Raising HR’s game at the BBC

Wednesday 28 January 2004 was a momentous day in the history of the BBC. It was the day Lord Hutton, delivering his report into the death of government scientist David Kelly, made stinging criticisms of the corporation’s journalism and editorial structures.

The BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned immediately and, in a private meeting of the BBC governors, pressure was put on director general Greg Dyke to follow suit.

The governors did not want anyone to interrupt them, even leaving the corporation’s QC, Andrew Caldecott, waiting outside – although he had studied Hutton’s report in depth.

But Stephen Dando, director of BBC People, demanded to be seen and persuaded the governors to let him in. He told them that getting rid of Dyke would be a terrible blow to staff morale and the BBC as a whole.

Surviving the fallout

Although he was unable to change the governors’ minds, the episode illustrates how far Dando and the HR function had come since he joined the BBC in 2001.

Looking back at his five years at the BBC – he joins Reuters as group HR director in April – the post-Hutton period in early 2004 remains uppermost in Dando’s mind. During the weeks after the fallout, the BBC’s inner workings were pored over in the media on a daily basis, with questions raised over its entire management structure.

“I was right at the heart of the most dramatic set of changes the BBC has ever seen,” he told Personnel Today. “There was significant pressure. You are trying to get on with your job in a goldfish bowl, but you cannot allow yourself to be influenced by what is being written. You have to do the right things.”

Working under pressure had been a constant for Dando since he joined the BBC from drinks giant Diageo.

Delivering improvements in staff communications and morale under Dyke’s ‘Making it Happen’ change programme was one of his major tasks and proudest achievements.

“I couldn’t have chosen a more interesting period to work at the BBC,” he said.

“The major theme running through my time was the culture change. It was a process designed to let BBC people know change could be driven from within, not by external consultants or from the top.

“We got unprecedented levels of support for the change. By the time Greg Dyke left, two-thirds of staff were behind the process.”

External excess

In the pre-Dyke regime, consultancies were paid around 20m a year – something Dyke was particularly critical of. And Dando shared that view.

“Clearly there was a period when consultancies were used far more than today,” he said. “All organisations need to supplement their expertise, but you need to use them judiciously.”

Dyke was also critical of the use of ‘managementspeak’ in BBC meetings, famously ordering staff to “cut the crap” whenever jargon crept into conversation.

When put to him that HR, more than most, is often guilty of using unnecessary jargon, Dando launched an impassioned defence.

“People who say they don’t like jargon, don’t like other people’s jargon,” he said. “Every business community codifies what it does. I don’t accept for a moment that HR is any worse that any other function.”

This passion for HR, particularly the professionals within the BBC People department, remains as strong as ever. “BBC People is in great shape,” Dando said. “You would be hard pressed to find a higher quality group of people than you get in the function.”

He said the HR team deserved praise for being so professional during the BBC’s cost-cutting programme – which will see around 4,000 job losses – and the changes within BBC People itself, which include around 200 voluntary redundancies and 260 staff transferring to Capita under a 100m outsourcing deal agreed earlier this month.

“The BBC People HR professionals must be recognised for supporting BBC staff through the major changes while going through an unsettling period of change themselves,” he said.

The cost-cutting programme has seen Dando and his senior colleague facing up to the BBC unions on a regular basis, although, despite the constant threat of industrial action, so far there has only been a one-day strike over the changes.

Speaking about Dando’s overall tenure, Luke Crawley, lead BBC negotiator at broadcast union Bectu, said the feeling was that Dando did not want as close a relationship as the union would have liked.

“We are not suggesting he has been hostile, but at certain key intervals we have been kept at arm’s length,” he said. “For example, the ‘Big Conversation’ staff consultation exercise did not involve the unions. And through the whole difficulty around redundancies, it never seemed to us that Dando felt consultation was part of the [solution]. It was only after we threatened industrial action that it was offered.”

Straight bat

Never wishing to get into a slanging match, Dando plays a straight bat when asked about the unions.

“Historically, we have had a very constructive relationship, and that has been positive on the whole,” he said. “Unions have a legitimate role to play, and we are keen to acknowledge and respect that role.”

So as he prepares to leave the union battles behind and hand over the HR reigns to the BBC’s interim head of reward Jeremy Nordberg – who takes over until a permanent replacement is appointed – what are Dando’s parting thoughts?

“Well, 90% of BBC staff say they are proud to work for the organisation, which is an incredibly strong indicator,” he said. “The BBC is a very hard organisation to leave, and I’m going to miss the place.”

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