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How CSR can boost HR: an interview with TomDunn by Sarah Fletcher

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Recruitment business TomDunn is an excellent example of how a company’s values can drive the business and improve the profile of HR. Sarah Fletcher spoke to Stuart Thomas, head of HR at TomDunn, on why CSR can move HR from an administration function to a strategic player and why social responsibility is key to the business’s success.


1. What made you start an ethical recruitment business?

“When we started we didn’t realise there was a business there, so it wasn’t a decision we took because we thought there was an obvious market. It was a decision we took because we thought it was a business we’d enjoy working in and be passionate about working in.

The recruitment industry, probably unfairly, is seen by people on the outside as being similar to estate agents, second hand car salesmen and so on. So thought wouldn’t it be great to be an ethical recruitment business? So we based it on that premise – Whatever we did, we worked in a really fair and open manner.

We’ve started to notice, certainly within the last three or four months, that we’re able to talk to more organisations because of our ethical values. For example, we have a meeting next month with Marks and Spencer, which is committed to being carbon neutral within five years. We got in contact with them due to this programme.

2. Did you investigate how it was going to help your competitiveness in the marketplace?

It was a happy surprise. If I went onto Dragon’s Den, I’d be shot out. We didn’t really do any research because it just felt like the right thing to do. It tied in with my personal values and was very much something that Sean [Mulligan, the Chief Executive] was buying into, so he could see that behaving ethically was very similar to delivering a quality service. So there was no research, to be candid.

“We completed a campaign recently for Norwich Union, in which every interview was undertaken by telephone. It almost delivers truly fair employment because I can’t picture whether my candidate is fat, grey, has three heads. All I know is her voice and her voice tells me what skills and experience she has.”

3. Did you focus on a specific area of environmental policy?

We started really simply – our first port of call was to look at our carbon emissions. We don’t have a CSR policy that bolts onto the business; what we are about is having an ethical-led business in all that we do. So it was very simple for us in many ways and I appreciate that for some people it would be more difficult because they have existing operations.

The first step was to say, ok, whatever we do in a given year, we want to leave a zero carbon footprint, so we measured the amount of electricity we use, the number of journeys that we make, we had the Edinburgh Centre for Climate Management, on behalf of the Carbon Neutral Company, do their assessment for us. They then told us how many tonnes of carbon dioxide we were emitting, and we then offset those by Sean and I visiting a plantation in North Wales where we planted a number of trees.

4. Is there a way of measuring retention?

Certainly since I’ve been involved I don’t think there’ve been many people leaving, if any at all. Quite clearly it’s an easier sell when you’ve got this strand running through your business. When I was working as an HR director previously, I worked for a company that was a Sunday Times top 100 business for four years on the run. It’s interesting because the best companies’ approach is about employee engagement, about the employee’s place in the local community. That’s at the back of our mind because we know we’re creating something sustainable and people in the business can take pride in what we’re doing and the difference that we’re going to make.

5. Would you have any problem growing the business? For example, travelling to clients is difficult as it pollutes the environment.

Arguably, it’ll become easier, especially with home working opportunities. If we were a Bristol based business, for example, either we have to think about people travelling to work in the office or we have to think about relocating people, whereas for us it doesn’t matter where people are frankly, as long as they’re in the same time zone.

We completed a campaign recently for Norwich Union, in which we didn’t actually see face-to-face a single one of the candidates. Every single interview was undertaken by me by telephone. Each was interviewed for an hour with a competency-based questionnaire, which was then shortlisted and ultimately, of course, the client met with a number of candidates.

“Candidates are now far more discerning than they once were. Increasingly candidates will start to differentiate between different organisations based on how ethical that business is.”

Even when the candidate started I still couldn’t tell you what she looks like. That’s an interesting model because it changes how you view recruitment. We turned it around within six weeks from placing the advert to the candidate starting, which included Christmas in between. In a way it almost delivers truly fair employment because I can’t picture whether my candidate is fat, grey, got three heads, yellow, pink. All I know is her voice and her voice tells me what skills and experience she has.

6. Isn’t there a problem with the fact that people communicate through gestures and facial expressions as well as through speech, so it’s hard to see the full picture unless you’re seeing them face to face?

I agree that maybe you do lose something by not seeing people, but I think equally, when you’re talking to someone on the telephone, you’re far more alert because you’re having to listen to every word. Whereas if we meet you’ve made judgements about me [based on my appearance] before I’ve even opened my mouth. Maybe you trade – I think you lose one or two things but you gain more in return. We spoke to a firm of lawyers and asked if they took issue with this approach and they absolutely endorsed it, and it was that endorsement that made us feel comfortable.

It’s something that we try to do as far as we can. We think it’s one of the fairest methods of selection. Fundamentally we’re all dictated to by what our clients want; if they want us to meet, then we meet.

7. What other methods do you have in terms of being ethically responsible?

At the heart of what we do, we have a state of the art IT system so we communicate with candidates and clients on a paperless basis. We can use the system to send letters, we can also email candidates and clients and can SMS text people directly. It makes life easier for me as a remote worker because I don’t have to have reams of forestry in my office.

“There’s a good opportunity for HR to move from being just an admin-based function in the eyes of the business to being a strategic function and if you can automate all of that documentation then it will free HR to actually get involved with the business.”

8. With your experience and background in HR, what is your main lesson for HR practitioners in terms of practicing ethical business?

There are a couple of things. Firstly in terms of candidates, I think candidates are now far more discerning than they once were. Increasingly candidates will start to differentiate between different organisations based on how ethical that business is. For example, if I were HR director of Marks and Spencer I would find it very easy to recruit than it would have been two or three years ago.

We’re all products of our generation and the younger element today are far more ethically minded. I often hear – dare I call it, older people – complain that younger people in the jobs market don’t have that same drive and the same kind of career orientation; so it’s interesting how you see far more CVs these days with gaps where they’ve taken career gaps. When I started out that was rare and gaps usually showed there was something wrong with the candidate, so in terms of candidate attraction it’s going to be a differentiator going forward.

The other thing for HR practitioners is simple things like the new legislation on car emissions where the people in charge of company car policies are thinking ‘well hang on a minute, a lot of our guys are driving big gas guzzling machines, now all they can drive around in is a small engine car’. There are going to be a lot of decisions like that that are going to start to increase over time and certainly HR has to be well in step with that.

Plus it’s a good opportunity for HR to go to the business and be quite commercial and say ‘Why do we leave our lights on all night? What’s the benefit of that?’ There’s bound to be a cost saving in addressing that. Equally, if you think about HR, the number of HR departments I’ve worked in are just snowed under with paperwork. There’s a good opportunity for HR to move from being just an admin-based function in the eyes of the business to being a strategic function and if you can automate all of that documentation then it will free HR to actually get involved with the business. There’s a great opportunity there and I’m surprised there isn’t more about it in the HR press.

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