The tens of thousands of job cuts announced at the end of 2008 set the scene for what promises to be one of the toughest years yet faced by HR professionals.
On top of a raft of new employment legislation, and a government push for employers to train up the nation’s workforce, organisations are faced with trying to keep staff motivated at a time when more job losses are predicted and budgets are getting tighter.
Alison Jenks, HR director at tea manufacturer Tetley Group, told Personnel Today: “Access to cash will be an issue and we need to manage costs while keeping employees excited about their roles. We have a clear growth agenda, but keeping staff energised while the economy is in recession will be challenging.”
This is a view echoed by Fleur Bothwick, director of diversity and inclusiveness at Ernst & Young, who is clear her biggest test will be “maintaining momentum and finding ways to keep the business case front of mind”.
For both organisations, the challenge will be to make cost savings within existing benefit packages and recognition schemes, while ensuring rewards aren’t seen as disposable frills.
On Tetley’s to-do list for 2009 is to revise its reward strategy to create closer links with an individual’s performance and the desired working culture, and to help improve retention at the firm.
“Getting the organisation excited about work and communicating our new values is a top priority,” Jenks said.
At Ernst & Young, Bothwick explained that two specific projects would feature this year to help improve engagement and attract the best talent: an intern programme for disabled graduates, which began in 2008 to widen the talent pool, and Back to Practice, a programme reaching out to women who left professional services during the past decade and may want to return.
“Both schemes will help us engage and develop a relationship with some really interesting talent,” she said.
A key priority for employers will be to develop that talent and to aid staff retention. Employers recognise that, as with last year, upskilling the workforce is now more important than ever for UK industry to remain competitive.
Peter Barnard, HR director at training provider the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education (GIFHE), said: “People cut marketing budgets and training budgets when times get rough, and it’s easy to say ‘we’ll cut funding’ without actually looking at the bottom line of the impact of no longer doing those things.”
GIFHE signed the government’s skills pledge last year, committing to training all employees to Level 2 by 2010. “You can’t expect to be delivering decent qualifications or training to other people if you haven’t got your own staff trained to a certain level as well,” he said.
Barnard added that his organisation had been swamped with recent applications from candidates wanting to become assessors.
A public sector employer, which also provides private training, the organisation had benefited from the knock-on effects of the credit crunch. “We sometimes pick up more employees who perceive the public sector as a safe haven,” he said.
For catering giant Elior, however, hiring new staff was not necessarily at the top of the list of 2009 priorities, given the deepening financial crisis and the drive to cut back costs. HR director Paul Reynolds said he implemented a recruitment freeze in some areas of the business last year, which would last until March.
“We are controlling the recruitment of new people into the business,” he said. “We’re also making sure we take the opportunity to champion people in the business by recruiting internally for positions where we may have previously gone externally.”
At the forefront of Reynolds’ mind was dealing with the aftermath of recent employment law. Last year saw a raft of new legislation announced, from the extension of the right to request flexible working to parents with children aged 16 or under, to draft rules that would force private sector companies bidding for government work to publish their diversity statistics.
But the real pressing issue for Elior, given the hospitality industry’s dependence on migrant labour, is the new immigration law. Under the new points-based system, employers wishing to hire overseas workers under Tier 2 need to sponsor and monitor migrants, and report changes back to the UK Border Agency. Employing illegal workers could lead to hefty fines.
Reynolds said: “The [points-based system] is quite an onerous piece of legislation for us. We rely too easily and too heavily on that type of bank of employees, and we need to make sure our managers are properly trained they’re not making mistakes they’re not employing the wrong people and they’re following the new procedures.”
As to whether Reynolds will sign up to the government’s Train to Gain scheme to help train and develop staff, he admitted the organisation had been slow to respond.
“We haven’t signed the skills pledge yet – there are meetings in place this month to discuss Train to Gain. But, as we stand, we haven’t signed up to that – I haven’t got a good excuse why not.”
The ongoing bureaucracy and confusion felt by employers regarding how the skills system can benefit them springs to mind.