Review of 2008: Goodbye to all that…

We entered 2008 full of optimism, and we leave it… well, let’s just be glad we’re leaving it. But there were plenty of thrills and spills along the way, as our review of the year will remind you.


It started full of hope. Skills secretary John Denham used Personnel Today’s 1 January issue to call on employers to make 2008 the year of skills.

He said a culture change was needed this year if the UK was to avoid the bleak economic future described in the Leitch Review. Staff training had to be ramped up quickly, he said.

However, just a week later, the first signs emerged that training would be massively overshadowed in 2008 by a far more depressing HR task.

John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), suggested 2008 would in fact be the year of the job cut. “Many HR professionals will be dusting off redundancy manuals in the coming months,” Philpott predicted – with alarming accuracy.


Twenty years on from the week Personnel Today’s first front cover showed that bosses believed the calibre of HR directly affected the organisation’s bottom-line, our anniversary issue carried the first definitive proof of HR’s worth.

An in-depth, two-year study by think-tanks the Work Foundation and the Institute for Employment Studies found that increasing investment in HR by 10% boosted gross profits by £1,500 per employee per year.

Meanwhile, immigration minister Liam Byrne took a tough stance on his controversial 2006 changes to the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP). He told MPs that he stood by the changes, which campaigners estimated could force up to 40,000 foreign workers out of the UK.

At the same time, a tough new immigration policy vowed to fine employers up to £10,000 for each illegal worker they hired.


The government’s skills drive went into reverse when employers slammed its decision to close the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), its training funding vehicle.

Just a few days after dismissing rumours of an imminent closure as “absolute rubbish”, the government announced the LSC would indeed be closed by 2010.

The body, which had an annual budget in excess of £11bn, will be replaced by a new Skills Funding Agency, and extra funding for local authorities.

David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “We have seen little progress in vocational qualifications because of a constant reshuffling of the deckchairs.”


Shock news that job candidates could claim up to £200 from employers for attending interviews turned out to be Personnel Today’s idea of an April Fool’s Day joke.

In the real world, just 43% of more than 1,100 chief executives surveyed by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers said they were satisfied with the ability of their HR departments to compete for talent.

The government finally accepted defeat in the battle over its controversial changes to the HSMP. Border and Immigration Agency chief executive Lin Homer wrote to campaigners confirming that the government would not contest the High Court’s decision that it was acting unlawfully by applying the November 2006 changes to people who entered the UK before that date.


The president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association used prehistoric imagery at the body’s annual conference to stress that HR in the public sector needed to evolve.

Stephen Moir said the age of the “lumbering personnel department” was dead, and that “HR dinosaurs” needed to evolve or become extinct. 

Sainsbury’s HR director Imelda Walsh shocked employers when her government-commissioned report recommended extending the right to request flexible working to parents with children up to the age of 16.

Meanwhile, a landmark deal agreed between the government, employers and trade unions was done that will give agency workers the same rights as permanent staff after 12 weeks in employment.


New CIPD chief executive Jackie Orme pledged to win over her doubters in her first formal interview after taking the £300,000-per-year post in March.

The appointment of the relatively unknown former PepsiCo HR chief was questioned by several senior HR professionals, but Orme told Personnel Today: “I’m here, and I’m focused on doing the job. Results speak for themselves, and my aim is to let results talk.”

Google secured the number-one spot in The Great Place to Work Institute’s 50 Best Workplaces. HR chief Liane Hornsey attributed the success to Google’s obsessional hiring policy. The internet search giant was willing to wait several years to find the right candidate for a job, she said.


The first draft of the Equality Bill revealed that employment tribunals would be given powers to order organisations guilty of discriminating against a single member of staff to make sweeping changes to their hiring and pay policies.

Other measures in the Bill included a requirement that public sector bodies and private firms bidding for state contracts publish equality statistics.

Alex Gourlay, managing director of health and beauty retailer Boots, caused a stir when he called for tax breaks for employers to hire workers from minority groups. Gourlay told Personnel Today that legislative attempts to improve diversity should be balanced with financial incentives.


A senior CIPD figure launched a pre-Harrogate attack on the way the body was run. Central London branch secretary Barry Hoffman called on Orme to make radical changes for the sake of the HR profession.

Hinting at a need for new personnel at the top, Hoffman added: “There can be no sacred cows. Why is it relentlessly focusing on branch activities that are so difficult for people to attend?”

The CIPD insisted it was evolving and remained relevant to the HR profession.

Meanwhile, HR directors who plied their trade through the recession of the early 1990s became prime targets for headhunters as the economic climate continued to worsen.


The conference season kicked off with the TUC Congress in Brighton and a stark warning about industrial action from trade union Unite general secretary Derek Simpson.

He told Personnel Today: “Relations with HR are going to be strained by current frustrations. Employers and employees are under pressure, and that is going to push people into conflict.”

Then it was up to Harrogate for the 61st and final CIPD annual conference to take place in the Yorkshire spa town before its move to Manchester next year.

Orme was well received after her keynote speech, in which she set out her plans to keep the CIPD relevant and allow people with a background outside the profession to join.


The credit crunch tightened its grip on the UK, and the latest casualty was office space.

The UK Cities Monitor 2008, compiled by commercial property agent Cushman & Wakefield, found that one-quarter of firms expected to reduce space requirements to cut costs.

The CIPD warned that the economy was looking even worse than it had expected earlier in the year.

Philpott said 500,000 jobs could be slashed between October and the end of the year, leaving 2.25 million people in the UK officially unemployed.

City HR chiefs were held partly responsible for the banking crisis. Reckless practices were fuelled by poor people management and a targets-driven culture that prevented employees from speaking out about possible problems, according to critics.


Shadow business secretary Alan Duncan won himself some friends in the HR profession when he pledged to fight excessive legislation and reform the tribunals system.

In an exclusive interview with Personnel Today, Duncan said a Tory government would reduce burdensome employment law, and force workers losing tribunal claims to pay the employer’s costs.

MEPs voted to scrap the UK’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive, which currently allows UK employees to work more than the 48-hour-per-week average. Employers warned that they faced higher wage bills without the opt-out, while some said they would turn to work experience placements.


Chancellor Alistair Darling’s Pre-Budget Report contained the bombshell that his spending splurge would be partly funded by slashing public sector HR jobs.

It said he would find £5bn in government “efficiencies” in 2010-11 to help fund his tax and spending giveaway. It appears likely that this will mean greater use of shared-service centres and fewer HR jobs.

Meanwhile, the government revealed that its trimmed-down legislative agenda for 2009 still included the Equality Bill, as well as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Children, Skills and Learning Bill.

It also finally confirmed it would extend the right to request flexible working – as suggested by Walsh – in April 2009.

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