Looking back 20 years: hindsight is a wonderful thing

20years of Personnel Today - read more on our anniversary

The great and the good of the HR profession reminisce about their ‘personnel’ lives of the 1980s.

Martin Tiplady, HR director, Metropolitan Police

I wish HR had had an absolute detailed understanding of the business that you work in.

Understanding how the Met ticks, what makes it motivated and what drives it is very pertinent to what I do in my job now and how I do it.

If I think back to my first job in the Housing Corporation, I would have built a greater understanding of the business as it would have enabled me to do my job a lot better in those early days: so understand the business.

Jayne Mee, group HR director, Barratt Developments

I was a training and development manager 20 years ago and it was my first job in HR. Having come from the very exacting background of [pharmaceutical] dispensing, I saw everything as very black and white – there was a right way to dispense medicine so in my world there must be a right way to do everything else.

I wish I had known then that HR is much more about shades of grey and influencing people and culture. While there is best practice, where people are concerned everything depends on what you are trying to achieve and how.

I also wish I’d known how to manage change effectively. I could have had a greater influence on business if I’d realised this was such an important part of what HR professionals do and would do to a much greater degree in the coming years.

And finally, I wish I had known that HR is more about organisation development (OD) and less about employee and industrial relations. When you are a ‘little person’ in the HR world, the whole procedural and legislative element takes over, when in fact if you can look after the OD element you manage the rest more positively anyway.

Gill Hibberd, corporate director (people and policy), Buckinghamshire County Council

My career in HR started by accident just over 20 years ago. After leaving university, I went through a round of interviews for retail management positions. One insightful organisation decided that I was very ‘people-orientated’ and offered me a role as store personnel manager. I quickly moved into the public sector, primarily for the training and development opportunities, and I’ve never looked back since.

The biggest change I’ve seen is the massive growth in women in the profession. It’s great to see women in senior roles in any sector but I do wish that more men would consider HR as a career to put a bit more balance back.

There is nothing I wish I had known about HR, or life, in 1988. The greatest enjoyment of the role has been in not knowing what’s around the corner – every day is a mystery, and often a challenge, as a result.

Harry Elsinga, senior HR manager, GE International

When I started in HR it was in construction, and the market was booming. But in terms of the HR tools we had, they weren’t very advanced. Things such as people development, compensation and benefits, and the employee value proposition weren’t even on the radar.

There was also a lot more blocking and tackling the more you grow in HR, the bigger the players you have to block and tackle. Now the tools are far more advanced, you catch things earlier and the recruitment process is a lot easier.

For a lot of organisations, the key over the next 20 years will be building local capability. How do you, as an organisation or manager, build capability and connectivity locally? The trick will be to leverage the knowledge where you have it – so if your best advertising team is based in India but your headquarters are in the UK, do you have the guts to reallocate or re-balance your resources to reflect that?

Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency

I started in HR as a personnel officer at the London Borough of Haringey in the early 1980s. Back then, HR was full of testosterone-driven industrial relations practitioners who conducted business in smoke-filled pubs.

Other memories include time and motion anoraks with scientific formulas no-one understood, and inflexible equality and diversity policies that managed to disadvantage everyone.

Today, HR can be the driving force for organisations in terms of improving performance, and there is understanding that engaged employees with diverse views, experiences and talents are the main differentiator for organisational success.

I wish I’d known back then that there are no perfect answers, no perfect policies, systems or structures, and that 80% is good enough. HR will always get criticised because others believe they understand people more than other disciplines.

David Fairhurst, chief people officer, McDonald’s

It’s always easy to look back and realise what was important and what wasn’t important.

At the time, most of us in HR training/generalist schemes were going through industrial and employee relations, and it’s true to say I didn’t realise at the time how important some of the development and training we got at that time would be.

Saudagar Singh, HR director, RWE npower

I started off in HR by working for a nature conversation trust for a short time, followed by a couple of years in local government. The next 12 years were spent in a number of roles at Thorn Lighting.

The introduction of a substantial amount of employment legislation has meant that both the HR profession and employers generally have been burdened with increasing bureaucracy and complexity. Much of this has only served to dampen the global competitiveness of UK plc and the effectiveness and efficiency of businesses.

In 1988, I purchased my first house. I wish I had known that the market was going to crash, because if I had I would have waited a few more years before putting my foot on the property ladder. In the process I would have avoided the large negative equity I ended up with.

Claire Walton, HR director, Ventura

If I had my time again, I wish I understood more about the real value that people in HR can add – how proactive they can be in adding value to business, to the bottom line.

Twenty years ago, we were interested in keeping staff happy, but didn’t connect that necessarily to business results.

We were too concerned with the transactional side of things: payroll, processing, and an efficient recruitment process.

Now it’s about how you make sure you have a capable and stable workforce that’s fit for the future.

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