Dianah Worman, head of diversity, CIPD (1969 – executive officer, Post Office Selection Board)
I joined the Civil Service at 18 in preference to going to university, and by my early 20s was in a fairly demanding job helping recruit graduates to what was then the General Post Office, a large organisation on the brink of nationalisation.
In retrospect, personnel work, as it was called in the 1960s, was intensely sophisticated. Not only did we have milk rounds and pre-selection, but we also had – via what was termed the Psychological Services Department – a thoroughness of approach towards psychometric testing that wouldn’t be out of place today.
Welfare was a big theme in the early days, and although the message was similar to that of employee wellbeing today – ‘we care about you and we want you to feel healthy and not unduly stressed’ – I do remember feeling that it was all very paternalistic.
Many of the personnel department were ex-Oxbridge, and practically all were seen as extremely high-fliers. Luckily for me, my best boss at that time was highly personable and kind as well as being intellectually capable, and I was sponsored to do a postgraduate qualification in personnel management at Westminster University, even though I didn’t have a first degree.
Although being in the Civil Service meant I received absolutely fantastic training opportunities, the worst thing about the 60s was the innate sidelining of HR – which continues today, of course – as well as the assumption that it was somehow a soft career option. I have never found it so.
I like the fact that HR has broadened out nowadays to encompass more walks of life and later entrants with non-personnel backgrounds, but I can’t help noticing that what I was involved in doing almost 40 years ago is seen as being quite breakthrough today.”
John Chambers, head of new product development, Thorntons (1970s – personnel and training officer, transport and distribution, Spillers)
After my degree in industrial economics, I joined horse feed manufacturer Spillers as a graduate trainee, where I was exposed to a whole different range of jobs.
Personnel was a separate function comprised mostly of ex-army recruiters, and it was very much about dealing with day-to-day rule-breaking by staff. The industrial relations team was left to deal with the messier things, such as confrontation and strikes. Although it was stressful, it was never dull, and I eventually became industrial relations manager.
My first boss looked me up and down at my interview and said: “If you can stay propped up at the bar for a decent length of time, you’ve got the job.” My people skills were probably seen as less important than being able to socialise with the men after work and keep a clear head.
Both the best and the worst thing about HR in those days was the people. On one occasion, in Merseyside, I remember a strike being called because the workshop was too cold. When we got non-union labour to fix the problem, the men walked out.
The second was in Plymouth, where my car was halfway through a service when negotiations broke down over something, and again the men walked out. One of them, realising my plight, offered to stay behind and finish the job so I could get home that night.
My abiding memory of HR in the 1970s is endless meetings, note-taking and the job of working out detailed cost/pay levels for a manager who calculated everything on a slide rule – really!
When I moved into factory management, I found that it too involves a lot of issues around cross-function activity and people development, and my HR training has stood me in good stead. But when did it all get so theoretical?
Back in the 70s, one of our key men kept being absent because he couldn’t drive, so we sorted out a works moped for him and he never let us down again. I can’t see that happening today somehow.”
Elizabeth Hopkins, director of human capital strategy, Accenture UK (1981 – assistant personnel officer, MW Kellogg)
I graduated from King’s College London, where I had studied human and environmental science, and after a year at the then Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Products Industry Board, I took my first general HR role at the engineering firm MW Kellogg.
I joined the firm at the height of the early 1980s recession, and one of my first jobs was to oversee a substantial redundancy programme, which included the calculation of redundancy payments and helping former colleagues get back to work. Although it was tough, my early days in HR were great experience and they ensured that my career has taken in both operational and strategic functions ever since.
Having always had recruitment responsibilities, I have seen a number of graduates go right through from joining the company to leading the business. It is incredibly rewarding to know you have identified that talent early on in the recruitment process. Although there are far more external training options available now, the growing use of mentoring and counselling initiatives has been particularly significant.
There has been an incredible transformation in our industry since I first joined the profession nearly 30 years ago. Businesses have become global, and the HR function has had to adapt to meet those global needs. At Accenture, HR is increasingly seen as a critical business, rather than a support function.”
Helen Giles, director of human resources, Broadway Homelessness and Support (1993 – assistant director, Housing Services Agency)
I started doing bits of personnel work when I joined a small homelessness charity called Housing Services Agency back in 1986, but by the time I became interim assistant director in 1993 it had grown to an organisation of 60 people.
From the beginning I had the strategic responsibility for all aspects of the function, and it was great to be able to come up with a clear plan about what had to be achieved in people terms if we were to switch from the old collective culture of all rights and no responsibilities to a client-focused, high performing and empowering place to work.
I have never worked under anybody who had any HR expertise, although I’ve worked with fantastically supportive CEOs since the 1990s. Everything I’ve learned has been from reading, from short training courses and conferences, and from doing it and observing the results. I’ve never been taken with theoretical ideas in the workplace, but have preferred to be an empiricist.
I’ve always loved all aspects of the job. Having always been a generalist and having worked only for smaller businesses, I have always been able to do the full range from strategic thinking around performance management or learning and development, through to the more hands-on elements such as employee relations and health and safety.
Although the 90s saw debates over issues such as the difference between personnel and HR, or the benefits of leaner organisations, these have simply been replaced by interminable musings about the business partnering model and how HR can make itself more strategic.
What really has changed, however, is on the employee relations side of things. When I started in HR, provided that you followed sensible and fair disciplinary and dismissal procedures, you could run your affairs in a fair and common-sense way without too much fear of litigation.
The system that has evolved today is systematically abused, creates barriers for organisations trying to run their businesses efficiently, and constitutes a scandalous waste of public funds. This is an area in which change has very definitely not been for the better.”
Rebecca Lightfoot, learning and development manager, Ford of Britain (2003 – employee relations officer, Ford’s Southampton assembly plant)
My early responsibilities at Ford – which followed a spell as a graduate trainee manager at Peter Jones – were diverse, and I was able to get involved in key aspects of running the business right from the outset.
Although I’ve often heard people say that they should go into HR because they’re ‘good with people’, in my experience that is not the key. Yes, you need to be able to deal appropriately with people in your organisation but, as in any other profession, it is important to be able to get to grips with the business you operate in and understand what the key challenges are.
The best aspects of the job are the opportunities to become involved in challenging strategic matters that affect the heart of the business and our relationship with customers.
I have received a significant amount of on the job training in my roles, ranging from formal training on corporate policies and procedures through to informal coaching and mentoring.
I have also been given the opportunity to coach and mentor others, both inside and outside the company via the relationships we have with community organisations.
The HR function here is respected for its ability to work with management to deliver solutions, and we are already involved in strategic decision-making at every stage.”