Living on the frontline

What is it really like at the junior end of HR? Paul Nelson spent a day with
two young women starting their careers in the public sector

To an outside observer, the role of assistant personnel officer at Wokingham
District Council could be likened to that of a call centre operator.

Fiona Spain and Sinead O’Flynn – by their own admission – spend most of
their time sitting at their desks answering managers’ questions via e-mail and

It appears mundane, but is an important operational role that must be
handled by someone.

"Most of our job involves answering the phone and giving policy advice
to managers and informing staff of their rights," says Spain. "We are
the first point of call for everybody. Our telephone numbers are the main
contact point and we take all queries on payroll and policy advice."

Despite still studying for her CIPD qualification, Spain has had a varied
five-year HR career that includes recruiting Oxford and Cambridge University
graduates for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and being involved in running
an e-learning centre for communications firm Energis. It is a background many
junior HR professionals would envy.

But the 27-year old’s lack of generalist HR experience leaves her frustrated
in her desk-bound role. She says: "I do not have the years and years of
experience necessary to give people instant answers to queries. I have not
dealt with 10 disciplinary cases to refer back to. In fact, frequently, it is
the first time I have dealt with a particular query so I have to put the phone
down, check the facts and call people back. I look forward to the day the
correct answers roll off my tongue."

Other aspects of Spain and O’Flynn’s role include collating quarterly
statistical data and providing managers with sickness absence reports. They
believe that the Information Commission’s Records Management Data Protection
code of practice – which forces HR departments to separate sickness and absence
records – will be an ‘absolute nightmare’ for them and stop the council
effectively managing absence.

Project work is the aspect of the job they enjoy the most, as it is a break
from the tedium of being on the end of a phone. It gives them their only foray
into the strategic aspect of HR.

O’Flynn is writing a report into the council’s social services and housing
department’s recruitment processes, because the number of black and ethnic
minority staff are far fewer than those that apply. She will recommend to her
personnel manager that the council updates its recruitment literature by translating
it into other languages, and introduces written and spoken English classes.
O’Flynn will also advise the council to radically overhaul how it advertises in
the ethnic press.

"There are local ethnic newspapers and magazines which we do not
advertise in, as the council thinks that if a professional is job hunting, they
will look at business press or a national newspaper," she says.

"By doing it this way, we may be putting off ethnic minorities from
applying for jobs. It might be good to raise awareness of the council as an
employer among this community."

Another project O’Flynn works on is ensuring staffing agencies’ recruitment
procedures are as rigorous as the council’s are. Later this year, she will be
involved in harmonising employee terms and conditions. Also, Spain is looking
to host seminars for managers about the council’s flexible working and
maternity policies.

How the two women joined the HR profession could not be more different.
Spain started a career in HR because she wanted to help people, which she
believes she does, "but not in the rose tinted way that the naive
19-year-old thought".

O’Flynn, by comparison, stumbled into HR by accident. After graduating from
Middlesex University in 1995 with a degree in English Literature, she took an
administrative job in the personnel department at Berkshire County Council.
"I went for a job that just happened to be in HR," she says.

The 28-year-old then earned promotion to personnel assistant, preparing
contracts for and checking teacher’s records.

She moved to Wokingham via a planning and legal role in the HR team at the
Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council.

From a HR point of view, Wokingham is a fairly innovative local authority.
It has been shortlisted in the communication strategy at this year’s Personnel
Today Awards, but neither Spain nor O’Flynn could answer questions about the
council’s HR strategy.

Despite this, the personnel assistants are angry that HR is not viewed as a
business partner by the council’s staff.

Spain says: "The bad aspect of HR is that we are viewed as a policing
function. For example, we have to chase up line managers because they have not
got back to us on specifics."

They are so fed up with being blamed by staff when managers fail to inform
them about employment changes, that they have introduced an e-mail reader reply
system – so managers are unable to claim ignorance.

"Staff do not really understand what we do in HR. We are viewed as
sitting twiddling our thumbs, waiting for an issue to come to us. The council
had a recruitment freeze earlier this year and the general view was ‘you must
be bored now’," continues Spain.

Their future plans for a career in HR highlight a lack of confidence in the
profession – with neither seeing themselves representing HR in the boardroom.

Despite her career in HR being popular with her friends and family, O’Flynn,
who has toyed with the idea of studying for a MA in Business Ethics, is unsure
if she intends to remain. Instead she dreams of a job as a creative writer.

"My boyfriend manages staff, so he gives me case scenarios from his
work. My sister is an employment lawyer so understands HR is a demanding job.
My parents have some friends who are in HR and have done well, so they see it
as a good career move," she says.

"I do not know about being a HR director though. I would like a more
senior job, but maybe in a different environment. I am not sure if I would want
to carry on in this particular field," she adds.

Spain likes her job and sees her future firmly in HR – but not at boardroom
level. "I would not want the responsibility of being a HR director – I
don’t think I would be able to get the work-life balance right," says
Spain. "I want to progress up the ladder to personnel officer and manager,
but not just for the sake of it. I enjoyed my involvement with e-learning and
think training would be very rewarding."

Career factfile

Sinead O’Flynn

1996 – Berkshire Council
1998 – Windsor and Maidenhead Council
2000 – Wokingham Council

Fiona Spain

1998 – Andersen consulting
1999 – Energis
2001 – Vale Williams (chartered surveyors)
2002 – Wokingham District Council

Council fact file

– Wokingham became a unitary authority in 1998 when Berkshire
County Council split into six district councils

– The 22-person HR team at the council is responsible for 4,500

– It covers more than 150,000 residents in an area stretching
from Henley in Oxfordshire to Basingstoke in Hampshire and Reading to Bracknell

– Jacqueline Wiltshire, head of personnel – who reports
directly to the council’s chief executive, is responsible for the HR and
training team

– Two personnel managers and three personnel officers support
her. Two personnel assistants help Spain and O’Flynn

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