Will interim HR work for me?

The attractions of a move into interim management, and worries about HR’s
part in organisational culture downfalls. Advice by Neil Winter

Q: "I am thinking about quitting my current HR manager role and
taking a break. What appeals to me is spending a few years in interim HR
management. I’m aware of the obvious attractions, variety, and drawbacks –
uncertainty in the longer term. Should I do it?"

A: Interim management has certainly been a money spinner for
headhunters and agencies; and this approach to filling HR jobs has become
appealing to many employers. But what is the value to you as an HR
professional? It all depends on what you want out of your career. If you are
moderately ambitious and enjoy variety, it can be a terrific route to follow.
Equally, if you want to have blocks of time which you can take off between
assignments in order to pursue other objectives, then interim management is

However, if you have your sights set on a specific level of permanent
position in the longer term, a period in interim management introduces an
element of risk that you could probably do without.

The problem is your lack of certainty that you will migrate upwards in
responsibility level with each successive interim assignment. What you will
miss is the ability to negotiate your progression – instead you are at the
whims of an open market. It is not for the fainthearted, but if variety right
now is crucial for you, give it a go.

Q: "As more detail becomes public about the Enron and WorldCom
scandals, I am increasingly worried about the part played, or not played, by HR
when organisational cultures start going off the rails. Am I alone in

A: Revelations about Enron and WorldCom have put a dramatic new
perspective on the true state of organisational values and ethics in a range of
enterprises. Prior to August 2001 – when Enron’s real situation began to seep
out – we as HR directors could confidently promote ourselves as the guardians
of our organisation’s values, even its sense of integrity.

Indeed, such areas of our responsibilities were and should be professionally
gratifying; matters of equitability and fairness are for us focused on employee
issues; and, if we have the broad level influence that our positions deserve,
we are in a position to do the right thing and to act as an honest broker.

All this, of course assumes that someone else in or near the organisation
takes care of the other tough moral issues – for example that we are honest
with shareholders, we treat customers fairly and we don’t abuse the environment
or third parties.

I fear that has now been blown out of the water. Post Enron, it cannot be
regarded as acceptable to conveniently compartmentalise executive
responsibility. If we are to flatter ourselves with the morally upstanding
image of honest broker, how we can justify not intervening on issues of
integrity in our organisation’s relationship with the outside world?

Some will say that HR executives, even at the highest level, are not
consulted on these commercial, yet morally challenging issues when they occur.
Well, that may typically be true; and attempting to influence direction after a
decision or direction is final is, I acknowledge, a weak position. Nonetheless,
the concept of marshalling a ‘few good men’ has to be as powerful in real life
as it is in any movie.

Interestingly, in your question your concern is about the development of
organisational cultures ‘that go off the rails’. This seems to be a particular
respect in which the HR remit at Enron and its business strategy became
significantly intertwined.

The reward and incentive elements of Enron’s staff proposition are well
documented; the force and certainty of the official Enron perspective on issues
(a culture of assertion rather than shared questioning); the exclusive approach
to intellectual capital – all these seem to have combined to create an
environment where, if you accept the game plan (including its benefits!), you
are willing to toe the line in an accepting, unquestioning way.

Was this culture created by chance? Allowing that it may not have been, what
was HR’s role in creating it? I don’t know the answers to the questions, but
they raise interesting points which Enron’s downfall has brought to life. So,
to your question, my answer is no – you are not alone in worrying about these

If the result of the current scandals is that HR takes itself more seriously
as a mechanism of corporate governance, then at least some good may have
emerged for our profession.

Neil Winter’s international HR experience includes having
managed HR activities in nine countries on four continents for Sun
International E&P and overseeing UK and the Netherlands activities as
employee relations administration manager for Mobil Production Northwest
Europe. He is a consultant at YSC’s London office. YSCspecialises in executive
development and the fulfilment of HR strategy. Send your career questions to
Neil Winter at neil.winter@yscltd.com

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