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Philippa Lamb: HR’s a profession which has evolved dramatically over the past few decades but some of the perceptions about it just haven't kept pace. To tie into the CIPD’s campaign to draw new talent into the profession we're going to look at the preconceptions that exist about HR, what can be done to improve them and how the profession can attract tomorrow’s leaders.
So first of all to Manchester where Georgina Kvassay is meeting a group of second year university students to take a litmus test of undergraduate thoughts about HR.
Georgina Kvassay: So just in terms of where you are currently in your career decisions of where, you know, have you got any idea about what you want to do at the moment?
Claire Fitzpatrick: I'm thinking of internships but because my course is, like, focused purely on economics I kind of wanted maybe in the future to go into something, like, I don't know, fund management or something economic forecasting or something along those lines. So yeah, I'm not really sure.
GK: And what words would you associate with HR?
First student: Training?
Second student: Admin.
Tom Hickman: Recruitment.
Third student: Infrastructure.
Olivia Flatley: Wages reviews and performance reviews.
In this month’s podcast building HR capability we look at the future of HR and how the role has become a more strategic and a business-minded function. We explore the latest research Next Generation HR project and how to build HR capability fit for the future. Does HR need a position at the top table and how can you ensure that you’re fit for the future?development.: So this focus group’s been a fantastic way of us to be able to hear from the horse’s mouth how they feel about careers generally but also specifically about the work that we've done and what more we need to do.
PL: Afterwards we caught up with a few of the undergraduates to dig a little deeper into what they really think about HR.
CF: My name’s Claire Fitzpatrick, I'm a second year student at the University of Manchester studying BA Economics.
PL: So look Claire if someone says, profession in HR to you what picture does that paint in your brain? Do you think a bad thing?
CF: I mean I'm hoping today it will become a good thing but at first when people say HR, human resources, it’s more like administrative and firing and hiring.
TH: Hi my name is Tom Hickman. I'm a second year student at Manchester University and I study History with Economics. I know, admittedly, not too much about it. I see it as a female-dominated sector of the business and sort of almost maternal looking after your employees and a lot of organisation of people below you and a lot of recruitment drive as well.
PL: So it doesn’t conjure up a vision in your head of an exciting career, something that would be really challenging?
CF: Not particularly, kind of like someone that people in the office generally don’t like.
TH: I don’t see it as a really ambitious sort of field of work. I don't know why.
OF: Hi I'm Olivia Flatly and I'm doing PPE at Manchester University and I'm in my second year. It annoys me a little bit, you know, the stigma around HR. everyone things it’s just admin, you know, creating wage slips, maybe giving people a pay rise every now and again like a bit of training maybe, you know, health and safety, all that nonsense that people think has been taken one step too far now anyway.
PL: Have you got any sort of clear idea about what sort of things you're really looking to get out of work or have you not quite got to that stage yet?
TH: I feel quite ambitious in terms of get out, obviously make money.
OF: Personally I want something that's challenging, that changes. I like an environment that's always changing.
PL: But for you it doesn’t sound like in your head HR is a profession that's going to give you those opportunities?
TH: No not immediately but then I've come here to see if it does. If it can help me.
PL: Yeah I mean would it surprise you to hear that it could do?
TH: Yeah well yeah it does yeah.
PL: So dull, form filling, administrative and an unambitious choice but then again lots of graduates have only had one contact with HR, the Graduate Recruitment Scheme rejection letter. And according to Georgina Kvassay the profession doesn’t always do a great job of promoting itself.
GK: when I go into a room to do a presentation I sort of say, “okay hands up, if you go into a bar or you’re at a dinner party and someone says, ‘I work in hr,’ how many of you are really proud of that?” and actually there's very few people who actually are really proud of what they do and there seems to be this stigma attached to hr that people feel they can't be proud enough of what they do do and there aren’t enough people standing up and saying, “Actually we do some fantastic stuff.” So I think it’s about a confidence thing and really what we're trying to do with a lot of this work is to get people to join us on the journey and to start talking about the great stuff that HR can do and then that’ll help other people to aspire to be like that who work in HR, to really start to develop the profession as a whole and raise the capability of the profession.
PL: One graduate who did choose a career in HR is Sam Westwood. He works for McDonalds. Here’s how he made the choice to do a degree in HR.
Sam Westwood: So I was looking around at the various different aspects of business, finance, operations, those sorts of things and they didn’t necessarily take my fancy. Looking at HR there were some real aspects in there that were very interesting, the people side of things, which you would have an influence over. So I thought that if I could expand my knowledge and skills in that area it would give me a platform in terms of taking a career forward. The more and more I studied HR the more it fascinated me and the more I was intrigued and interested by some of its elements. So the choice to then choose a career in HR seemed like a natural step and it’s something that I've not really looked back from.
PL: And you joined McDonalds?
SW: That's right yes.
PL: And what have you been doing - there nearly three years now?
SW: Yeah nearly three years. So I first started within the compensation and benefits team looking after, or supporting the reward strategy for restaurant staff and also corporate facing employees as well. So I did about six to eight months there before joining the corporate HR team and that is a role that supports the office-based employees and all sorts of things around - it’s a generalist position; so employee relations, performance management, talent development, recruitment and selection, all those sorts of things that you’d expect to find in a generalist position.
SW: Very interesting you don’t get any day the same so always looking forward to what might happen the next week which I guess has pros and cons but keeps you on your toes at least.
PL: So I'm interested that you looked on HR as a business that's been with flexibility which clearly it is but I think perhaps that's not widely understood. So tell me where you see your career going? Three years into a mainstream HR role with McDonalds do you see yourself staying in HR or do you see it as a springboard to other parts of the business?
SW: Interesting. I don’t necessarily have a long term vision so to speak of where my career’s going to go. In the medium term I definitely see it in HR and remaining in a generalist position to try and get as much skills and development that I possibly can. In the long term, perhaps into more of a leadership and strategic position within the HR function but I wouldn’t rule out anything else either, just depending on whether it interests me and I'd be a right fit for that position as well.
PL: So with the benefit of almost three years experience you can see a career progression ahead of you?
SW: Yeah absolutely. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to say exactly how that looked at this point but absolutely opportunity is there.
PL: Sam chose to do a degree in HR but many people simply fall into HR or come to it later in their career.
GK: Yeah there do seem to be a lot of drifters but actually everybody I spoke to loves what they do. They really enjoy it they just don’t necessarily think that everybody outside of HR knows what they do and thinks it’s very worthwhile. So I think there's real feeling that people do love and are quite passionate about the work that they do and I think everyone who does fall into it is happy about the result but it’s not necessarily that it would have been something that they would have chosen as a long term career choice and I think it’s really important for us to get out there to give people the information and the knowledge but I guess we don’t want everyone to plan to go into HR because what we want people to do is actually have a wider experience as well of a business and an understanding because that gives you more credibility. So it’s a balance really. There are some people who can really work their way through different areas of HR and have a huge and very varied career within HR but then there are some people who can work within business and then go into HR based on the skills and experience that they’ve got.
PL: I asked Sam how his McDonalds HR colleagues came to work in HR?
SW: I would generally, with my colleagues, split them into kind of two. We've got entry level people that have done HR and business-related degrees that have chosen the profession because of the work that I guess a lot of people within the profession have done in terms of changing the perceptions of it, from less of a support department, that old personnel, view of things into more of a business driver and an enabler for organisational capability, whereas I think that a lot of the people that are leading the function at the moment didn’t necessarily choose a route into HR, although there are obviously exceptions of that but have grown through the business and got more of a business background as opposed to HR and then taken a sidestep into the function.
PL: Have you any clear view about which is the best way or the best route of entry? I mean obviously you've done it straight down the line with an HR degree but any benefits doing it the other way?
SW: I think that both have their pros and both have their cons. I think going through more of a business background will ensure that you’re more a well rounded individual, you understand what the business does so therefore will be able to look at HR and people management practices in a different way to someone that's gone through more of a straight line route but maybe you lack some of the specialist understanding that comes with studying HR at degree and masters level.
PL: HR is a diverse profession with many routes in, many opportunities to specialise and it can also be a brilliant springboard to other bits of the business because the skills are so readily transferable.
GK: From the research that we did there was definitely evidence that the students that we spoke to didn’t understand that there was any kind of career path within HR and from the work we're doing on our website and the career profiles that we're working on we're trying to really show the diversity of the roles within HR, we're quite clear about the different areas of HR that you can work in and the kind of skills that you need and the transferable skills that you can work both going into HR and back out again and there are some great stories of people who have done that kind of thing and that's really what’s very important to us in this work that we don’t just talk about what the CIPD think HR should be we're getting real people to talk about what it means to them and what their role has been and how they’ve got there, to really bring it to life so that people can actually see this is something very real and not something that's just us having a chat about it.
PL: Esther O’Halloran is one example of someone who’s moved from another area of the business into HR and then out again. She’s HR director for Paul the 120 year old French, family owned, patisserie chain. The company has 24 branches here in the UK so far and 300 odd branches worldwide. I met her in the delicious smelling kitchens behind the Baker Street branch of Paul in central London. So Esther we're in the kitchens at the back of the café at Paul tell me what happens in here?
Esther O’Halloran: The reason why we're a little bit hot is we're stood right by our ovens. We have traditional deck ovens where we bake our products and you can see there's some croissants and yummy pain au chocolat just there that have come out of the oven and then you have preparation benches. We also have traditional things in the kitchen which you can hear behind which is the wash up areas.
PL: Now you’re HR chief for the whole chain in the UK.
PL: This is not where you started.
EO’H: It’s not.
PL: Tell me about your early career.
EO’H: My first degree was in fashion and textiles and I worked in the fashion industry for quite a number of years in retail management.
PL: You had a great job at H & M didn’t you?
EO’H: Yes I was the general manager of H & M Oxford Circus which was their flagship, I think it still is their flagship store in central London, mega, mega busy, fast pace, great, great clothing, great discount obviously, high volume business and it was just great fun.
PL: So retail was your thing and you were in a great job there why on earth did you move out of that?
EO’H: I wanted to develop my career. I loved managing people, seeing them grow, I like working in a fast changing environment but I wanted the next step up and an opportunity came up with Whitbread which is a very large hospitality organisation, a friend approached me and said they were looking for area managers with different backgrounds and I thought, ‘Give it a go.’
PL: Whitbread employed Esther as an area manager covering Kent and the South East. She was responsible for a wide range of restaurants and hotels. She ended up at Costa, a Whitbread brand where she developed a passion for working closely with people rather than just managing the operational side. Then she saw an advert for a new recruitment and retention manager at Costa.
EO’H: I thought, ‘I can do that.’ Didn’t fit the profile at the time but I persuaded them to see me and Nick Armitage, who was the HR director at the time, sat down and, you know, we were chatting through and he said, “But you don’t look Italian?” and recruitment, you know, is image and everything else.
PL: Did you speak Italian?
EO’H: No, “You don’t speak Italian,” and he just looked at me and I said, “Well I could put, Irish surname O’Halloran, I’ll put the O at the end of my name, Hallorano, that sounds Italian. I'll dye my hair black and I will learn Italian I promise.” And he just burst out laughing and I think gave in and I haven't looked back.
PL: Esther completed her CIPD qualifications after that. Now she's a great advocate for the profession but she does clearly remember just how negative her perceptions used to be.
EO’H: Even in H & M then at the time HR was just an administrator who primarily processed payroll and holiday. That was it, no real focus on personal development. There was no focus on getting the most out of your people through motivating them. It was, yeah HR was kind of I don't know personnel I think, tea and sympathy. I sometimes think it’s that's all they were there for.
PL: Esther really knows her stuff when it comes to food and drink and is a great example of just how crucial it is for HR’s to be immersed in the business context of their organisations.
GK: Some of the most successful people that we've met really do believe in their organisation and are passionate about how that organisation operates, who’s working in it and bringing the best out of those people for the benefit of the organisation and they live that and they literally encompass it and embody it in everything that they do. So that definitely is a very big part of their credibility and who they are as a professional. I think, you know, and Esther in particular she's worked for Paul UK. She was actually asked to be the acting MD while they were recruiting a new MD because she was the most suitable person to step into that role from being the HR director. So it’s just a fantastic example of how HR is perceived in that particular industry, in that particular organisation. I think if you don’t really grasp that you'll never really have a successful career in HR.
EO’H: Okay so we're now just going down through into the main shop area on Baker Street. So you can see the counters and obviously the staff that are behind, in traditional baker uniforms as well, that's something that's very important to us in terms of part of our heritage.
PL: Now you get involved in branding don’t you as well?
PL: I think a lot of people will find that very interesting and surprising thing for an HR chief. How does that work?
EO’H: For me employee branding should mirror your consumer brand. For example when you look at our shops, sexy black exterior, beautiful sort of cream/gold lettering, very chic…
PL: It’s rustic chic isn’t it?
EO’H: Yes it is very rustic chic. So I've taken our consumer and marketing brand and created an employee brand that reflects that so a lot of the branded materials, whether it’s attraction materials of some of the rewards and benefit things that we do have hessian backgrounds that look like flour sacks, whether it’s employee of the month or come and work for us type of thing so I'm very mindful of that to the extent that we've won some awards which we're really proud of for our employee branding in our recruitment processes.
PL: For people who are contemplating possibly coming into HR as a profession I think perhaps they wouldn’t have thought that you would have the potential to get involved in things like that. They would think more about directly managing people or training people or involved in admin about people but this is much more than that isn’t it? It’s about things that actually drive the business and sustain performance?
EO’H: Yeah. One of the key things that will drive the business is how people feel when they’re at work how are they treated from the moment they touch you whether it’s through an online application or walking into one of your stores looking for a job, how are they treated, how are they made to feel, through the whole recruitment process, how do you make them feel on day one in terms of their welcome induction day, training and development is a key, key element of HR but it doesn’t stop there. It’s then the other things that you do that can add value whether it’s through some of the reward recognition. Part of our role certainly as a team is to find out how people feel so we do a culture survey. We do a main one once a year and we do a mini views survey as well and monthly we're asking people, “What can we do better?” and then we tell them what we've done.
PL: And managing talent presumably as well?
EO’H: Managing absolutely and succession planning comes into it, you know, who are your rising stars coming through the business? We do a lot of analysis in terms of I provide weekly and monthly, we call them KPIs but HR people metrics, so you're understanding not only how many people join you or leave you and at what stage but why they leave you, whether it’s through exit interviews or analysis, but also what it costs. I always put costs on things as well and I think my business background has helped me do that so I know how much it costs to recruit someone at team member level and how much that will cost in terms of turnover. I prepare my budgets and I manage my budgets very well and I know that's something that you think, ‘Oh HR numbers, budgets?’ but you have to. You need to costs on things and it’s not just about recruitment agency costs, it’s all the other little things that cost that you manage in your business.
PL: This is a million miles from your original perceptions of HR isn’t it?
EO’H: Completely and one of the things that I feel very passionate and I get very enthused that I love what I do, absolutely love. I've found my niche, okay through retail management, area operations, but I've landed where I want to be, started in a specialist role but moved into more generalist and I think I get involved and set the strategy with the business, you know, we've developed our values, which we call sixth senses, very much leading that and steering that and that doesn’t always happen within HR people often think, ‘Well that's the CEO or the MD that will set that,’ but it’s not, you know, I'm very, very influential in steering the strategic direction of our business which I love.
PL: Back in Manchester Georgina is wrapping up her focus group. In the course of a couple of hours she's managed to tell the students about HR today and surprise them with information about rising pay, growing opportunities, a wide scope for movement in and out of the rest of the business and the range of roles available. So what did they make of it?
TH: Yeah I learnt a lot more about what’s open to me, what I can do in the future. It has informed me a lot more of what HR does in a business. It’s a lot more effected in business’s overall aims. It’s not just, as I thought, recruitment of people and organisation of people it does actually contribute towards the wider aims, towards actually generating profit and towards improving clients and stuff like that. I had a sort of a blind view of it and I just saw it as working with people, just recruitment-based really, nothing that directly financially helps the business.
OF: Well the session’s just ended and I think I've learnt a lot more about HR. it’s definitely more appealing to a student, I mean you can go into a lot of different companies and by reading the booklet as well the people that have given their views on HR and people that have been working in HR really seem passionate about their job and it really seems that they enjoy doing what they’re doing. I was considering looking at HR actually as like something just to…you can move from company to company and it’s very international-based and you can move around. I'm really interested in like working abroad and stuff like that. Before I mean I had a lot of stigma towards HR and now I'm kind of warming towards the idea of getting work experience in that sector of the company.
PL: To learn more about the HR profession, hear from case study examples, look at HR jobs and read our latest guide to working in HR visit http://www.cipd.co.uk/thinkhr
As always you’ll find the show notes which accompany the podcast at http://www.cipd.co.uk/podcasts.
Next month we’ll be looking at fairness at work, policy and practice. It promises to be a lively debate between government ministers and our very own Dianah Worman. Join us then.