The head of HR for the British Army occupies the hottest seat in the
business. He talks to Michael Millar about bullying, stress and the role of the
Army in a modern world
Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin arguably has the most demanding HR job
in the UK.
It is a job dogged by constant media analysis and political scrutiny, and
punctuated by thunderous bangs that echo around his base on Salisbury Plain as
artillery gunners are put through their paces.
The general manages an annual budget of £1.7bn and, as the Army website
says, looks after its ‘most vital resource – its personnel’.
As the Adjutant General, he holds the third most senior position in the
British Army, and is responsible for the recruitment, training, manning and
retention of more than 100,000 officers and soldiers deployed in more than 20
His role is becoming more important than ever; no-one could have missed the
barrage of headlines over the war in Iraq, or the deaths at Deepcut barracks in
Surrey, where four young recruits apparently committed suicide.
A 15-month Surrey Police investigation, published in March, uncovered
repeated examples of bullying, and failure to learn from the lessons of the
past at Deepcut.
To attract new recruits in a modern environment, the Army now markets itself
as a career that goes beyond shining boots and being shouted at.
Instead, the literature and website emphasise not only a demanding and
professional life, but one also peppered with sport, adventure, world travel
This spotlight on teamwork and ‘friends for life’ is a total contrast to
media stories of a brutal regime that drove four young soldiers to their deaths
General Irwin is adamant that the Army has been misrepresented by media
"Of course there is bullying in the Army, there is bullying everywhere.
It is part of the human condition. I wish it wasn’t, but it is," he said.
"Do we tolerate bullying? Do we pay no attention to it? Of course not,
because we realise that bullying is counterproductive.
"We have a very clearly defined policy that is written and distributed
downwards and is seen to be distributed downwards to the bottom levels,"
he said. "The policy is reinforced by action in terms of specific training
when officers and non-commissioned officers go on courses. They are all told
about this and tested on it in terms of how they understand it all.
"At unit level, where this is the predominant problem, company
commanders are absolutely aware of their duties in these matters and keep an
eagle eye. It is a combination of policy at one end, and absolutely practical
hands-on supervision on the other."
The Army today
Sitting in his office in the kilt of his regiment, The Black Watch, and
surrounded by portraits of historic military events, the general is the first
to admit the Army faces huge challenges in the modern age.
"Like every other employer, we are finding it increasingly difficult to
get enough people of the right quality to be interested in what we are
doing," he said.
"There is a suspicion in a lot of people’s minds about what life in the
Army is all about, and until we overcome those feelings, we can’t recruit
From the ‘Thousand Yard Stare’ to post-traumatic stress disorder, stress has
always been a barrier to recruitment.
Recent research by Personnel Today revealed that stress costs UK employers
more than 1.5million days and £1.24bn a year. Few, if any of these face the
prospect of sending their staff into a war zone.
But the general said the Army is working hard to abandon the masculine,
‘stiff upper lip’ approach to stress, whereby soldiers were encouraged to just
‘deal with it’. It now offers a UK Army Welfare Service and a network of
information centres similar to the Citizen Advice Bureau.
The Army also uses a physical assessment programme to make sure the state of
a soldier’s body matches their state of mind.
"We have become much more sophisticated about [stress]," the
general said. "In training, we include a lot about how people should
detect symptoms of soldiers beginning to go over the edge, and what they must
do to help them sort it out."
Help available to officers even includes a pocket-sized aide-mémoire for the
management of stress. This states the reasons for stressed staff and how to
identify symptoms, right down to advice on how to create a management plan to
Training goes far beyond the strictly combat. The Educational and Training
Services (ETS), a branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps, comprises 328
officers who act as the Army’s education and training development
The Army offers a holistic approach to individual training, practising a
‘whole life development’ concept, which encompasses professional develop- ment,
career management and personal development.
No matter where a soldier may be in the world, training continues. Even
those in Iraq have just been recipients of a mobile Army Learning Centre, one
of 115 online study facilities.
When the general returned to the issue of the ‘myth’ of the uncaring,
inattentive and bullying Army, he argued that instead of lambasting the Army,
people should look to it as an example of best practice, if only in light of
the commercial realities it faces.
"We don’t look at our people as another resource to be used and then
discarded," he said. "We can’t buy and sell labour – we have to
recruit somebody and keep them. We can’t let them go and then re-hire them.
"The chain of command takes an interest in them and makes them feel
like part of the organisation, and they always are. This creates a sense of
belonging and a sense of loyalty to the Army, which I’m not sure is common
outside because of commercial pressures at work.
"There is a tremendous sense of connecting up from the top to the
bottom in a personal sense, which I think is a very strong best practice
thing," said the general.
Undeniably, the Army has its problems. It’s caught between a proud heritage
built on rigid discipline and a modern world. If something goes wrong, the
world finds out and numerous interested parties enter the fray.
Only last week, the Ministry of Defence requested that the Adult Learning
Inspectorate assess and report on training offered to all new recruits in the
wake of the Deepcut deaths.
As the Army remains firmly in the sights of the British media, and with
Deepcut families threatening to request a judicial review of the Government’s
refusal to hold a public inquiry into the deaths at the barracks, general
Irwin’s job looks set to remain one of the toughest in HR for a long while to
CV Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin KCB CBE
2000 General Officer
Commanding (GOC) Northern Ireland
1999 Military Secretary
1985 – 1999 After
various appointments, including director of land warfare, and project director
in the Procurement Executive, he was appointed as commandant of the Royal
Military College of Science
1985 Twenty-five years
after his father had held the same position, he took command of 1st Battalion
of The Black Watch and led it on tours in Northern Ireland, Edinburgh and West
1970 – 1985 After a
number of regimental and training appointments, he graduated from the Royal
Military College of Science, Shriven-ham and the Pakistan Army Staff College in
Quetta, and was then posted to the Ministry of Defence. This was followed by
command appointments in West Germany and Northern Ireland
1970 Graduated from St
Andrew’s University, and was commissioned into The Black Watch (Royal Highland