For many of the delegates at the HR Forum on board the P&O cruise ship Aurora earlier this month, the highlight – apart from the Salsa dancing and karaoke – was a Question Time-style debate featuring four of the UK’s more outspoken HR directors.
Angela O’Connor, HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service; Sarah Dorman, head of HR at Waterstones; Richard Smelt, HR director at Carphone Warehouse; and Paul Pagliari, HR director at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, gave their views on a series of topics raised by the audience of senior HR professionals.
Once again, the perceived negative image of HR – a consistent theme at conferences in the past few years – was one of the issues tackled by the panel.
Smelt said HR professionals were finally beginning to realise that they were as influential as other functions.
“For a long time, HR has been apologising for itself, but we have stopped doing that and are starting to see more open doors,” he said.
But Kevin McAlpin, managing director of Performance Coaching International, told Personnel Today after the debate: “I’ve been going to HR conferences for seven years and they’re still talking about the same thing.”
Outsourcing is another common area of discussion, but the debate livened up when Smelt said: “I don’t think (outsourcing) suppliers are very good. There is a view that says ‘how can failed consultants do a better job than seasoned HR professionals?’.”
But O’Connor said the focus of outsourcing should be on the service provided, not simply on the process.
“There is so much crap talked about outsourcing,” she said. “It is a process, not an input. I am interested in the outcome, not who delivers it.”
Diversity and equality
All the speakers agreed there was a definite business case for diversity, but said HR needed to look at itself before making judgements on anyone else.
“As a function, we need to look at our own employee base,” said Smelt. “I look across this room and all I see are white faces.”
Pagliari, who advocated a “zero tolerance” approach to tackling discrimination, said HR professionals should use equality laws to their advantage, and not see them as a hindrance.
“Some people look at laws in terms of how they should break them,” he said. “I look at how you can use them to your advantage. It’s not just about compliance.”
Dorman agreed that employment laws can sometimes be helpful, and not just an administrative burden. Speaking about the likely changes to the Working Time Directive regulations, she said: “We had a huge issue at Sainsbury’s when I worked there, but we used the laws to shift the [long-hours] culture.”
But the HR directors on the podium agreed that some laws will cause problems, citing next year’s age discrimination legislation in particular. O’Connor said: “I worry about the 2006 law. It may limit our freedom.”
And Smelt, whose workforce is largely young because Carphone Warehouse is regarded as ‘modern and fast-moving’, said: “The law will give us a problem – our employer brand in itself is indirect discrimination.”