It took Stephanie Murphy a long time to discover HR, but she’s now very glad that she did.
But then a friend who was moving abroad suggested that she take over her job. The post was at Serco, which is a massive services company working in health, defence, local government and many other sectors.
Murphy got the position. Beginning 12 years ago as commercial assistant, she worked on tenders and contracts for the naval base in Plymouth, where Serco ran the dockyard.
So instead she opted to study with the OU once more, choosing a range of modules that would give her both the skills that she needed in her current HR role and also contribute towards an MBA at a later date. And in October 2011, Murphy completed that MBA.
“Doing the MBA has completely changed my life. It’s taken 10 years to get to this point – not full time – but it’s been worth it,” she says.
Back to 2005, however, as taking on the HR mantle at that point led to her working on other Serco contracts – travelling to both Gibraltar and to Glasgow. In 2009 though, the supplier won a contract with Derriford Hospital in Plymouth to provide support services such as porters and catering.
Many of the personnel had been working on the same hospital ward for 10 years or more. This meant that they saw themselves more as hospital than private sector employees and, with no HR department or practices, there was little consistency in the way that they were treated.
This lack of effective management structures meant that some employees had been off sick for years but were still being paid, while absence levels as a whole were a worryingly high 18%.
But the first thing to do was to deal with the long-term sickness absence situation and lend help to those who were genuinely suffering problems. But she also tried to show employees the inevitable consequences of their absence.
“It’s very easy for people at headquarters to look at the statistics, but you can’t just bring in disciplinary procedures. You need to look at the other end and at wellbeing too,” Murphy says.
One of the ways that she did this was to introduce staff training, which included helping many of the foreign workers learn to read and write English. Nonetheless, Murphy’s main task was to create some consistency. In order to do this, she got the unions to help her as she saw it as an essential way of building up trust with employees.
Also key to building trust is being honest and humble, however. “Directors sometimes lose touch with their workforce,” she explains. “When you get a vast organisation with 770,000 employees, there’s no way you can keep in touch with someone working in a hospital ward. So you have to have HR to help maintain the balance between workforce and head office.”
But she had also found the constant struggle with the inevitable bureaucracy inherent in many big companies hard to deal with. “After 12 years, I’d got a bit jaded. I knew what I wanted to do, but I’d have to jump through 12 hoops to get there,” Murphy recalls
She quickly took on an interim post at a small family firm to set up their HR and health and safety procedures. It couldn’t have been more different than working for a big multinational if she had tried.
It’s not one person, but a charity I’ve been working with for the last 10 years, the Shekinah Mission. The charity supports people who’ve been homeless, the long-term unemployed or ex-offenders – they do work placements and try to rehabilitate them.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
‘Rationalisation’. It basically means headcount reduction and stops people thinking about being creative and innovative.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Not to take it personally. HR is such an emotional role and you can take people’s worries home with you. You have to remember that, if they’re venting, it’s not you who they’re attacking.
How do you relax?
I recently bought two puppies and so I was out at 7.30am this morning walking them. It’s a great de-stresser. I also like knitting.