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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Stephanie Murphy, Interim HR manager

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It took Stephanie Murphy a long time to discover HR, but she’s now very glad that she did.

Until then, she had dabbled with a lot of things: working with animals, at Boots, Bradford & Bingley and as a cabin crew member for an airline. “I enjoyed those jobs, but never felt tied to something,” Murphy remembers.

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.

 
On the advice of her line manager, however, Murphy, who’d left school at 16, decided to get some qualifications under her belt – and this is where her journey into HR began. “I started at the Open University and did a certificate in management and, once I’d done that, people began to see me in a different light,” she says.
 
First of all, she was promoted to become department office manager. But then, eighteen months later, there were big changes to the company, which led to the workforce doubling overnight.
 
Although Serco was a huge organisation, that particular part of the business did not have a dedicated HR professional. But with its sudden expansion, the creation of such a post became essential.
 
Big changes
 
Luckily for Murphy, her employer said that it would be happy to pay for her HR training. She considered the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development route, but decided that she wanted a qualification with a broader focus.
 
“The CIPD is fine if you’re in an HR central head office with a big team, but we needed someone with HR and business, strategy and finance skills,” Murphy says.

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.

 
It was a big change from a managing a dockyard and, to complicate matters further, the staff at the hospital had no HR support of any kind. “I underestimated how much work it was with the 600 employees,” Murphy admits.

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.

 
Long-term sickness absence
 
“The outgoing contractor hadn’t had any HR on-site for 10 years. There were no clear policies and procedures, so basically if you got on with your line manager, you got on OK,” explains Murphy.

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%.

 
Murphy recognised the problem, partly because of the nature of the work: people saw it as more of a job than a career. Nevertheless, she felt that it was possible to turn the figures round.
 
“You need to look at people’s motivation and what they get out of going to work,” Murphy says. As a result, if they wanted to do more, she ensured that they were assigned mini-projects and given more responsibility.

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.

 
With 18% of the entire workforce off sick at any given time, it meant that agency staff had to brought in and patients might not get their meals on time, for example. Such measures helped cut sickness levels down to a more respectable 6%.

“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.

 
Interim HR
 
“We did restructure several times and move staff to different wards, and some found that quite difficult, but we sat them down and got the unions in and the majority of people are flexible,” Murphy points out.

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.”

 
Changes to the company’s structure over time meant that Murphy felt it was time to leave and so she took redundancy. “I’m probably quite institutionalised after 12 years, so this will make me sit up,” she laughs.

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.

 
But although the actual work itself was quite straightforward, dealing with a husband and wife team who were rather reluctant to change the way that they operated required some delicate handling.
 
After taking a bit of time out to consider what direction she wanted to go in next, however, Murphy has just taken on the position of interim HR business partner at EDF Energy.
 
And finally…
 
Who do you admire most and why?
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.

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