The edge of reason

Many HR people wave the white flag of surrender when a new piece of employment legislation appears, and flee straight to the sanctuary of their legal advisers. But not Sarah Brown. Here is an HR professional who can speak confidently on all aspects of employment law.

Brown, support services director at security firm Initial Security, is at ease when advising and briefing staff and customers about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), or interpreting the Working Time Regulations and briefing the board, staff and clients. Her use of external experts is rare; only “once in five years” has she used external counsel for advice.

In her role, Brown is accountable for the development of the company’s HR and administrative function. She takes responsibility for recruitment, security screening, and the training and development of staff at the company, which supplies manned security services. Initial Security has six operating divisions and employs 6,500 staff nationwide. In turn, it is part of one of the world’s largest service companies, Rentokil Initial plc.

Her broad knowledge of all things legal stems from a track record in that area. Brown moved into HR from her role as legal manager in parent company Rentokil Initial.

“As legal manager, I reported to the company’s general legal manager and provided a full employment law advice service to the junior and senior managers of the many companies within the Rentokil Initial group,” she says.

Brown admits she was lucky in that she managed to combine the two elements of employment law and HR, even at that stage. “From both a legal and management perspective, I advised on many issues,” she says. These included subjects such as disciplinary and dismissal procedures, race and disability discrimination, and issues relating to part-time staff.

This role as expert and consultant – advising managers – was almost ahead of its time when we think of the current trend for line managers to take responsibility for people issues. In the 1990s, when Brown was pursuing her legal career, Rentokil did not have many pure HR specialists. “The culture was that managers were expected to deal with the people aspects and took advice from the legal department,” she explains.
Shift patterns

When Brown transferred into Initial Security from this central role in 1998, “it was to one of the few businesses into which HR had moved”.
She believes her knowledge of the impact of the Working Time Directive “gave her the edge” to win the appointment in a business characterised by shift patterns and night-time working, but admits to some nervousness as she moved into a multi-faceted HR role from being a legal manager. “I did feel, in the early stages, that I was pretending to be an HR director, but I am not aware of any gripes,” she says.

Brown now feels that the move from employment lawyer to HR has given her a “rounded perspective” of people and business. So what would her advice be to HR people grappling with employment law?

“I heartily recommend getting an employment law qualification or certificate. Many credible organisations offer them. It adds ‘oomph’ in the boardroom,” she says. As her skills and experience in HR and law have now merged, Brown sees the correct application of employment law and good HR practice as compatible.When handled well, “they allow financial directors to see the impact that we in HR can have on the bottom line”, she says.

One of her passions is demystifying employment law for others. She wants to remove the fear factor. “The HR profession has to understand that the role of the legislation drives it forward,” she says. “HR has to understand the rationale of the legislation. It is not just a rubber-stamping exercise. Once you have understood its impact, you can understand where the problems lie and how it affects you.”

Brown’s latest challenge pulls together all her acquired HR skills and extensive legal knowledge, as the security industry hurtles, full pelt, through change.

Her major preoccupation is to ensure that Initial Security stays ahead of the Private Security Industry Act 2004. The Act requires those providing a security service in the manned guarding sector to hold a licence by March 2006. Thanks to a permitted bulk ordering of licence applications forms, Brown and the regulation management team are working their way around the company, ensuring they are completed.

Initial is a member of the Approved Contractor Scheme – effectively the national hallmark of excellence in the security industry. It wants to gain Approved Contractor status, which means 85% of Initial Security employees have to be licensed by December 2005 – months ahead of the March 2006 deadline for much of the manned guarding sector.

Winning approved contractor status is another good example of HR practices and legal awareness used successfully and simultaneously to avoid recruitment headaches. “Being an approved contractor means we can deploy staff on site while waiting for the individual licences to be issued. If they are not approved, then staff could move on.”

Brown also has to ensure that non front-line licences involving criminal records and identity checks are issued to the management team, from managing director to contract manager, involving regional directors and branch managers along the way. So far the work is going well. “We’re ahead of the game” she says. “Although licensing will remain a major priority until March.”

Brown is ready for one of the other major employment law events of 2006 – the revisions to TUPE, which will apply from April 2006. “The changes that are to be made are relatively insignificant for us,” she says, meaning that she is prepared for the new regulations, which will include extending the coverage of TUPE to include service contracting situations to make it clearer that TUPE applies there.

“TUPE is a good example of where industry has to be pragmatic,” she says. “Better to think that ‘if in doubt, TUPE applies’ and we resolve it ourselves.”

But Brown knows she is lucky to have the Rentokil Initial legal department at hand.

Age discrimination

“For example, with the Information and Consultation Regulations, we got together last year and discussed the implications for the businesses. And later this month, we have a joint workshop on age discrimination – it’s good that we can talk to the other companies within Rentokil.”

Brown is looking forward to sharing ideas about age discrimination with colleagues and peers, but is comfortable with age discrimination legislation.

“We have not operated a rigid retirement policy – if someone wants to work after 65, we are happy for them to do this. Generally, we are ‘old-age friendly’. We don’t have to change our mindset. We already employ older people and we have a good relationship with the Employers Forum on Age.”

She describes discrimination as “almost a neutral issue for us”, although admits that the nature of security work means women are less likely to apply for jobs there. But, she adds: “When they are with us, they are treasured.”

Sarah Brown’s CV

1998 – now Support services director, Initial Security
1990 -1998 Legal manager, Rentokil Initial
1978 -1990 Debt collection manager across several Rentokil businesses

Brown’s tips on how to approach legal issues

  • Understand what drives the business
  • Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and to build on this with ‘but I’ll find out’
  • Have a clear sense of your purpose – who you are and why you are there
  • Use common sense – if it feels wrong, it is wrong
  • Confirm what you know. Go to the obvious information sources that are clearly well respected. Always have confidence in your information sources and be wary of ‘new kids on the block’

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