Editorial: You need good HR practice for a 'stroppy' workforce

What kind of people work in the voluntary sector? This question was posed at a seminar at the Directory of Social Change last week, prompted by the higher rate of employment tribunal claims in the voluntary sector than in business or public service.

Paul Jump's sketch on page 5 focuses on some of the most entertaining arguments from the debate, and among them is a gem from Henny Braund, resources director at Shelter: "The strength of the sector is its stroppy staff, but they are also its Achilles heel." This line, amusing but deadly serious, could be engraved on the heart of many a sadder and wiser charity protagonist emerging from a bruising tribunal case.

The great thing about the voluntary sector is that it contains more than its fair share of idealists who, rather than accepting the status quo and making the best of it for themselves, question the established order and strive to improve it. These are the aforesaid "stroppy staff", and they give the sector its cutting edge. When things are going well, good, painstaking HR practice seems like a waste of resources: everyone's too busy with the cause, and we're never going to fall out, are we? But when things do go sour, for whatever reason, people on both sides have reason to regret the absence of the safety net such good practice provides. It may seem a bit boring, but resources devoted to good HR practice are rarely wasted. The sharing of similar ideals does not abolish conflict, and it's wise to be prepared.

Last week was when the smokescreen of the banking crisis dissipated and everyone clearly saw the tidal wave of approaching recession.This week's Third Sector is awash with stories of economic woe and, on the page opposite, Craig Dearden-Phillips argues that there will be the mother of shake-outs and the consequences won't be entirely bad. No one yet knows the shape of the downturn and how it will affect the sector. Those parts of it that function more like businesses will no doubt suffer most. But social and economic convulsions of the past, from the Second World War to the miners' strike of the mid-1980s, suggest that the core voluntary sector - people helping each other without reward in times of hardship - is likely to be strengthened.

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