recruitment patterns are not ‘accidental’, they replicate the status quo.

Business & economics

GST XIV – Where Resilience Meets Disruption

Andy Bossom is Senior Corporate Executive at Middlesex University. Here he shares some insights from the recent Consalia Global Sales Transformation Conference.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day at the Consalia Global Sales Transformation Conference, supported by Middlesex University in early October. The extremely timely theme was “Where Resilience Meets Disruption”.

We all intuitively feel that the workplace is changing and changing fast, but how does this impact on the world of Sales and Business Development? This innovative conference brought together a number of senior business leaders in an attempt to address the issues.

Collaboration, resilience and team work

We were treated to the truly inspirational story of Menna Fitzpatrick and Captain Jennifer Kehoe – Gold Medalists for the GB Paralympic Skiing Team. Menna has only 5% vision but with her tremendous determination and team work with her sighted colleague Jen, she succeeded in her goal of winning gold!

A lesson in collaboration, resilience and team work which we can all take into the more humdrum business world. Artificial intelligence and disruptive technology are causing many sales professionals to reevaluate their approach to client relationships. Most delegates still felt that face to face meetings were still an integral part of their method of working, but could be enhanced by increased data, metrics and research opportunities.

Sarah Edge (General Manager, UK & Ireland) from HMD Global gave a fascinating insight into the way the Nokia phone brand is forcing itself back into an extremely crowded and competitive telecommunications market. Some young people are actually beginning to shy away from the ubiquitous smart phone in an attempt to claim back some of their social lives!

Mobasher Butt (Chief Medical Officer) from Babylon gave a compelling account of how artificial intelligence can be used to anticipate and manage mental wellbeing. His fascinating presentation opened up the debate about stress and pressure in the work place. A number of delegates spoke passionately about their own mental health issues, and crucially the ways they have overcome such health concerns to fully succeed and excel at work.

Employers are certainly beginning to wake up to the fact that a happy and contented workforce will be more productive within the business. Despite some taboos being slowly broken down, the general consensus was that there is a long way to go to ensure that employees’ mental health issues are always treated with empathy, compassion and support.

The Business to Business Sales Degree Apprenticeship

The event, held at the prestigious London Stock Exchange, was finished in style with a fascinating panel discussion about the new Business to Business Sales Degree Apprenticeship – run in partnership between Consalia and Middlesex University. We were lucky enough to have some real life apprentices enrolled on the very first cohort on the stage talking about their experience of the programme.

Stacey Firn and Cat Arnold are Account Managers with Royal Mail and they both spoke very eloquently about the transformative effect of their apprenticeship and how they balanced degree level study with the rigours of work. They emphasised the tremendous support they received from their managers at Royal Mail and how this is essential to ensure they will succeed in their studies.

It was such an inspirational way to the end the conference that I am already looking forward to the 15th version of the annual event to be held the same time next year!

Some of the questions to ask your organisation are:

  1. Are you maximising your Apprenticeship Levy?
  2. Do your employees have the communication skills to rapidly ski downhill?
  3. Does your sales team have the skills it needs to succeed?
  4. Is there a need for any sales or management training?

For any further help or support please contact the Corporate Engagement Team at Middlesex University on either 020 8411 5050 or

Business & economics

Is conflict declining in employment relations?

The number of strike actions taken in the UK has been in decline for a number of years. Dr Ian Roper, Associate Professor in HRM, sheds some light on the reasons for this reduction in strikes, and examines whether it means we’re happier at work or are simply expressing our dissatisfaction in other ways.

On 30 May 2018 it was widely reported that the level of strike activity in the UK in 2017 was the lowest ‘since records began in 1891’.  This makes for quite a dramatic headline. On the eve of Middlesex University hosting the annual British Universities Industrial Relations (BUIRA) conference, it warrants an examination of whether this is an indicator that a seemingly ever-present feature of the British workplace – conflict – is now a thing of the past.

The official statistics reported that the total number of stoppages – one measure of strike activity – was just 79. That is, indeed, the lowest on record. In terms of working days lost, that figure was 276,000 (the sixth lowest figure) involving 33,000 workers (again, the lowest figure on record). That these figures suggest a strong decline in strike activity is not in contention. Nor is it in contention that this is the latest figure amongst a general trend. Figures show how the latest figures compare to, for example, some peak years. In 1984, the year of the miners strike, 27.1 million working days were lost. In 1926, the year of the general strike, 162.2 million days were lost.

What the figures do not show, however, is whether the fall in strikes is a good indicator of workplace conflict itself declining or, its corollary, that workplaces are now more harmonious. There are good reasons to suggest that this is not the case.

Restrictive regulation

The reasons for falling strike levels have to take into account the circumstances in which a strike may take place in the first place which is, in fact, complex. First there needs to be a perceived collective grievance among the workers. Second, there needs to be the capability to mobilise – and this further requires a union with sufficient membership density; a capacity to organise its members and confidence that the action taken will be sufficiently disruptive to bring the employer back to the bargaining table.

In addition to the convergence of these factors, unions have to comply with some of the most restrictive regulatory mechanisms in the developed world brought in progressively since the Thatcher governments of the 1980’s, the most recent being the Trade Union Act 2016. This latest set of restrictions on strike action requires a union to not only win a majority of its membership to vote in favour of a strike; but that turnout in the ballot must be at least 50%; and that for those workplaces deemed to be “important public services” in addition to a majority, and a 50% turnout, at least 40% of the whole membership (rather than just those voting) must vote in favour of a strike. This series of conditions, it has frequently been pointed out, could not be applied to the votes obtained to elect the majority of Members of Parliament.

In contrast to much of the public discourse on strikes which emphasises the inconvenience to which it sometimes puts members of the public (particularly in the case of public transport or schools), there has been a less visible campaign to restore union rights to make union negotiating power something closer  to the veto power wielded by employers. Much of the regulatory framework on industrial action is concerned with employer rights to legally challenge union ballots. In 2007 the, then backbench MP, John McDonnell attempted to challenge much of this in the (unsuccessful) Trade Union Rights and Freedom Bill 2007

Displacement of dissatisfaction

Turning now to the second factor. If strikes could be said to be low because they have been suppressed by regulatory constraints, then where does the conflict go? Here the ‘displacement’ argument goes that conflict is now directed into informal and individualised forms. The most visible form of individualised conflict can be observed in Employment Tribunal (ET) statistics. Introduced as an add-on to training legislation in 1964, the ET system has increased in significance as a semi-legal means for workers (often via unions) to seek an external means to challenge employer decisions on issues such as unfair dismissal and discrimination issues. ET claims have increased in inverse proportion to that of the declining strike rates. As such, ETs have also come under some scrutiny by Government.

Sadly, as with strikes, the solution to indicators of increased dissatisfaction has not been to seek out the causes of conflict, but to suppress the manifestation of it. So in 2013 the Conservatives ‘reformed’ the ET system by introducing up-front fees for claimants with the express intent of reducing the number of claims. This resulted in a dramatic fall in claims, particularly severe in cases of equal pay and discrimination. However, in 2017 upfront fees were deemed unlawful by the supreme court. The result was a similarly dramatic 90% rise in claims in 2018.

Other less formal indicators also support this ‘displacement’ theory. It is now regularly reported that the number of days lost to sickness absence far exceed days lost to strike action. Compare, for example, the days lost to strike action, above, to the 137.3 million days lost to sickness absence in 2016. Of course the breakdown of these sickness absence figures may be more revealing if it were possible. How much of it is genuine, but work-related? And how much may be ‘pulling a sickie’ by (disgruntled?) workers? Some of the overall figures are undoubtedly an indicator of conflict: industrial injury and work-related stress leading to an increase in mental health problems more broadly.

All in all, the reasons strikes are low, are at least partly due to the difficulty in meeting all the conditions needed to call a strike. Given that indicators of more individualist forms of conflict suggest a displacement of conflict, the lower levels of strike activity cannot be attributed to an increase in worker satisfaction.

A final thought

If there is a prevailing discourse suggesting that workplace conflict is a thing of the past, because strikes are a thing of the past – both assertions which we can now assert are inaccurate – how is this distorting how we see the activities of human resource management in practice? I have argued elsewhere that workplace conflict is an issue somewhat absent in national discourses of HRM, yet features much more prominently at organisation level. Aspiring HR professionals would do well to keep informed on what is going on in the field of employment relations, both professionally, through employment law updates provided by the likes of the CIPD, and academically, not least in such events hosted by BUIRA.

Plenary sessions at BUIRA 2018 will include a debate on strikes by John Kelly, Phil Taylor, Jo Grady, Rachel Cohen and Sean Wallis.

Business & economics

More business organisations are turning Teal

Dr. Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy at Middlesex University London, and Dr. Sarah Morris, Coaching Partner, The Parallax Partnership, explore the latest evolution in organisational management.

Darwinism suggests that natural selection favours those who are able to adapt to changing environments. The same is true in the structure, management and practice of enterprises be they private or public.

Since the advent of the industrial revolution, when the blueprint for many modern organisational practices were first developed, prevailing social, cultural and operating conditions have changed out of all recognition.

Yet many organisations struggle to keep up and find it difficult to cope with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. This is made all the more challenging because people’s expectations of work are also more complex than ever before.

Teal organisations

It is in this context that Frederic Laloux’s recent book detailing the growing success of Teal Organisations is so important. In his seminal Reinventing Organisations, he identifies an outdated and poorly adapted operating system – namely, the traditional pyramidal hierarchy and the ‘predict and control’ processes which underpin it – as being the root cause of some of the most intractable issues business organisations face today. Classically, senior executives burnout, people become frustrated with overload, decisions are endlessly bottlenecked, and innovation and responsiveness die.

Gary Hamel and Michelle Zanini refer to these symptoms as being the consequence of what they term ‘bureaucracy’. In their recent study of 7,000 respondents, they suggest that only 1% of modern organisations have a healthy BMI – or ‘Bureaucracy Mass Index’.

In many ways, the evidence is as clear as it is shocking. Nearly 40% of respondents say that their ability to deliver value would be either unaffected or enhanced by a 30% reduction in the number of head office staff. More than 80% report new ideas would likely encounter indifference, scepticism, or outright resistance. And nearly 60% assert that organisational change programs are ‘mostly’, or ‘almost always’ focused on catching up.

Real and lasting change

Organisations with the courage and capacity to face these realities realise that solutions demand more than mere tinkering with organisational charts, reporting lines or the numbers of levels of bureaucracy. Real and lasting change demands root and branch action.

Laloux describes ‘Teal’ organisations by building on terminology derived from an extensive raft of developmental work undertaken by the likes of evolutionary and social psychologists such as Jean Gebser, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Chris Cowan and Ken Wilbur. Variously, these frameworks explore the development of human consciousness and their historic impact and implications.

As an ideal type construct, the Teal mind-set represents the leading edge of current evolutionary development, and like each stage which preceded it, is characterised by a number of unique breakthroughs. As such, Teal is centred on a move away from rigid hierarchies and toward an operating system based around networks of self-managed teams. It moves beyond the ‘predict and control’ mind-set of management’s past to a purpose-led ‘sense and respond’ approach. Finally, Teal stresses ‘wholeness’, a world in which organisations view people bringing their whole selves to work – all their interests, passions and desires – as an important business asset. As such, ‘employees’ are encouraged to step out from behind their business persona to reveal and capitalise on their core truths and realities.

These three breakthroughs are fully enabled by the ability for pioneering Teal organisations, such as Patagonia, Nucor, Morning Star, Buurtzorg and Spotify, to nurture cultures which are based on profound levels of trust. Trust that people at all levels want to, and are capable of, doing the right things at the right time, given the opportunity and necessary support. Clearly defined rules of play allow the dissemination of power away from individuals concentrated at the top, instead distributing power throughout the structure and way down to those on the front-line, who, after all, are very often the primary sensory organs of any business.

Organisational dynamism

Freed from the necessity to wait for permission to act when they spot issues or opportunities, such employees can respond quickly and creatively to even small changes in the environment. Overall, such an approach produces an organisational dynamism that many increasingly envy, for it allows organisations to evolve on an ongoing basis and thereby avoid the need to ever play ‘catch-up’. Crucially, such enterprises generate their own organic capacity for continual and seamless renewal.

For those willing to embrace this evolutionary next step, the future is all about seeing the nurturing of individuals and their humanity as a business asset, and replacing fixed long-term strategies with a guiding purpose, a ‘North Star’, against which micro-evolutions in structure, direction and products occur, vastly increasing organisational responsiveness.

As the Teal revolution gathers pace, so its results become ever clearer. To date, Nucor has delivered more than a 350% return on investment for its shareholders. Buurtzorg has sickness and turnover levels at 60% and 33% lower than its more traditional competitors. And Patagonia has tripled its profits since 2008, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 14%.

Today, too many business organisations are creaking under the weight of an antiquated hierarchical and formulaic operating system that no longer keeps pace with the rapidly changing world.

That is why Teal innovators are destined to impact ever more organisations and sectors over the years ahead. For in meeting head on the challenges of the VUCA environment, they prove that there are real world alternatives that truly enable organisations to capitalise on ever-evolving opportunities. As this new paradigm develops, so its impact will be felt globally. In 2018, the future is clear: it is going to be Teal.

Business & economics Social commentary

Are corporate psychopaths really successful?

Clive Boddy, Professor in Leadership and Organisation Behaviour in the Business School, has been researching corporate psychopaths for over a decade. Here he shares his thoughts on the perceived success of psychopaths in the workplace, and considers whether a psychopath’s personal advancement comes at the expense of colleagues and organisations.

Some psychologists have equated psychopathy with personal success because a few of the qualities of psychopaths, such as apparent charm, ruthlessness and coolness under pressure, help them climb the corporate ladder. They get to the top more frequently than non-psychopaths do. However, to me this begs the questions of what this success means for those who work alongside these corporate psychopaths in the organisational sphere? Does the success of psychopaths come at the expense of their colleagues? What impact do they have on organisational productivity? I conducted and examined research in this area to find answers.

No empathy or conscience

Corporate psychopaths are those people with no empathy or conscience. Their cold ruthlessness seems to exist alongside irregularities in brain chemistry and connectivity, particularly in the areas of the brain connected with emotion and emotional responses. They are remorseless, egocentric, cheating, untruthful, emotionally shallow, uncaring towards others, irresponsible, and lacking in self-blame. Unfortunately however, they appear to be charming and composed when first met and these latter characteristics give them an air of respectability and attractiveness, enabling them to create a false impression of genuine, personal sociability together with professional competence.

Image: Businessmen by Ross (CC2.0)

In terms of wider measures of success however, psychopaths in the workplace have been linked with with some of the biggest financial scandals of the last fifty years, including those at Enron, the Mirror Group and the Global Financial Crisis. Modern research has uncovered evidence for their ubiquitous presence in organisations such as a UK charity, a marketing company and even an NHS Trust. The aftermath of their abusive and bullying presence and capricious leadership on individuals, organisations and society is a terrible one. They create a climate of fear in which resources are wasted, careers ruined, wealth destroyed and organisations diminished.

Nonetheless, as already mentioned, some psychologists are increasingly reporting that psychopathy and success go together. I argue therefore that people need to know the real story of what it is like to work closely with a corporate psychopath. Having heard many accounts from people who have worked with a corporate psychopath I have concluded that it is like a personal nightmare. Those who have worked intimately with a corporate psychopath describe the experience as a living hell. It is a traumatic, career altering and life-changing event.

Political psychopaths are even more destructive than workplace psychopaths because of the enormous power they can yield. Therefore from Magna Carta to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humanity has sought to keep a tight rein on the death-dealing destructiveness of psychopaths in political leadership. This destructiveness is amplified with modern weaponry and for example, the likely effects of a political psychopath leader having a finger on the nuclear button are potentially catastrophic for humanity and the planet.

A large cost to colleagues

In answer to the questions posed above, psychopathic qualities can lead to personal advancement but this comes at a large cost to the colleagues of these people and at the expense of organisational productivity. Success is limited to material gains for the psychopathic individual and widespread losses for everyone else.

Discussing this in more detail, my new book on the subject of corporate psychopaths at work is about to be published through Amazon and Kindle. A module on Toxic Leadership (covering Narcissists, Machiavellians and Corporate Psychopaths) will also be offered at Middlesex University in a new MA: “Leadership in Organisations”, to be available to students from September 2017.

I teach organisational leadership at Middlesex University and have been researching the influence of corporate psychopaths in the workplace for almost thirteen years now. In that time I have published around thirty-five academic papers on the subject of corporate psychopaths.

My first book on the subject was called ‘Corporate Psychopaths – Organizational Destroyers’, published in 2011 by Palgrave-Macmillan. The new book will be called ‘A Climate of Fear: Stone Cold Psychopaths at Work’ and will be available through Amazon.

For other information and discussions about psychopaths see the following:

Channel 5’s “Power Psychopaths” in the documentary series called “Meet the Psychopaths”.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary named “The Psychopath Next Door”.

And for further information about corporate psychopaths, the new module on ‘Toxic Leadership’, or the new book, contact Professor Clive Boddy.

Business & economics

Reflections on the Budget

Dr Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy, offers his analysis of Philip Hammond’s first Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Chancellor’s Budget on 8 March was strong on political atmospherics and signalling but cautious and lite on content. It was what one would expect from a government that is in pre-Brexit mode and approaching mid-term.

While more money is being made available for social care, education and the NHS, the budget not only sought to focus on the theme of fairness but also on investment for greater productivity. That is why there is more devolved resource for research and development, education and skills, and transport (the latter being focused on the strategic pinch points of key arterial roads).

Preparing for the future

In internationally harnessing competitive tax rates to create growth and attract investment, the Chancellor is clearly trying to prepare the UK both for Brexit and the coming 4th industrial revolution. Highlighting the world of artificial intelligence, 5G, robotics and biotechnology, he put great emphasis on the strategic importance of STEM subjects and a new generation of technical qualifications. Notable for the higher education sector, for the first time, postgraduate students will be able to receive loans for their doctoral studies.

It is with the strategic backdrop of a high-tech and, in some ways, more challenging future in mind that the Chancellor clearly sought to align a range of government benefits to the rapidly changing world of work and employment. While important changes to national insurance contributions were signalled for the 18% of the workforce who are now self-employed, sadly, very little was said about making the tax system in any way simpler.

That is why to me, this budget was another missed opportunity. Accepting government debt stands at more than £1.7 trillion and that the world of work is changing so rapidly, sooner or later, a much more radical approach will be needed to enhance and align taxation, welfare and public services to the wealth creating potential and opportunities of a meaningfully global Britain.

image credit: Defeating Ebola in Sierra Leone conference, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC2.0

Further reform needed

For the UK to remain a top-tier, open and dynamic economy that delivers prosperity for all, no one should be in any doubt that further significant reform will be needed. More and better welfare, beyond government; more and better standards led by consumers, not simply regulators; and, simpler and fairer taxes – will all have to be explored, consulted upon and implemented at various stages.

While this budget merely offered a holding position for a government approaching Brexit and mid-term, we can expect much bolder, more strident and detailed moves from the Autumn statement onwards. As the government triggers Brexit and moves towards the next general election it will start to lay out in detail its strategic policy offers for the 2020s and beyond. This will not only deliver significant change across Whitehall and the wider economy but it will have profound implications for the reputation and standing of the United Kingdom with the rest of the world. The challenge is how to remain an open, trading and successfully inclusive nation. The opportunity is to become a beacon of diversity, wealth creation and free and fair trade. It is to this narrative no doubt the Chancellor will start to turn over the months and years ahead.