Jobs In: Human Resources in Universities

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by Neil Harris

It's a cliché that the most important aspect of any organisation is its people but, of course it's true. Creating an environment in which the staff is motivated to perform to their full potential is the responsibility of those making their careers in the human resources department. Their role is to put the personnel policies of the University into practice which doesn't always make them popular with everyone.

Their wide brief is to meet the human objectives of the organisation. It includes strategy and policy development, recruitment, conditions of service, dealing with promotions and disciplinary matters, supporting management when difficult situations occur.

Initial roles

Trainees in human resources departments are often called personnel assistants. In that role it is likely that you will be involved in lots of administration. Keeping staff records updated; dealing with the paperwork of the recruitment process; administering the payroll and making sure that people are paid correctly; organising internal meetings and taking the minutes; arranging staff induction events. Later, often having obtained further qualifications, you can progress to more senior roles.

Julia Strong started her career as a training administrator with Transco and then moved to Lucas Varity where she gained experience in the design and implementation of performance management systems and graduate recruitment. During this time she completed her professional qualifications of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and moved to a human resources job in John Lewis. Now, as HR Operations manager at the University of Warwick she manages five HR advisers who provide a service to sixty three departments with over 4000 staff.

‘To be successful in this role', says Julia, ‘you need a comprehensive knowledge of current and emerging legislation, case law and HR best practice plus an aptitude for translating legal developments into practice. Experience of managing change in a complex organisation is valuable coupled with strong interpersonal, relationship building, good communication skills and a creative approach to problem solving'.

Beating Discrimination

It is essential that the university as an employer stays within the law in all of its actions. This includes having mechanisms to protect staff from harassment, bullying and unlawful discrimination in the way it recruits and treats its staff when in post. Each university has its own policies on the diversity of its employees and some have procedures for dealing with ‘whistle blower' situations. They have to be concerned not only about maternity leave for mothers but also paternity leave entitlement for fathers and the desire of some staff to work flexible hours.

The HR policies must be continually updated to reduce, and if possible eliminate, issues that could leave the institution open to litigation. Someone in HR will have responsibility for developing strategies to deal with discrimination whether it is on grounds of gender, religion, age or any other illegal activities and grievances based on these when they arise.

Servicing University Departments

As an HR officer your role could be to provide a service to several academic departments, or to be responsible for a certain category of staff. Every department needs to advertise and fill vacancies, go through recruitment and induction processes, deal with staff issues such as sick leave and the referral of some employees to occupational health professionals. Grievances inevitably occur in the best run organisations when staff and their managers see things from different perspectives. Personnel officers often have the task of listening to both sides and mediating, or applying the university's policies to specific situations. Their role includes organising and attending promotion boards.

Antonia Ridge is Deputy Head of Personnel at the University of Bradford. "My first HR role was at the Crown Prosecution Service in York", says Antonia. "I worked in this admin HR role for 2 years whilst undertaking a 3 year part-time Post-Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management at Leeds Metropolitan University. Shortly before I completed the course I was appointed to a developmental Assistant Personnel Officer role at the University of Bradford. I am now a chartered member of CIPD.

"My role as Deputy Head of Personnel is very diverse. I provide personnel support to two Academic Schools within the University, advising managers and members of staff on issues relating to performance, attendance, grievances, discipline, sickness absence and employment law. I am responsible for developing and updating policies and procedures across the University, which often involves working with trade unions. Policies we have worked on recently include redeployment, recruitment and selection, equal pay and promotion. I attend various committees to discuss University strategy".

"Every day is unique, which is why my job is so interesting! A key skill is being able to juggle a variety of issues at any one time without letting anything drop. The role can be challenging, especially when I am giving advice or information that I know the recipient does not want to hear. I use a problem solving approach and encourage positive working where I can. A good technique with really tough issues is to step back and apply common sense principles. Even when dealing with the most complicated of cases it is usually possible to find a reasonable way forward".

Managing Change

Change management is another aspect of the job. New ventures begin, perhaps by transferring staff from elsewhere and by recruiting people to create a new team. Sometimes a function that was previously outsourced is taken into the institution and those who were doing it become members of the university staff. This is known in the profession as a TUPE transfer. Occasionally it is necessary to organise redundancies and try to find staff no longer needed in one department a job somewhere else in the organisation. Alternatively negotiate the terms on which people will leave and decide what support may be given to those affected.

The skills you need

The key to success in a human resources career is to gain a broad range of experience that will help you to develop your skills. This includes being a good listener, using tact and diplomacy while being persuasive with your arguments. Having the ability to pay attention to the detail of ever changing legislation and apply the new regulations in practice. This may include training managers to take a different approach if they appear not to understand the needs of staff from different cultures or seem, by their actions, to discriminate against older or younger staff.

To reach senior positions it is usually necessary to study and gain the professional qualification of the CIPD. It might include attending a university of college of further education on two evenings each week or participating in a distance learning course. These courses don't come cheap and some employers will foot the bill for their employees' training but this is not always the case.

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