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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Jennifer Longden, head of HR at Cititec

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When Jennifer Longden joined Cititec in 2009, the technology recruitment firm did not have an HR department and she had no experience of HR.

From this blank canvas, she has created an HR unit that is helping to shape and support the business as well as adapt to a dramatic shift in focus.

Longden had originally studied drama at university and it was her dream to become an actor. But she was well aware of how precarious the profession could be, particularly when the economic backdrop looks bleak.

 
“I was studying drama, but also aware of what was going on, and it dawned on me that recession was coming,” she recalls.

So instead of pursuing drama as a career, Longden decided to look for something more stable. Luckily, she’d already spent a couple of years working in recruitment, which gave her an advantage over fellow graduates entering the job market in 2008.

 
As a result, she fell straight into a job working for camera firm, Olympus, on tenders and contracts. Although she felt lucky to have found employment so easily, the downside was that she found it dull and dreary.
 
“It was really boring and I was getting really frustrated. And then I came across Cititec, which was recruiting for maternity cover,” Longden says.
 
Picking up skills quickly
 
She joined the company in May 2009 and “grasped the opportunity with both hands”, quickly making herself indispensable, which led to her gaining a permanent appointment. At first, she undertook an HR admin role, which involved looking after employment contracts and other routine tasks, but she swiftly built up her expertise.
 
Studying for Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualifications supplemented and informed her on-the-job experience – “I’m formalising that knowledge all the time,” Longden says.

In 2010, she set up the firm’s first HR department and now employs an assistant to help her look after the needs of the company’s 80 staff.

 
“They already had some quite basic employee policies when I joined, but since then I’ve been setting up and improving training programmes and a graduate recruitment framework and other projects like that,” she explains.
 
Moreover, because she is keen “to provide the best HR support I can”, she works “very closely with the board and sit down regularly with the managing director, COO and FD”, she adds.

Although Longden recognises that she is still fairly new to the profession, she also believes that joining a small company has provided her with a great platform for picking up skills quickly.

 
“I think the advantage is that I’m exposed to a lot. My learning experience is very quick, but on the downside, the foundations can often feel a bit shaky because I just don’t have the grounding yet,” she concedes, adding that the fast-paced nature of today’s business world means that no one can afford to be complacent, no matter how experienced.
 
“I don’t think that you can have a firm footing in any business environment these days, the way business moves so fast, but my skills are very transferable and I have to adapt,” she says.
 
Change in business strategy
 
The next big thing on Longden’s HR agenda is to tackle the issue of benefits. Her original aim had to deal with it last year, but the business experienced a major change of direction, which meant that staff roles and skills had to change dramatically too.

Until 2011, the company was primarily an IT-based recruitment firm placing contract staff in the financial services sector. But profit margins had become increasingly squeezed and the firm experienced a natural staff churn.

 
As a result, it decided to diversify into other markets such as digital, oil and gas and pharmaceutical. This change in business strategy led to higher levels of staff turnover and Longden realised that internal recruitment practices needed to be more closely aligned with the firm’s new strategic direction.
 
“I quickly found that our increased staff turnover was haemorrhaging money through wasted on-boarding and training efforts. It also contributed to an increased stress on resources, reduced engagement and the general decline in organisational commitment,” she explains.

One of the ways that Longden has tackled this situation was to create 24 graduate/trainee roles – the company’s biggest recruitment drive in its entire 15 years of operation.

 
She has also devised a selection framework to enable line managers to better identify and evaluate applicants that both fit with the company culture and are technically proficient in their roles.

But Longden also plans are to try and boost the visibility and strategic support offered by her department. “I’d really like to move the department to become more of a strategic business partner. At the moment I feel that HR is still a little on the side and it needs to be right in there,” she points out.

Although no longer pursuing a career on the stage, Longden still enjoys acting and believes that it has also helped her in her HR role. “I think it does help – I’m quite a good speaker, which comes with the drama. I love talking to people and making a difference through things like training,” she says.

And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?

I don’t really have a particular role model, but I suppose someone like Elizabeth Robins from the early part of the 20th century, who was instrumental in the fight for the emancipation of women.

I was also so impressed with the Olympics and the number of strong women involved and the hard work and determination that they showed.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

“Value-add”. It’s a word that’s used a lot in my businesses as you try to convince someone in sales that that money isn’t everything.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

Treat yourself like your own best friend. Every time that I’m not nice to myself, I think what would my best friend say. I think it comes with being an actor – when I go on stage, I don’t care what 200 people think, but I’m critical of myself and all the things that I know I could have done better.

How do you relax?

I watch ‘Corrie’. It helps me to completely switch off.
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