Want to work flexibly? Avoid a career in HR

By Anna Meller   @GrownUpBalance

> Being the change you want to see in the (working) world

Over six million UK women work part-time – some even reaching the heady heights of senior management, although numbers drop off sharply at this level. However, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, only a small handful of them work in HR. Once again the topic of working less than full-time has been raised in an HR group discussion on a social networking site, and the number of respondents (mainly women) declaring they would like a part-time HR role but are unable to find one is slowly rising. I’m wondering why it’s so difficult.

The benefits of flexible and reduced hours working are regularly repeated in media articles aimed at both the HR profession and the wider business community. The Women’s Business Council and the TUC are calling for better quality (more senior) part-time roles to make the most of precious talent unable to work fixed, full-time schedules. And our colleagues in IT and FM are increasingly talking about Agile Working as a means of harnessing technology and reducing expensive office costs.

Yet judging by the questions posted in the CIPD Communities, it seems flexible working is nothing more than a nuisance to most HR people, who appear more concerned with following legal procedure – even where the decision is a foregone “no” – than in persuading managers of the imperative to accommodate the growing expectations of both Generations X and Y when it comes to work-life balance.

So maybe it’s not surprising there’s such a lack of opportunity for flexible working within the HR function - but it does represent a shocking waste of qualified and highly trained talent. What’s even more worrying is the broader context of the debate about getting women into boardrooms. The vast majority of CIPD members are female. If we cannot support the careers of our own colleagues, how can we expect to persuade our employers to embrace flexible working for more senior women in other functions?

In my own career, I’ve worked in HR departments where the feeling was that, as an “overhead”, we had to justify our existence by working longer and harder than other functions. Does this still go on? And is it the reason I so often read that HR jobs cannot be worked flexibly? Or is it simply that despite claiming it wants to be a more strategic function, this is one strategic imperative HR is willing to sidestep? The world around us is changing and the Agile Working juggernaut is heading in our direction.

Monday 22nd September marks the start of this year’s National Work Life Week (#NWLW). Why not mark the occasion by – to paraphrase Ghandi - “being the change you want to see in the (working) world”. Take a look at your HR function and discuss with your colleagues how you might all support each other’s work-life balance with more flexible working arrangements.

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  • I found it hugely difficult to secure part-time working in HR. When I had my first child I requested PT working from my Nhs employer only to come up against a brick wall of senior (female) HR managers who were so vehemently opposed to any flexible working in their department that they openly sought my resignation rather than agree to anything other than FT  working (even though they acknowledged my performance was excellent). I had an incredibly stressful mat leave looking for a new job only to find that PT HR jobs at an advisor level are never advertised. I had to go into interim work which finally led to a perm PT role after more than 2 years. Believe me the dinosaurs are alive and well in HR!

  • I work as a HR Consultant due to lack of flexibility in corporate HR roles. Last week I turned down an interim position, despite being the HR recruiters preferred choice, because there was no flexibility at all despite it being within a large project, not operational - so availability over quality won out. After 10 years successfully working in commercial HR I had to move to the public sector for part-time work, not a good career move but the best FW option at the time, c 2004. After 4 years of not really enjoying that but finding so few part-time vacancies available I finally applied for a couple of full-time jobs and, was offered one, shortlisted for the bottom 3 for the other on the same day. I haven't seen much change in the FW HR world since. My colleagues without family commitments requiring FW have whizzed ahead of me career-wise because of the opportunities available. The case for availability, not quality in the HR world is a strong one.

  • Thanks for your thoughts John (AKA David) and Elizabeth. I'm glad we're getting a bit of a discussion going around this topic - after all, that's the way minds get changed in reality.

    As I said in my original blog piece, I fear the whole flexible working issue may be wrested from HR by FM and IT functions tasked with cost savings through more efficient use of premises and equipment.