HR in the U.K.

Knowing about similarities, differences across the pond can help HR practitioners
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/20/2011

While I’ve never worked in HR in the United Kingdom, I have studied U.K. labour and employment law. I’ve also lived, worked, studied and travelled in the British Isles.

Although there are a lot of similarities with Canada, the daily experiences of work life are a bit dissimilar, including the culture and demographics, the legal and regulatory environment, the education system and the economy. Those factors mean working as an HR practitioner in the U.K. is bound to be somewhat different than Canada.

Culture and demographics

Culturally, we tend not to think of ourselves as being all that different. With a shared language, history and many of the same institutions, we definitely have a lot in common.

Because of those similarities, however, there’s a tendency to gloss over some fairly significant cultural variations. And many Canadians tend to view life in the U.K. based on outdated stereotypes.

Like Canada, Britain is a highly multicultural society and there’s tremendous regional diversity across the four countries that make up the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

While the U.K. has experienced successive waves of immigration since the 1950s, in recent years the country has seen increasing numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe as a result of an expanded European Union (EU).

Unfortunately, some employers have exploited this new source of cheap labour and many people want to stem the flow of refugees and migrant workers, especially given the poor economy.

Work environment

Unlike Canada, the class system in the U.K. is quite pronounced. But the class distinctions aren’t just about money. A lot relates to accent, schooling and parents’ jobs.

This tends to have an impact on labour relations, with many people in traditional working class occupations being somewhat militant at times. Even in white-collar environments, some people have commented there’s more deference to authority in British workplaces than there is in North America.

Beyond the actual work environment itself, socializing in pubs after work with colleagues is commonplace in the U.K. That — combined with a culture more tolerant of binge drinking — presents its own unique challenges for HR professionals with respect to productivity, absenteeism and substance abuse issues.

State of the economy

The U.K. was hit much harder by the global financial crisis than Canada. In the end, several financial institutions were nationalized and hundreds of millions of pounds of public money were pumped into the financial system.

At the same time, several of the U.K.’s EU trading partners experienced a major debt crisis and the pound saw a significant devaluation against several currencies, including the Canadian dollar.

Youth unemployment figures in the U.K. are currently in excess of one million, or 20.4 per cent of workers aged 16 to 24. The overall unemployment rate is at 8.3 per cent.

The government has announced it will spend up to £1 billion (C$1.6 billion) on employment subsidies and other support to help young people into work. Employers will be offered six-month subsidies of £2,275 (C$3,630) for each young worker they take on —enough to cover one-half of Britain’s minimum wage for youth employees.

As a result of the weak economic recovery, public austerity measures designed to tame the massive deficit were instituted. These have been widely unpopular.

One such measure was a government decision to cut public sector pensions. This resulted in a widespread one-day strike on Nov. 30, 2011. In addition, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts there will be up to 710,000 job cuts in the public sector by 2017.

The legal and regulatory environment

Because we’re constantly comparing ourselves with our neighbours to the south, where at-will employment is the norm, it may come as a bit of a shock to learn legislative employment protections in the U.K. are actually more robust than Canada.

However, the U.K. isn’t much further ahead. Out of the 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only in Canada and the U.S. is it easier to fire employees than in the U.K., according to a report by OECD.

One reason it’s harder to fire an employee in the U.K. is the statutory unfair dismissal scheme which has largely replaced the wrongful dismissal action at common law. Unfair dismissal can arise because:

• an employee was fired for an unfair reason

• an employer failed to comply with the rules of procedural fairness in terminating a worker

• an employee was fired for a reason deemed to be automatically unfair under the law, such as termination based on the employee’s exercise of her statutory rights.

In recent years, legislation in the U.K. introduced: protections for part-time and agency workers; the right to request flexible work arrangements; and a minimum of four weeks’ annual vacation for all employees. However, most of these employee-friendly provisions were introduced as a result of legislation at the EU level.

Strangely enough, most collective agreements in the U.K. are not legally enforceable. An agreement is only enforceable if it’s in writing and states clearly it is meant to be enforceable.

The HR profession in the U.K.

Like our national and provincial HR associations, the U.K. has a national professional association for HR practitioners. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which has 135,000 members, offers professional memberships at the associate member, chartered member and chartered fellow levels.

The CIPD also offers educational qualifications at the foundation, intermediate and advanced levels. To obtain the chartered fellow designation, a member needs to complete an advanced level qualification, have experience at a senior, strategic level and undertake an experience assessment.

The CIPD publishes fact sheets, pamphlets, press releases and a magazine, lobbies the government, conducts short training courses and organizes conferences. It also conducts quite a bit of research in the HR field and is highly respected on a global basis.

HR professionals in the U.K. encounter many of the same challenges experienced by practitioners in Canada, including the drive to be more strategic. However, it would seem HR professionals in the U.K. tend to be more involved in aspects of employment law than their Canadian counterparts.

Brian Kreissl is managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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