Changing times

With its growing role in managing mergers and acquisitions, large-scale
redundancies or recruitment, the human resources function is fuelling a booming
market for interim assignments. For seasoned HR professionals, these are
rewarding times, By Rob McLuhan

Covering for absence has always been the classic reason for hiring an
interim HR professional, with the more challenging temporary assignments
tending to be in finance and IT. But that has changed rapidly over the past
three years, as heavyweight skills are increasingly sought for specific HR

"The demand for HR interims now is incredible," says Caroline
Battson, interim team leader at Macmillan Davis Hodes. She sees much of the
work arising from EC legislation and the need to update employment practices.
But there are a number of other areas where a three- to six-month injection of
expertise is also valued, for instance to help with change programmes or handle
recruitment and redundancy exercises.

Consultancy is the traditional route adopted in these cases but there is no
substitute for the hands-on approach, advocates argue. "Companies have to
wake up to the potential of using interim managers," says Bill Penney,
managing director of the Ashton Penney Partnership. "A consultancy will
come in and make a report but the company still has to decide how to implement
it. If it has a new technology or market that it wants to get on the road
quickly, an interim is a better alternative."

Interim assignments often arise from mergers and acquisitions, as there will
be a need to harmonise pay and employment policies, particularly if Tupe
agreements are in place. Or else a company may be recruiting for a new
subsidiary and needs an expert on a short-term contract to carry out the
interviewing and selection process. Frazer Jones reports that it is
particularly active in that field and has supplied interim heads of recruitment
for a number of its clients.

Redundancy programmes are also often handled by HR managers on a fixed-term
assignment. HR Online, formerly Melville Craig, says it recently supplied an
interim manager for three months to a high-tech company. "There are
various administrative tasks needed to ensure that there is compliance, and the
company came to us because it didn’t feel it had the necessary skills
in-house," says senior consultant Jenny Drysdale.

The take-off of the telecoms and high-tech sectors in particular has created
opportunities for interim projects. One frequent requirement, according to Executives
on Assignment, is to provide HR expertise for large IT systems suppliers such
as Logica and Siemens in putting a bid together for a large outsourcing or
facilities management contract.

Or a cable TV company, having completed the infrastructure engineering
phase, might need to recruit rapidly and train a marketing workforce, an
assignment Ashton Penney placed recently.

A big new market for temporary HR services has also been stimulated by the
growth of Internet start-up companies. Many grow rapidly and may suddenly find
themselves with a sizeable workforce but no formal employment structures to
speak of. Alternatively, the company may prefer to have a senior HR
professional on its team at an earlier stage.

"We are getting a lot of requests from start-up companies looking for
venture capital, where to be credible their business team needs to include
seniors," says Penney. The interim will set up employment contracts and
scope the recruitment programme, which can then be managed by someone more
junior recruited to a permanent position.

For HR professionals themselves interim work can be highly rewarding. To a
much greater extent than a consultant they can identify with the company,
becoming a full member of its management team and sharing its ups and downs.

Many plainly relish a troubleshooting role where they can quickly apply
their insights and experience to a new challenge, reap the rewards and then
move on to the next. Although some may find themselves covering for absence
relatively early in their careers, serious project work is often seen as the
ideal job for seniors, who may want to mix the occasional adrenaline rush of a
tricky assignment with the time off to travel or write.

That suits many organisations, which are prepared to pay slightly over the
odds for someone they know will do the job but then not hang around getting
bored. "Suitably overqualified" is a buzz phrase that Mike Dixon,
operations director at Executives on Assignment, often hears when companies are
making known the kind of individual they are looking for. "They want
someone who has been there, done that, and will be productive from day
one," he says.

In contrast to the permanent market, a tendency to hop quickly from one job
to the next is seen as a positive advantage. "Short stints are seen as
good background and tend to be preferred to solid long-term involvement with
one company, as they show an ability to adapt rapidly," says John
Anderson, consultant at Frazer Jones.

Nor is having the same industry background necessarily a factor, as
employment issues tend to be similar across the board. "What really
matters is that they have done that job before," Anderson says. "It
is easy to move from one sector to another if it is only a matter of Tupe,
pensions or redundancy arrangements."

Again, when it comes to finding the right fit, a management team can be
seriously disrupted by a poorly considered permanent appointment. But that is
less likely to be the case with an interim, who staff know is only there for a
short period and is unlikely to block their promotion prospects. Some interims
may encounter suspicions at first but soon find their experience being taken
full advantage of by colleagues with requests for advice and coaching.

A particular advantage enjoyed by the interim manager is that they can be
completely apolitical. "Diplomacy is a useful characteristic," says
Executives on Assignment’s Dixon. But the short-term nature of the task makes
the job of gaining confidence relatively straightforward, he adds, as long as steps
have been taken to ensure buy-in to the appointment from other managers. That
is achieved by making the rationale clear for bringing in additional expertise.

"When you are dealing with sensitive issues, for instance redundancy
programmes, it is good to have someone from outside who is not emotionally
involved," agrees Mari Roberts, senior HR consultant at HH Human
Resources. "That person can work with everyone and be seen as external
consultant, providing expertise to sort out a specific issue." An interim
manager can often provide an independent view of the organisation – a useful
bonus which the employer may not have anticipated.

On some projects the purpose of bringing in an interim may be to shake
things up, and this may even be one criteria of selection. By contrast, where
the need is simply to cover for absence or fill in until a permanent
replacement arrives, there will be pressure to adapt rapidly to the company’s
style and culture. "The last thing a company wants is for someone to turn
everything upside down," says Penney. "Unlike a person who is
appointed to make changes, they will be expected to keep the ship on a steady

As in any temping situation, a stint at a company may act as an introductory
period leading to the offer of a permanent job. That happened to Alison Martin,
who carried out a three-month assignment at coffee chain Aroma and now works there
full-time in a senior role.

According to Frazer Jones, which arranged the appointment, this typically
happens in as many as 30 per cent of its temporary hirings of HR officers but
this figure declines gradually the more senior the level. In some cases
organisations may decide to arrange for locum cover to give them more time to
find the right person for the role but then end up offering it to the interim
manager. This does not affect the financial arrangements, since the company
will simply pay the supplier the difference in commission rather than paying

The ability for seasoned professionals to resolve organisation’s problems in
this way is still not as widely recognised as it could be, argues Penney at the
Ashton Penney Partnership. "One view of interim management, which I hope
the CIPD will adopt, is of a new and extremely proactive resource that can
drive forward an organisation’s strategy", he says.

HR directors too should be willing to use it not just to fill a gap but as a
means of accessing the expertise needed to surmount a particular problem, he
believes. "Interim management is beginning to be seen as a creative investment
for the future, a way of managing change, and it is time the HR profession
began to see it as such."

Case Study: Rhiannon Chapman, South West of England Regional Development
Agency (SWERDA).

The South West of England Regional Development Agency, based in Exeter, was
set up in April 1999 from six existing regional bodies. The 170 staff had been
transferred on Tupe arrangements and there was a consequent lack of

Executives on Assignment organised the interim appointment of Rhiannon
Chapman, a well-known senior HR specialist who had been HR director of the
Stock Exchange at the time of its transition to electronic trading, and later
CEO of the Industrial Society. Chapman arrived at the beginning of March for a
four-month assignment, working three days a week in Exeter and one in London.

Chapman brought with her a wealth of expertise in managing projects, which
reassured the organisation that her ideas would work. A five-year stint on the
board of the Welsh Office had given her an understanding of economic
development, which was to prove particularly useful.

When Chapman arrived she found the HR department struggling to cope with a
variety of different contracts. "Whenever there was an issue on holiday
entitlement, managers had to refer back to the employee’s original
organisation, which was a nightmare to administer," she says.

One of her first moves was to persuade staff to prioritise. "The HR
department was staffed by individuals from a public-sector background who
tended to do everything by the book. What they needed was someone who knew
where to cut corners."

For instance, many staff had carried over holiday leave which, because of
the pressure of work, was becoming a big problem. Chapman dealt with that by
suggesting, against convention and practice, that this be paid off. "They
were horrified but I said that in the circumstances it was the only thing to
do," she recalls.

Chapman went on to complete in three months a job evaluation structure begun
by consultants and get managers up to speed in administering it, a job that
other companies might have taking considerably longer over. She also recruited
the head of a new department set up to help local businesses meet the needs of organisations
willing to invest in the area.

Flexibility is important in order to establish trust, Chapman says.
"You have to go in with an open mind and be sensitive to what their needs
actually are rather than what you think they should be. That means a lot of
listening and not jumping to conclusions."

Concerned not to step on any toes, Chapman suggested she be called HR
consultant rather than having a job title, and declined an offer to use the
chief executive’s office in his absence, realising that it might be taken

Like many successful interim managers, she derived great satisfaction from
achieving fast results. "You can have an impact very quickly because you
know immediately what do with problems that are stumping people," she

Chapman’s appointment was in fact a lucky accident, explains director of
corporate services Nick Lewis. The organisation had originally sought an
interim to fill in for an HR manager who was to go on jury service, rather than
for a specific project. In the event the jury service was cancelled but by then
Chapman had expressed an interest in the assignment, realising there was much
that someone of her experience could contribute.

"We would never have got the outcome we achieved without her," he
says. "Apart from pursuing successively high-level projects, she helped to
restructure the marketing, assisted in high-level recruitment and provided
mentoring to staff, leaving behind a more experienced and able HR

Case Study: Alison Martin, senior HR manager at Aroma

Although the emphasis in the interim market is on age and experience, there
are opportunities for younger HR professionals too. Alison Martin, a graduate
of Middlesex University, worked for three years at Sainsbury’s, which she
followed up with contract work before becoming pregnant. She then undertook an
interim assignment arranged by Frazer Jones.

The need was for a locum HR officer at coffee house chain Aroma which,
having been acquired by McDonalds in March 1999, needed to get its HR
procedures up to a professional standard. The assignment was intended to last
eight weeks. That seemed ideal for Martin who, being pregnant, would not be
available for more than a short period. In the event the assignment stretched
to over 12 weeks, the maximum before she had to leave.

The company has doubled in size since the acquisition, with a total of 36
cafes and 500 staff, and a presence in several cities besides London. "It
had been family-based and there were no formal procedures, so everything had to
be set up from scratch," Martin says. "I was asked to help with
salary management policy for everybody, including corporate and operations
employees, as well as produce a salary appraisal for cafe managers."

For an interim this proved to be a challenge. "It is quite difficult to
come in and write policies that are intended to be long-standing and mould the
direction of the company," she says. "You have to assess its
direction in a short time."

Although Martin had been recruited for a specific assignment it soon became
clear that a permanent position was needed. "There was obviously a gap in
the department, as I was getting involved in the day-to-day running of the
department, advising operations consultants who have a group of caf‚s to
support," she says. "If they had any disciplinary issues or
grievances to deal with, they would come to us for advice. That highlighted a
need for a more structured approach."

The position was offered to Martin, who returned to find the policies she
had created successfully launched and working effectively. She is preparing to
set up an appraisal system for corporate and operations staff to add to the
original brief for cafe managers.

"Martin was essential in getting us to where we are now," says
head of HR Sally Winter, who had herself been hired in a permanent role to
create an HR function. Although this was originally only a locum appointment,
Winter took as much care over the selection as if it had been for a long-term

"I still wrote a job description and candidate profile as I would for
any recruitment exercise," she says. "You need someone who will fit
in with the team and has the right experience, as well as the legislative
background and understanding of confidentiality."

Case Study: Robert Purse, head of HR, ADP Chessington

When payroll bureau Chessington Computer Services was taken over by ADP last
year it was found to have an uncompetitive cost base that would require
substantial restructuring. A number of contracts were unexpectedly about to be
terminated, and savings of up to 30 per cent would be necessary as a result.
Since the HR director was leaving, it was decided to appoint an interim HR
manager to oversee a voluntary redundancy programme.

The company approached Executives on Assignment which brought in Robert Purse,
a senior HR professional with extensive interim experience, for what was to be
a six-month assignment.

Purse found that the company was in the middle of a round of pay talks,
complicating the task of making redundancies. It was also discovered that offices
that the firm had inherited from the government, were on a short lease and
about to expire, which meant it would have to relocate.

Realising that the issue of redundancies would interfere with the pay
bargaining, Purse made a quick wage deal his first priority. He opted for a
take-it-or-leave-it approach, sweetened with more cash than the company had
originally been willing to contemplate, which the unions accepted. "It
cost an extra half percent, but I thought I could factor that into staff
reduction anyway," he recalls.

The original intention had been to carry out the redundancy programme in two
phases, in order to allow time for effective internal communications to take
place and to carry out the relocation. "During the consultation we
realised that going back for a second bite of the cherry would have had a
disastrous impact on staff morale, destroying our good relationships with
unions," Purse says. "It was better to be honest, so at the first
formal meeting with them we went through a full review, advising them of need
of reduction of £1.7m per annum."

Fortunately, Purse was able to establish a productive working relationship
with union officials and the programme passed off smoothly. "It was
anticipated there would be no savings until the first quarter of this year, but
by dint of hard work from all concerned, we generated all the necessary cuts
very quickly," he says. Ironically that had the effect of halving his own
assignment, since the job was effectively complete after only three months.

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