Putting the employees first

Nathalie Towner explains how a successful self-service system operates at Borax Europe

The business

Borax Europe is the European division of Rio Tinto Borax, a supplier of essential borate minerals. The global company supplies nearly half the world’s demand for refined borates from its principal mine in California, and is one of the key players in the chemical manufacturing sector.

From offices in Guildford, UK, Borax Europe manages sales and marketing activities throughout Europe, India, Africa and the Middle East. More than 100 of the company’s 1,500 worldwide staff are managed from the UK base, and Borax Europe has 214 employees.

The challenge

In 1999, an increasingly difficult market forced Borax to restructure.

The HR department was not spared and Pamela Denny, the European HR manager, was under pressure to drop her headcount – which meant coping without her HR officer.

“I really had to streamline everything. I still had some support but I knew we had to find an alternative as we couldn’t function without this role,” she said.

The company had been using an HR database for some time and when Denny was made aware of an add-on function for an employee self-service solution she asked the account manager to give a demonstration.

The Empower ePeople system allows staff to access all their personal details from their own PC and, where appropriate, adjust their records. They can re-read their performance reviews, register sickness absence, book holidays and update personal details such as changes of address or emergency contact details.

Denny decided to go ahead with the product, provided by Microsoft Business Solutions, in the expectation that it would improve efficiency and so compensate for the reduced headcount in her department. A presentation was made to the executive committee which approved the system. The HR officer’s departure resulted in an instant saving of £30,000, followed by further savings made by redistributing administrative tasks associated with HR to line managers and employees.

“We got a good deal for the cost of implementation as it was still early days for the system,” says Denny.”Our initial investment was only £5,000.”

With the sign-off given, three months were spent customising the system and testing it to avoid technical glitches occurring once it had gone live.

“I decided to introduce it in two stages,” explains Denny. “The first was to give employees access to their own records and the second was introduced a year later when we gave managers access to their team’s records.”

Denny thought there would be greater benefit in getting all the staff online using the system first, as this was more likely to guarantee their buy-in to the new procedure. “If we’d had the managers using the system first there would have been more uncertainty from the employees as to what was going on,” she said.

Staff now have access to virtually all the information HR holds on them, apart from highly sensitive data such as succession planning.

The outcome

Staff were introduced to the system with briefing sessions where they were shown all the different functions of the programme.

“It’s very easy to use, so familiarisation sessions were enough,” says Denny. “The one thing we did stress was security – they have to keep their password private as their files include salary details.”

Denny carried out an employee survey on the system and received resoundingly positive feedback.

She is now planning to customise the system further so that employees can interact with training records and add comments about career aspirations once they have been approved by their managers.

The system has even made compliance with the Data Protection Act more straightforward, as employees have direct access to all the relevant information, taking one more administrative task away from HR.

But Denny believes the system’s biggest benefit is the way it has changed her relationship with the company’s managers.

“The interaction between HR and managers is no longer based on routine enquiries,” she explains. “It is now based on real issues.”

The employee perspective

“At first, I just viewed the system as having to learn more IT, but it’s very simple to use,” says Eleanor Davies, secretary to the managing director and the finance department at Borax.

“I find it better than using paperwork as that had to go through your manager and the HR department and it often led to a backlog – under the new system you get an almost immediate response.”

Staff book holidays by sending an e-mail to their line manager who can check on the system to see if anyone else is away. To approve it, managers simply click on reply and staff holiday records are immediately updated.

Davies says she uses the system predominantly to book holidays and to log absences. “I also don’t have to speak to HR anymore unless it’s for something more significant,” she adds.

Learning points for HR

Denny believes Borax could have moved a lot faster, but she did not want to risk anything going wrong.

She strongly recommends thinking through how such a system is presented to staff.

“Even though it was going to be a tremendous benefit to us in HR, a big part of introducing it was to do with image,” she says. “It’s crucial to consider what your objectives are and what spin you are going to give it. And, of course, you need to get the technical side right,” she adds.

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