Oil companies are no strangers to criticism. The typical charge sheet tells of large organisations throwing their money around with no thought of how it affects people and the environment.
For Total, the world’s fourth largest oil company, recent headlines have been particularly embarrassing. Last month, French police detained several of the company’s current and former executives for questioning as part of an investigation into suspected bribes paid to foreign government officials in exchange for access to oil in Iraq and Russia.
But having worked so hard to restore its reputation after the long-running scandal over corruption at Elf, which it acquired in 1999, Total is in no mood to let the latest allegations disrupt business.
As head of HR for Total UK, the company’s UK refining and marketing division, Aidan Dwan is acutely aware of the challenges the company faces in getting its message across to both the public and prospective employees.
“Oil companies are seen as big, bad organisations, but part of our role is overcoming that,” he said.
“We are trying to distinguish ourselves, for both our relationship with the community and by being seen as an employer of choice.”
Speaking from his office in Watford, Dwan talked about some of the initiatives HR has put in place, in part, to improve the perception of the company as a good place to work.
“If we are honest, our brand is not as well known in the UK as Shell, BP and Esso, so it is not as easy to recruit,” he said. “We have to compete by being fleet of foot. CSR [corporate social responsibility] is also important.”
Dwan said that CSR is an important part of Total UK brand positioning. “It shows we are interested in the community and the customer,” he said.
In the past 12 months, Total UK has introduced ‘Pedal Power’, which gives employees a 50 per cent discount on bicycles from Halfords, and the Government’s Home Com- puting Initiative, which offers discounted computers for home use.
Moreover, in what Dwan referred to as “more real” CSR, a number of Total UK employees have been regularly volunteering at the Watford Learning Centre, where local children with learning difficulties are taught numeracy, literacy and IT skills.
“Financial help is fine, but engagement of staff gives just as much impact,” he said. “People might think a company giving a bit of its profit doesn’t mean much, but staff regularly doing work for a charity is more tangible.”
In an effort to remind staff about the company’s commitment to people, Total UK is entering the Sunday Times’ ‘Best Companies To Work For’ award, Dwan revealed.
“It is a chance to communicate the benefits that staff don’t always think about, such as maternity and paternity leave, holiday arrangements and pension plans – all of which are significantly above the norm,” he said. “Staff are probably only sub-consciously aware of the value of their benefits.”
Dwan, a qualified lawyer who began his career in the legal profession before moving into industrial relations, logistics and then HR, places heavy emphasis on communication, something he said is often conspicuous by its absence in HR.
“I never aspired to be in HR,” he said. “I was a severe critic when I was younger, the lack of transparency being one of the worst aspects. We try and communicate as much as we can – the management operates an open-door policy, and we have a Q&A section on the intranet where answers are promised within seven days.”
The concept of moving in between business functions is actively promoted at Total UK. “We encourage staff to move about and lots have worked in different areas – the general HR manager, for example, started as a forecourt manager and went up the retail route,” Dwan said.
“We value people who want to get exposed to the business. We are in a complex business and we need people who understand it. It is a hazardous product and the more exposed people are to different aspects, the better it is.”
The idea of keeping people fresh by moving them about isn’t typical for the oil industry, where many employees spend their career working their way up in one function, such as engineering.
But, in many ways, Total’s UK operation today is not that of a typical oil company. After the three-way merger between Total, Elf and Petrofina in 1999, the decision was taken to move to a completely new headquarters in Watford.
This move, and the synergies created by the merger, meant that around half of the head office employees at Total UK left the company. And all the new staff came in without preconceived ideas about the industry, Dwan said.
The combined total of the three HR departments was cut by a third, down to around 25 staff, but the merger also created opportunities, he added. “The merger created a focus on HR that has been maintained since then. I have a seat on the top table, reporting directly to the managing director, having a real impact on the business.”
While Dwan admitted there are still challenges to overcome, in areas such as diversity and the retention of hourly-paid staff, he said he is happy in what he described as a “fun job”.
While this demeanour could be attributed to the typically blind optimism of a Manchester City football fan, anybody who travels from Worcester Park in Surrey to Watford on the notoriously unreliable Silverlink rail line everyday clearly relishes his role.