Previous Article Next Article Changing timesOn 17 Oct 2000 in Personnel Today With its growing role in managing mergers and acquisitions, large-scaleredundancies or recruitment, the human resources function is fuelling a boomingmarket for interim assignments. For seasoned HR professionals, these arerewarding times, By Rob McLuhan Covering for absence has always been the classic reason for hiring aninterim HR professional, with the more challenging temporary assignmentstending to be in finance and IT. But that has changed rapidly over the pastthree years, as heavyweight skills are increasingly sought for specific HRtasks. “The demand for HR interims now is incredible,” says CarolineBattson, interim team leader at Macmillan Davis Hodes. She sees much of thework arising from EC legislation and the need to update employment practices.But there are a number of other areas where a three- to six-month injection ofexpertise is also valued, for instance to help with change programmes or handlerecruitment and redundancy exercises. Consultancy is the traditional route adopted in these cases but there is nosubstitute for the hands-on approach, advocates argue. “Companies have towake up to the potential of using interim managers,” says Bill Penney,managing director of the Ashton Penney Partnership. “A consultancy willcome in and make a report but the company still has to decide how to implementit. If it has a new technology or market that it wants to get on the roadquickly, an interim is a better alternative.” Interim assignments often arise from mergers and acquisitions, as there willbe a need to harmonise pay and employment policies, particularly if Tupeagreements are in place. Or else a company may be recruiting for a newsubsidiary and needs an expert on a short-term contract to carry out theinterviewing and selection process. Frazer Jones reports that it isparticularly active in that field and has supplied interim heads of recruitmentfor a number of its clients. Redundancy programmes are also often handled by HR managers on a fixed-termassignment. HR Online, formerly Melville Craig, says it recently supplied aninterim manager for three months to a high-tech company. “There arevarious administrative tasks needed to ensure that there is compliance, and thecompany came to us because it didn’t feel it had the necessary skillsin-house,” says senior consultant Jenny Drysdale. The take-off of the telecoms and high-tech sectors in particular has createdopportunities for interim projects. One frequent requirement, according to Executiveson Assignment, is to provide HR expertise for large IT systems suppliers suchas Logica and Siemens in putting a bid together for a large outsourcing orfacilities management contract. Or a cable TV company, having completed the infrastructure engineeringphase, might need to recruit rapidly and train a marketing workforce, anassignment Ashton Penney placed recently. A big new market for temporary HR services has also been stimulated by thegrowth of Internet start-up companies. Many grow rapidly and may suddenly findthemselves with a sizeable workforce but no formal employment structures tospeak of. Alternatively, the company may prefer to have a senior HRprofessional on its team at an earlier stage. “We are getting a lot of requests from start-up companies looking forventure capital, where to be credible their business team needs to includeseniors,” says Penney. The interim will set up employment contracts andscope the recruitment programme, which can then be managed by someone morejunior recruited to a permanent position. For HR professionals themselves interim work can be highly rewarding. To amuch greater extent than a consultant they can identify with the company,becoming a full member of its management team and sharing its ups and downs. Many plainly relish a troubleshooting role where they can quickly applytheir insights and experience to a new challenge, reap the rewards and thenmove on to the next. Although some may find themselves covering for absencerelatively early in their careers, serious project work is often seen as theideal job for seniors, who may want to mix the occasional adrenaline rush of atricky assignment with the time off to travel or write. That suits many organisations, which are prepared to pay slightly over theodds for someone they know will do the job but then not hang around gettingbored. “Suitably overqualified” is a buzz phrase that Mike Dixon,operations director at Executives on Assignment, often hears when companies aremaking known the kind of individual they are looking for. “They wantsomeone who has been there, done that, and will be productive from dayone,” he says. In contrast to the permanent market, a tendency to hop quickly from one jobto the next is seen as a positive advantage. “Short stints are seen asgood background and tend to be preferred to solid long-term involvement withone company, as they show an ability to adapt rapidly,” says JohnAnderson, consultant at Frazer Jones. Nor is having the same industry background necessarily a factor, asemployment issues tend to be similar across the board. “What reallymatters is that they have done that job before,” Anderson says. “Itis easy to move from one sector to another if it is only a matter of Tupe,pensions or redundancy arrangements.” Again, when it comes to finding the right fit, a management team can beseriously disrupted by a poorly considered permanent appointment. But that isless likely to be the case with an interim, who staff know is only there for ashort period and is unlikely to block their promotion prospects. Some interimsmay encounter suspicions at first but soon find their experience being takenfull advantage of by colleagues with requests for advice and coaching. A particular advantage enjoyed by the interim manager is that they can becompletely apolitical. “Diplomacy is a useful characteristic,” saysExecutives on Assignment’s Dixon. But the short-term nature of the task makesthe job of gaining confidence relatively straightforward, he adds, as long as stepshave been taken to ensure buy-in to the appointment from other managers. Thatis achieved by making the rationale clear for bringing in additional expertise.”When you are dealing with sensitive issues, for instance redundancyprogrammes, it is good to have someone from outside who is not emotionallyinvolved,” agrees Mari Roberts, senior HR consultant at HH HumanResources. “That person can work with everyone and be seen as externalconsultant, providing expertise to sort out a specific issue.” An interimmanager can often provide an independent view of the organisation – a usefulbonus which the employer may not have anticipated. On some projects the purpose of bringing in an interim may be to shakethings up, and this may even be one criteria of selection. By contrast, wherethe need is simply to cover for absence or fill in until a permanentreplacement arrives, there will be pressure to adapt rapidly to the company’sstyle and culture. “The last thing a company wants is for someone to turneverything upside down,” says Penney. “Unlike a person who isappointed to make changes, they will be expected to keep the ship on a steadycourse.” As in any temping situation, a stint at a company may act as an introductoryperiod leading to the offer of a permanent job. That happened to Alison Martin,who carried out a three-month assignment at coffee chain Aroma and now works therefull-time in a senior role.According to Frazer Jones, which arranged the appointment, this typicallyhappens in as many as 30 per cent of its temporary hirings of HR officers butthis figure declines gradually the more senior the level. In some casesorganisations may decide to arrange for locum cover to give them more time tofind the right person for the role but then end up offering it to the interimmanager. This does not affect the financial arrangements, since the companywill simply pay the supplier the difference in commission rather than payingtwice. The ability for seasoned professionals to resolve organisation’s problems inthis way is still not as widely recognised as it could be, argues Penney at theAshton Penney Partnership. “One view of interim management, which I hopethe CIPD will adopt, is of a new and extremely proactive resource that candrive forward an organisation’s strategy”, he says. HR directors too should be willing to use it not just to fill a gap but as ameans of accessing the expertise needed to surmount a particular problem, hebelieves. “Interim management is beginning to be seen as a creative investmentfor the future, a way of managing change, and it is time the HR professionbegan to see it as such.” Case Study: Rhiannon Chapman, South West of England Regional DevelopmentAgency (SWERDA).The South West of England Regional Development Agency, based in Exeter, wasset up in April 1999 from six existing regional bodies. The 170 staff had beentransferred on Tupe arrangements and there was a consequent lack ofcoordination.Executives on Assignment organised the interim appointment of RhiannonChapman, a well-known senior HR specialist who had been HR director of theStock Exchange at the time of its transition to electronic trading, and laterCEO of the Industrial Society. Chapman arrived at the beginning of March for afour-month assignment, working three days a week in Exeter and one in London.Chapman brought with her a wealth of expertise in managing projects, whichreassured the organisation that her ideas would work. A five-year stint on theboard of the Welsh Office had given her an understanding of economicdevelopment, which was to prove particularly useful.When Chapman arrived she found the HR department struggling to cope with avariety of different contracts. “Whenever there was an issue on holidayentitlement, managers had to refer back to the employee’s originalorganisation, which was a nightmare to administer,” she says.One of her first moves was to persuade staff to prioritise. “The HRdepartment was staffed by individuals from a public-sector background whotended to do everything by the book. What they needed was someone who knewwhere to cut corners.”For instance, many staff had carried over holiday leave which, because ofthe pressure of work, was becoming a big problem. Chapman dealt with that bysuggesting, against convention and practice, that this be paid off. “Theywere horrified but I said that in the circumstances it was the only thing todo,” she recalls.Chapman went on to complete in three months a job evaluation structure begunby consultants and get managers up to speed in administering it, a job thatother companies might have taking considerably longer over. She also recruitedthe head of a new department set up to help local businesses meet the needs of organisationswilling to invest in the area.Flexibility is important in order to establish trust, Chapman says.”You have to go in with an open mind and be sensitive to what their needsactually are rather than what you think they should be. That means a lot oflistening and not jumping to conclusions.”Concerned not to step on any toes, Chapman suggested she be called HRconsultant rather than having a job title, and declined an offer to use thechief executive’s office in his absence, realising that it might be takenamiss.Like many successful interim managers, she derived great satisfaction fromachieving fast results. “You can have an impact very quickly because youknow immediately what do with problems that are stumping people,” shesays.Chapman’s appointment was in fact a lucky accident, explains director ofcorporate services Nick Lewis. The organisation had originally sought aninterim to fill in for an HR manager who was to go on jury service, rather thanfor a specific project. In the event the jury service was cancelled but by thenChapman had expressed an interest in the assignment, realising there was muchthat someone of her experience could contribute.”We would never have got the outcome we achieved without her,” hesays. “Apart from pursuing successively high-level projects, she helped torestructure the marketing, assisted in high-level recruitment and providedmentoring to staff, leaving behind a more experienced and able HRdepartment.”Case Study: Alison Martin, senior HR manager at AromaAlthough the emphasis in the interim market is on age and experience, thereare opportunities for younger HR professionals too. Alison Martin, a graduateof Middlesex University, worked for three years at Sainsbury’s, which shefollowed up with contract work before becoming pregnant. She then undertook aninterim assignment arranged by Frazer Jones.The need was for a locum HR officer at coffee house chain Aroma which,having been acquired by McDonalds in March 1999, needed to get its HRprocedures up to a professional standard. The assignment was intended to lasteight weeks. That seemed ideal for Martin who, being pregnant, would not beavailable for more than a short period. In the event the assignment stretchedto over 12 weeks, the maximum before she had to leave.The company has doubled in size since the acquisition, with a total of 36cafes and 500 staff, and a presence in several cities besides London. “Ithad been family-based and there were no formal procedures, so everything had tobe set up from scratch,” Martin says. “I was asked to help withsalary management policy for everybody, including corporate and operationsemployees, as well as produce a salary appraisal for cafe managers.”For an interim this proved to be a challenge. “It is quite difficult tocome in and write policies that are intended to be long-standing and mould thedirection of the company,” she says. “You have to assess itsdirection in a short time.”Although Martin had been recruited for a specific assignment it soon becameclear that a permanent position was needed. “There was obviously a gap inthe department, as I was getting involved in the day-to-day running of thedepartment, advising operations consultants who have a group of caf‚s tosupport,” she says. “If they had any disciplinary issues orgrievances to deal with, they would come to us for advice. That highlighted aneed for a more structured approach.”The position was offered to Martin, who returned to find the policies shehad created successfully launched and working effectively. She is preparing toset up an appraisal system for corporate and operations staff to add to theoriginal brief for cafe managers.”Martin was essential in getting us to where we are now,” sayshead of HR Sally Winter, who had herself been hired in a permanent role tocreate an HR function. Although this was originally only a locum appointment,Winter took as much care over the selection as if it had been for a long-termrole.”I still wrote a job description and candidate profile as I would forany recruitment exercise,” she says. “You need someone who will fitin with the team and has the right experience, as well as the legislativebackground and understanding of confidentiality.”Case Study: Robert Purse, head of HR, ADP ChessingtonWhen payroll bureau Chessington Computer Services was taken over by ADP lastyear it was found to have an uncompetitive cost base that would requiresubstantial restructuring. A number of contracts were unexpectedly about to beterminated, and savings of up to 30 per cent would be necessary as a result.Since the HR director was leaving, it was decided to appoint an interim HRmanager to oversee a voluntary redundancy programme.The company approached Executives on Assignment which brought in Robert Purse,a senior HR professional with extensive interim experience, for what was to bea six-month assignment.Purse found that the company was in the middle of a round of pay talks,complicating the task of making redundancies. It was also discovered that officesthat the firm had inherited from the government, were on a short lease andabout to expire, which meant it would have to relocate.Realising that the issue of redundancies would interfere with the paybargaining, Purse made a quick wage deal his first priority. He opted for atake-it-or-leave-it approach, sweetened with more cash than the company hadoriginally been willing to contemplate, which the unions accepted. “Itcost an extra half percent, but I thought I could factor that into staffreduction anyway,” he recalls.The original intention had been to carry out the redundancy programme in twophases, in order to allow time for effective internal communications to takeplace and to carry out the relocation. “During the consultation werealised that going back for a second bite of the cherry would have had adisastrous impact on staff morale, destroying our good relationships withunions,” Purse says. “It was better to be honest, so at the firstformal meeting with them we went through a full review, advising them of needof reduction of £1.7m per annum.”Fortunately, Purse was able to establish a productive working relationshipwith union officials and the programme passed off smoothly. “It wasanticipated there would be no savings until the first quarter of this year, butby dint of hard work from all concerned, we generated all the necessary cutsvery quickly,” he says. Ironically that had the effect of halving his ownassignment, since the job was effectively complete after only three months. Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos.