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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  • PS and hello to David too - there was a very long gap between me typing my thoughts and clicking on Post Comment.

  • Hi Anna and Robey

    I, too share Anna's impression that we get quite a few questions posted on FW in the CIPD Communities that boil down to: "we've got an FW request to consider and my employer wants to know how to get away with turning it down". But I also agree with Robey that the answers to such posts usually major on suggesting ways for the questioner to sell the benefits of working flexibly. So my impression is that the resistance to FW comes mainly from outside the HR function.

    But is there pressure, real or perceived, on some HR departments to prove their worth by being first in and last out? I think that could be the case but I'm not sure it's the whole picture. The question I would ask is whether this pressure affects other support functions and my completely unscientific guess would be that marketing departments feel less pressure, IT and press & PR more pressure, and that the nature of this pressure is about the perceived need for someone to be on hand for crisis management: email has gone down, or a knocking piece in the press has been picked up by TV and radio news, or a member of staff has just walked out/said something sexist - in every case there will be a line manager who needs help and needs it now. With an IT issue, my guess would be that any competent IT person would do but for HR issues, the line manager would prefer to speak to "their" HR contact - the person that they know and trust and who has got them out of a sticky situation in the past.

    Or perhaps I'm just revealing my own prejudices?

    The final point I would make is that when I have advertised part-time HR vacancies, I have been very disappointed with the response.

  • In my experience, I think that there's little doubt that most managers are still very much in the mindset that anything less than full required working hours for full working weeks is not to be tolerated: that it's pandering to those fluffy,'family-friendly' notions, espoused by extremist folk who read 'The Guardian' amongst all manner of other unspeakable decadent things.

    Unfortunately, in HR there's a combination of senior managers still of this dinosaur mindset, along with other, usually less-senior staff who are either unwilling or 'politically' unable to upset the dinosaurs amongst their line-management colleagues  by challenging these institutionalised prejuduces.

    David (although John unto this arm of CIPD)

  • Hi Robey, it's good to hear your team is being an exemplar in this - keep up the good work.

    You are quite right that many of the respondents to communities questions about flexible working encourage posters to view it positively; however, that's not the way I've read the original questions.

    And it doesn't get round the fact that I regularly come across threads - both in the communities and elsewhere - started predominantly by women bemoaning the lack of flexible/reduced hours opportunities in HR.

    As with you, my experience (and my blog post) is subjective. If there is a lot more flexible working going on in HR, I'd love to hear about it - so please, if you're in the same boat as Robey do share your experiences.

  • This doesn't reflect my experience at all.  In my team, fully half the team is working some form of flexible working.  Far from feeling like we have to justify our existence, we see ourselves as exemplars, using our policies intelligently to provide the most constructive working patterns that allow all of us to balance work and life.  As well as setting an example to the rest of the workforce, it gives us a practical and personal experience of the options and processes that helps us deliver a better-informed and more compassionate service to our customers.

    Now that's all subjective and I'm fully prepared to acknowledge that the national picture may be quite different.  But as a regular user of and contributor to the Community forums, could you cite any of the specific threads and questions that you allude to?  My impression of the Community consensus has been far more that it supports and encourages colleagues to make intelligent use of flexible working than the opposite.