As a 14-year-old schoolgirl Clare Smith handed a bouquet of flowers to Leonard Cheshire as he opened a care home in Hertfordshire. Some 30 years passed before she came into contact again with the charity that bears the war hero’s name.
Now 55, Smith is the director of human resources (HR) for Leonard Cheshire Disability – a position she has held for nine years. It is a high-profile role in one of the country’s largest charities, which employs 7,500 people in 258 locations around the UK.
But when she first came through the doors of the organisation’s headquarters on Millbank in London a decade ago she had no intention of staying for long.
“I’d been working as an interim HR manager for 18 months and to me this was just another interim job. But within three days I’d been offered a permanent role as an HR adviser,” she says.
This was Smith’s first taste of working in the voluntary sector and what she found took her by surprise.
“I accepted the position because the organisation fascinated me. There was so much work to do. I couldn’t believe an organisation structured in the way it was could survive in this day and age,” she adds.
At that time Leonard Cheshire’s HR department consisted of two people. There was no training for employees, very little health and safety direction and 240 different sets of terms of conditions on staff contracts. With no salary system in place each region was managed by a committee of volunteers who were responsible for deciding staff pay.
This set-up was a radical departure from the manufacturing sector where Smith started working in HR. She says: “In heavy engineering there are policies and procedures and everybody sticks to them. But here, there were no quality standards or policies across the organisation – the centre just advised.”
But change was in the air. Smith’s arrival coincided with the formation of the Charity Commission, a body set up to regulate the charity sector and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of charities.
“I’ve seen huge changes over the past 10 years, not only at Leonard Cheshire but across the sector as a whole. We have caught up with the private sector in the way we run ourselves. Our practices are modern and we are much more financially aware,” she says.
Today the charity has a turnover of about £150m and serves 22,000 people in residential and learning disability homes and supported living units, as well as in their own homes where they receive domiciliary care.
Leonard Cheshire’s management soon spotted Smith’s magic touch and within a year she was made director of HR and also given responsibility for training and health and safety.
Now there is a dedicated HR manager in each of the charity’s 10 regions, who are supported by eight HR staff at head office.
When it comes to describing her main achievements during her tenure, Smith points to two areas:
- A simplified pay and reward scheme throughout the organisation, so today there are only three types of contract. “It was a huge piece of work putting everyone on new contracts, but now we have equality across the whole organisation,” she says.
- The formation of staff associations within Leonard Cheshire. Prior to Smith’s arrival, there was no way of involving staff in decisions that affected them. “Because we never spoke to our employees there was a lot of distrust and suspicion whenever we tried to do something,” she says.
Today, there are 180 local staff committees, which meet every six weeks, with regional and national staff meetings taking place every quarter. These are a vital link between employer and employees providing a forum for dialogue and feedback.
Ensuring employees are well-informed and satisfied is a priority for Smith because, she says, her biggest challenge is attracting, retaining and developing staff. This is a common problem for charities where salaries are generally not as high as in the private sector.
But money isn’t everything, and Smith says recruits are attracted to Leonard Cheshire Disability because of the excellent working conditions and ethos of the organisation.
A progressive flexible working policy exists while there is a focus on training for every individual. “We have a tremendous training and development programme in place. Someone without qualifications can join us and within 18 months have a nationally-recognised qualification,” says Smith.
During their first 12 weeks, new employees receive practical instruction in areas such as first aid and food hygiene before starting an NVQ Level 2 programme. Health and safety and team leader development programmes have also been introduced.
Smith says developing good line managers is a vital aspect of creating a healthy atmosphere in the workplace. “And we have some cracking managers here,” she adds.
The employees agree: the most recent staff satisfaction survey found 95% of staff are happy in their work.
Recognition for its good working conditions has also come from outside the organisation. Last year, Leonard Cheshire Disability made it into the prestigious Sunday Times list of the top 20 UK employers – the first charity ever to do so. In 2005 Nursing Times named it among the 10 best places for nurses to work.
“Being recognised in this way has a huge positive impact on staff engagement and recruitment in terms of the increase in the number of people who want to come and work for you. It’s a competitive job market and being named as a good employer is the best way to differentiate yourself,” she says.
According to Smith, the care sector has become more regulated during her spell with Leonard Cheshire and much of her time is spent ensuring the organisation operates within tight legislative requirements. Current concerns include recent changes to Criminal Record Bureau checks brought in following the Bichard Inquiry. The changes mean all Leonard Cheshire’s staff will have to be checked again, even if they have already gone through the process and been working with vulnerable people or children for years.
“This can cause a lot of stress for the staff, some whom feel they might lose their job because they were caught shoplifting when they were 15,” says Smith. “Much of my role here is communicating the reasons for the changes and reassuring people they have nothing to worry about.”
Smith says she has never worked so hard as in her current role, but that she still wakes up looking forward to each day.
“In the manufacturing world the main driver was the bottom line, but here it’s all about outcomes. Our mission statement is ‘to change attitudes to disability and to serve disabled people around the world’. With that as your number-one priority you change your world view and work seems a richer place.
“I work with some wonderful people who are committed to our cause. With less of a focus on the bottom line they have time to be kind and are concerned about you as a person. And you can’t always say that about the commercial world,” she concludes.
CV: Clare Smith
- 1997 – present
Director of HR, Leonard Cheshire Disability
- 1995 – 1997
Interim HR manager
- 1991 – 1995
HR director, paper manufacturer Sonoco
- 1989 – 1991
Divisional HR manager, heavy engineering firm Tiphook
- 1986 – 1989
HR manager, paper finisher Henry & Leigh Slaters
- 1983 – 1989
HR manager, textiles finisher Wardle Fabrics
Qualifications Chartered Fellow FCIPD, MBA, BA in education and environment studies, Qualified teacher.
Despite the existence of disability discrimination legislation, Clare Smith, HR director at charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, believes UK employers have a long way to go when it comes to attitudes about recruiting disabled employees.
The charity’s new advertising campaign, Creature Discomforts, uses the voices of disabled people behind characters created by Aardman Animations, which produced Wallace and Gromit, to highlight awareness.
“A big education programme is required because a lot of old-fashioned prejudice still exists,” she says.
“There is a fear among line managers that if they take on a disabled person they won’t be able to do the job, they will be absent all the time and they will be difficult to move on.”
Line managers also need to understand that the ‘reasonable adjustment’ employers are required to make under law to accommodate a disabled worker are often not as onerous as they imagine.
Says Smith: “People think they will have to install special lifts or put ramps in everywhere, but often it’s a case of getting a new chair for someone or allowing them to come in a bit later and work a bit later, so they avoid rush hour.”
A lot of employers are also unaware that they can get a grant, which will pay up to 100% of the cost involved in making this adjustment, according to Smith.
“Funding is available through the Access to Work initiative, but a lot of employers don’t know it exists,” she adds.