Getting involved in HR networks can be a great way to keep up with a fast-changing sector, share best practice and learn from other HR professionals. It can even save your organisation money. Sarah Wray looks at what makes HR networking work.
Guy Pink, HR director at charity Addaction and secretary of the London HR Connection group, believes networking is an essential HR skill that’s sometimes neglected. “Networking is one of the forgotten skills of being a HR professional. A skilled networker is recognised as a more ’rounded’ employee; someone who can tap into their network for specialist knowledge, pursue new business leads, gather market intelligence, source new strategic alliances and raise the profile of their organisation,” he says.
Online or in person?
Online forums are an easy way to get involved in networks as there are no restrictions on location or meeting times. Lee Burman, a recruitment consultant, set up the LinkedIn Public Sector HR Professionals Group in 2008. It now has more than 265 members and, like most online-only networks, costs nothing to join.
Top six networking tips for HR
1. Do your research and ask questions before you choose a network. Make sure you’re networking with the right people.
2. Get out and about and follow up with the people you’ve connected with afterwards.
3. Be really clear about what you want to achieve; have a strategy. Look at what your ultimate goal is and work towards that.
4. A worthwhile network is one that provides inspiration, opportunity and a framework for action.
5. To get the most out of the experience you have to share things and be prepared to trust people.
6. Contribute: networking sites don’t work unless people ask and answer questions. Sites will easily become stale if everyone sits back and lets one voice take over.
Jeremy Burgess, director, Strategic HR Network
Steve Wiggins, chair, Charities HR Network
Lee Burman, founder, LinkedIn Public Sector HR Professionals group
Claire Doolin, former HR manager, Paperchase.
Helen Charlton, head of HR, The Sage Gateshead
Asked about the benefits of the group, Burman says: “It’s that instant connectivity with people who are working in the sector. You have the opportunity to link up with people who are going through similar issues. At the moment, popular topics are employee engagement and how the public sector can learn from the private sector. There’s also the opportunity to share best practice.”
Burman adds: “People use it quite creatively too. Being knowledgeable and opinionated can keep you fresh in people’s minds and they might well think of you, for example, for roles that are coming up. People tend to view you slightly differently when they get to know you through a network. If you’re adding value, they see you on a different level.”
However, in a working world increasingly spent online, many are keen not to lose the benefits of face-to-face interaction. Esther O’Halloran, HR director at bakery chain Paul UK, is a committee member of the HR Retail Circle, set up in London’s West End 18 years ago by senior retail personnel managers. It has about 80 members, mainly from major high street retailers, who pay an annual membership fee. The group meets about eight times a year and features guest speakers on topical issues and structured discussions on HR hot topics, as well as time to network more informally.
O’Halloran acknowledges online networks provide a constant resource that people can fit around other commitments. But she says: “In person you get a real feel for things. You’re able to show and read emotion and passion, so it’s sometimes easier to emphasise a point. Online networks are a 24-hour information resource but they can be less personal.”
Mixing it up
For some HR professionals, a mixture of networks works better. Helen Charlton, head of HR at arts venue The Sage Gateshead, is a member of a number of HR-specific networks, including regional and general online forums, among them Personnel Today’s community HR Space.
Charlton is most active in a network she was instrumental in setting up – the HR branch of a group of 11 North East cultural venues, which, since 2009, has collectively gone by the name Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues (NGCV). The organisations, including galleries, theatres and a cinema, work together, sharing best practice, resources and information in business areas such as facilities management, public engagement, digital opportunities and HR. The group, which already met on an informal basis before the company-wide NGCV was officially formed, meets every other month and also communicates via social networking platform Ning.
Charlton explains how she uses different networks: “With online forums you have a wide spectrum of HR professionals from a variety of organisations. If there’s an issue we haven’t dealt with before I could go to our NGCV HR network meeting and discuss its implications in the cultural sector. Or I could go to an online network or one of the big regional networks and get ideas on how it’s affecting other industries and how other sectors tackle the problem.”
Some people may be concerned this sharing spirit is at odds with the confidential and sometimes sensitive nature of HR information. Charlton says it’s about professionalism and trust. “Meetings are attended on a Chatham house rules basis. I’m working with HR professionals who I know understand the boundaries of confidentiality,” she says. “No names are mentioned and you can even talk about a problem in terms of a hypothetical situation. When I use online forums I speak in abstract terms rather than about specific situations.”
As well as sharing information and best practice by working together, organisations can also reduce costs and benefit from collective bargaining power. O’Halloran says HR Retail Circle events are often supported by law firms that provide legal update workshops and seminars for free to the group – something they would be less likely to do for one organisation.
Just as important as these financial and professional gains, though, are the less measurable benefits. Charlton says: “It’s a professional thing, but there are good friendships to be made and it can be fun. There are times when HR is emotionally challenging and sometimes you just need to talk to other HR professionals who understand this. You can’t do it in the office because the staff there are the people you’re dealing with and you can’t really do it at home. It also keeps your ideas fresh and gives you a bit more energy. It keeps you sane.”
Case study: Benefits of HR networking
“I only really understood the benefits of active networking once I’d joined the HR Retail Circle,” says Claire Doolin, former HR manager at stationery retailer Paperchase.
“I’ve been able to support people in the group by introducing them to new contacts, service providers and clients. I have recommended people for specific jobs. I’ve also been able to offer free advice to members about aspects of European law, a technical strength of mine.
“I really benefit from being part of the group too. Although I had worked in retail for a number of years, I gained my senior HR experience in a corporate environment. So when I came to head up the HR team for Paperchase, it was like being new to an industry in terms of contacts. A lawyer I had previously worked with introduced me to the HRC and it was the start of a beautiful relationship,” she says.
“All members deal with similar challenges, issues and considerations and there are opportunities which wouldn’t otherwise be available. Member companies share information on all sorts of policies, practices, organisational design and reward.
“When I recently began looking for a new permanent role, I told members of the HRC. I was overwhelmed by the offers of support, contacts and recommendations that came from within the group. More importantly, as they know my strengths and personality, I trust their judgment about roles or businesses they recommend or advise against.”
Source: NHS Employers.