Review of the year: a look back at 2009

As we near the end of another challenging year for HR, here are some of Personnel Today‘s top stories from the past 12 months, plus a selection of HR directors’ highs and lows of 2009.


Anticipating – accurately, as it turned out – another rough year for the profession, we kicked off our first issue of 2009 with an HR survival guide. Our experts gave their views about how HR should cope with the challenges ahead, predicting the recession could be a great opportunity for the profession to shine. Nearly a year later, their verdicts on HR’s performance in our 17 November issue were generally positive – the profession has risen to the challenge, dealt with some tough decisions, and emerged into the beginning of recovery with an enhanced reputation.

Back at the beginning of the year, however, things weren’t looking so positive for HR. There was the gloomy news that councils across the UK were making savage cuts to their back-office and HR headcount. Senior HR figures argued that HR redundancies should be a last resort, even in the face of overwhelming pressure to cut costs, and called on the profession to innovate to survive the jobs cull.

Sympathy strikes broke out across the UK in protest against oil giant Total’s decision to award a £200m building contract to an Italian firm employing Italian workers – thereby ‘costing’ British workers jobs. Hundreds of employees gathered after the original strike at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire. Strikes at Lindsay began again in June.


The recessionary gloom continued apace in the year’s shortest, darkest month, but the country was briefly distracted from the financial turmoil by the transport and admin chaos created by the blizzards. Heartwarming tales of employees battling into work through the drifts, plus plenty of pics of snowy fun posted on HR Space, were tempered by reports of some employers taking a dim view of commuters kept at home by the extreme weather – leading the TUC to accuse them of Scrooge-like behaviour.

The excitement over, it was back to more serious matters, with industrial unrest dominating the month’s news agenda. The row over the use of foreign workers escalated the following week when building workers at a new power station in Nottinghamshire downed tools in an unofficial strike. But HR warned that unions would not help UK jobs by trying to restrict the use of EU workers.


HR professionals called for reform of the “fundamentally flawed” tribunal service to prevent frivolous claims with no chance of winning from blocking up the system. Stats revealed the number of claims had soared by more than 40% year-on-year.

A year of Guru: the highlights

The blue-faced font of wisdom brought a wealth of important news stories to our attention in 2009, including:

A selection of highly creative excuses from employees calling in sick:

  • “I’m too drunk to drive to work.”

  • “I accidentally drove through the automatic garage door before it opened.”

  • “My boyfriend’s snake escaped from its cage and I’m afraid to leave the bedroom until he gets home.”

  • “I’m too fat to get into my work outfit.”

  • “God didn’t wake me.” (Employee didn’t believe in alarm clocks and thought a higher power would wake her when she was ready.)

  • “I cut my fingernails too short, they’re bleeding and I have to go to the doctor.”

  • “The ghosts in my house kept me up all night.”

  • “I forgot I was getting married today.”

  • “My cow bit me.”

  • “My son accidentally fell asleep next to wet cement in our garden. His foot fell in and we can’t get it out.”

  • “I was walking my dog and slipped on a toad in my driveway and hurt my back.”

These delicious CV clangers, unearthed by career site Monster, needless to say did not result in jobs for those who sent them off:

  • “My job involved processing clams”

  • “I am a pubic relations officer”

  • “I relieved the conference manager”

  • “I am a prooficient typist”

  • “Highly adept at multi-tasting”

Guru’s best out-of-office message competition brought in some superb entries. Among the favourites were:

  • “I will be out of the office for the next 2 weeks for medical reasons. When I return, please refer to me as ‘Margaret’ instead of ‘Steve’.”

  • “You are receiving this automatic notification because I am out of the office. If I was in, chances are you wouldn’t have received anything at all.”

  • “Nobody will be in HR for two weeks. Hope you can find someone else to whine to until then.”
The cull of 500 jobs at engineering firm Renishaw served as a stark reminder to HR to warn staff that pay freezes and shorter working weeks don’t always save jobs. HR chief Peter Bowler told Personnel Today that a 20% pay cut in February was “ineffective” at preventing redundancies.’s redundancy tracker page, complete with interactive map, kept the profession up-to-date with the latest figures throughout 2009.


Job cuts stayed at the top of the news agenda in April, with the news that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) had axed 41 jobs, about 12% of its total workforce, blaming falling revenues.

Chancellor Alastair Darling issued a disappointing 2009 Budget for HR. It provided some support to create new jobs and train the long-term unemployed, but many readers felt the chancellor didn’t go far enough to put employers’ concerns at ease and tackle unemployment.

Exclusive research by Personnel Today‘s sister publication Community Care revealed that one in nine social worker posts in England remained unfilled, with more than 8,000 vacant posts in England.


Research by the Office for National Statistics found the Civil Service gender pay gap outstrips that of the economy as a whole. The findings came a week after the government published its long-awaited Equality Bill, outlining powers to force public sector organisations with more than 150 employees to publish their pay gaps by 2013, if they have not already done so voluntarily.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills predicted the UK will fail to meet its Leitch Review target to train at least 90% of the workforce to Level 2 by 2020, unless radical action is taken by government, employers and individuals to increase qualification take-up.

British Airways (BA) asked 100 pilots to volunteer for redundancy, with pay-offs of up to £150,000 each, because of the decline in passenger numbers. BA chief executive Willie Walsh offered to work without pay for a month, and in June asked 40,000 employees to also volunteer to work for free for four weeks. The decision came as ONS stats showed unemployment rose to 2.2 million over the first quarter of 2009 – the highest in almost three decades.


PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte warned that graduates are being “paralysed by fear” and put off applying for UK jobs because they believe the hype that no-one is hiring. The business services giants called on UK firms to promote the job opportunities that are still available despite the recession, to prevent talented prospective employees ‘abandoning ship’ and seeking alternative careers or placements abroad.

Just as we were getting used to one set of tongue-twisting acronyms, the government decided to create the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) by merging the former Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). Experts felt the move would further complicate the already impenetrable skills system.

Meanwhile, the CIPD warned that 350,000 public sector jobs were likely to be axed over the next five years, risking potential “workplace guerrilla war”. Experts suggested that public sector unions would need to be more creative with their pay negotiations.


This month saw the start of long-running Royal Mail strikes over plans to modernise the service.

It was a bad month for Network Rail too. Women in the organisation’s HR function said they felt uncomfortable around HR director Peter Bennett following allegations that he sexually harassed other female colleagues in 2007.

The government-commissioned MacLeod Review of employee engagement was met with a lukewarm reception from senior HR figures, who were critical of its lack of practical measures.

HR directors were more enthusiastic about the government’s decision to bring forward a review of the default retirement age to 2010, but called for increased flexibility in the retirement process. Personnel Today has been campaigning for the government to scrap the default retirement age of 65 by 2011.

Our invaluable swine flu information page, linking to a selection of the most reliable employer and HR-relevant information, plus the latest news, proved a huge hit with the profession.


The silly season was somewhat less silly than usual, perhaps thanks to the prevailing economic gloom darkening the long summer days. Pay experts warned that local councils that quit the national pay bargaining system could be setting their HR departments up for a “massive” industrial relations job, involving months of pay negotiating, dealing with pay grievances and added administration. The decision by Local Government Employers to offer a pay rise worth up to 1.25% angered authorities, who deemed a pay freeze to be more appropriate, prompting them to consider joining the 40 or so other councils who set their own pay and conditions.

The CBI and the CIPD urged the government to cough up more cash to tackle youth unemployment. The CBI suggested diverting the £1,000 subsidy given to employers who hire the long-term unemployed – for which it said take-up was low – towards Train to Gain funding, which it said could create 50,000 new apprentices.


HR professionals created their own banks of temps to boycott the Agency Workers Directive and avoid the rise in costs – estimated to top £1.5bn a year in the private sector alone – for taking on temporary staff. The directive, which must be implemented by December 2011, will provide about 100,000 agency workers with equal rights to permanent staff, including pay, after they have worked with an organisation for 12 weeks.

Personnel Today‘s Global HR series, looking at what UK HR professionals can learn from their peers around the world, kicked off with a detailed look at North America. This was followed over subsequent weeks by articles on the Asia Pacific region, Russia and China, the Middle East and India, and Europe.

The European Court of Justice ruled that workers who fall sick during annual leave should be allowed to take their holidays again, even if it means allowing the days off to be carried over to the following year.

And CIPD chief executive Jackie Orme came under fire from Personnel Today readers for accepting a bonus on top of her £300,000 salary – after the CIPD banned discretionary bonuses for employees in 2009. The CIPD’s annual report, released in November, eventually disclosed that Orme was paid a total of £327,000 in 2008-09.


Standard Chartered’s HR chief Tim Miller was crowned Personnel Today‘s Top HR Power Player for 2009. This year, for the first time, readers’ votes counted towards the final decision.

We exclusively revealed that redundancy predictions made by employers at the start of the year fell well short of the actual number of job cuts they needed to make – by as much as one-third. XpertHR research found that four in 10 employers vastly underestimated the number of job cuts they would be forced to make in 2009. One manufacturing firm cut eight times as many jobs as predicted, rising from 500 to 4,000.

October is of course party conference season. Labour put employment issues centre stage, with new policies on tackling unemployment, pension reforms and childcare being hotly debated. Youth unemployment came under the spotlight at the Tories’ event the following week, with public sector pay, skills, tax breaks and the retirement age also high on the agenda.

It was another bad PR month at the CIPD, which was forced to defend its £3m acquisition of leadership and organisational development consultancy Bridge Partnership following criticism from some in the HR community that the deal was anti-competitive – not to mention a questionable use of members’ fees.


The Celre HR Salary Survey 2009-10, published by XpertHR, revealed that the harsh reality of making people redundant during the recession has caused a number of HR professionals to ‘cut and run’ from their jobs. The exclusive survey found one-third of HR professionals leaving their jobs in the past year have done so out of choice, rather than being made redundant.

We exclusively revealed that a government crackdown on ill-health retirements means there are more than 9,000 police officers “in limbo”, unable to be deployed to the front line in a major incident. The astonishing figures emerged after Personnel Today sent Freedom of Information requests to all 43 police forces, and the story was picked up by a number of national newspapers.

Ending the year on a more optimistic note, our bumper ‘Steps to Recovery’ issue and extra online content was packed full of advice, opinion and case studies to get the HR profession set for a great 2010 after a gruelling 2009.

A selection of highly creative excuses from employees calling in sick:”I’m too drunk to drive to work.” “I accidentally drove through the automatic garage door before it opened.” “My boyfriend’s snake escaped from its cage and I’m afraid to leave the bedroom until he gets home.” “I’m too fat to get into my work outfit.” “God didn’t wake me.” (Employee didn’t believe in alarm clocks and thought a higher power would wake her when she was ready.) “I cut my fingernails too short, they’re bleeding and I have to go to the doctor.” “The ghosts in my house kept me up all night.” “I forgot I was getting married today.” “My cow bit me.” “My son accidentally fell asleep next to wet cement in our garden. His foot fell in and we can’t get it out.” “I was walking my dog and slipped on a toad in my driveway and hurt my back.”


HR directors reveal their high and low points of 2009

David Fairhurst, senior vice-president, chief people officer, McDonald’s UK


“This year we extended our commitment to provide valuable, transferable and nationally recognised qualifications by introducing a comprehensive apprenticeship programme. Our employees have a huge appetite for this type of training. They are ambitious and want opportunities to progress and move up the career ladder, both at McDonald’s and beyond. My highlight of 2009 was seeing our first wave of employees successfully achieve their Apprenticeships in Hospitality.”


“With youth unemployment reaching record levels, the legacy of 2009 must not be that of a lost generation of talent. Young people must continue to have prospects. We give thousands of young people their first experience of work each year. Every employer must continue investing in the development of the next generation of talent, because it’s good for organisations, communities, and the wider economy in equal measure.

Ann Pickering, HR Director, O2 UK


“We are committed to fostering a workforce where our people are connected to our business, our customers and their personal and career goals, including a working environment that is both welcoming and inspiring for our employees. Our recent and ongoing transition into our newly developed head office in Slough is therefore my indisputable high of the year. I’m immensely proud of our new office. It’s a space that better connects our people, has sustainability at its heart, uses technology in a way that forges better working relationships and promotes collaboration.”


“When I think of the major lows of the year, it’s difficult to look beyond the economic climate. The recession has led many of us to reconsider some of our most fundamental values. Recent research by ICM for O2 suggests that as a nation we are shifting our focus towards personal rewards rather than consumerism and money. Savvy HR professionals should sit up and take note. As the nation’s values shift, so must employers’ approach if they want to stay connected to the goals and needs of their workforce and deliver training, development and rewards that meet their employees’ needs and expectations.”

Julie Armstrong, HR director, Manchester Airport


“Irrespective of the changes we have had to make through redundancies this year, we have still managed to deliver a great service to our passengers by having committed employees. Customer satisfaction survey results climbed by seven places and into the top five compared with other European airports of our size. We have won two Business in the Community awards for work we have done in education and partnership with local businesses, as well as the Urenco award for corporate responsibility in the North of England Excellence awards.”


“Our low point is probably no different to other businesses in that we have experienced the fallout of the economic recession and its impact on the business in reduced passenger numbers and profit levels. We have had to make redundancies in, and while we have managed to retain excellent talent, it’s always hard to see a business lose any valued skill and experience under these circumstances.”

Andrew McManus, head of HR, Angel Trains


“Following a change of ownership during the second half of 2008, 2009 saw the introduction of a coaching culture within the company. We have introduced executive coaching for the top team and some senior management, as well as offering coaching by third parties for other staff who have moved into larger roles as part of a reorganisation. I hope that as the process continues and the coaching becomes more embedded, this will play its part in sowing the seeds of a wider cultural and behavioural change within the company.”


“For the first time in the company’s history since moving from the public sector, 10% of employees were made redundant as part of a restructure. We wanted to do more than just go through the process, and engaged independent third parties to undertake selection processes for redundancy alongside the internal processes. All current employees were offered outplacement support. This meant that whilst the process was difficult, and took time, everybody saw it as being fair and remaining employees saw that those leaving were treated equitably.”

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