Richard Brooks' HR blog

Updates from the Director of Human Resources

Referendum

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To: all staff at the University of Bath

It is inevitable that, in what may be a prolonged period of uncertainty following the referendum result, you will have many questions about your own personal circumstances and the future of our University and the UK Higher Education sector as a whole.

As the Vice-Chancellor’s message makes clear, this is a time to remind ourselves of our many strengths as an Institution and to remember that any change will not be immediate.

Clear answers to your questions about the implications will take some time to emerge.

My commitment is to communicate with you as soon as we have more to say. If you are hearing rumours, or are uncertain about decisions regarding the emerging picture, please do contact the HR team for a response. We will keep the staff homepage and University Update email updated with new information as it arises.

Questions are inevitable on the future employment and residence status of staff from the remaining 27 countries of the European Union, the future of research projects funded by EU grants and the implications for the future recruitment and retention of staff in parts of the organisation with a high proportion of colleagues who are EU citizens. There are also many as yet unresolved questions about the future direction of UK government policy in relation to employment policy among other issues.

The process to leave the EU is expected to take two years, and hasn’t yet started. Advice from Universities UK is that immigration status, employment terms and conditions, and grant funding from EU bodies is not expected to change during that two year period. Any changes may take some years to have effect. You may find this update on the current Government position from the Minister of State for Universities and Science of interest.

What we can do is support each other over the next few months as the answers become clearer. Tolerance and respect for each other is really important. And where at the University we have a choice, or can influence direction, we will be doing all that we can to reinforce our status as a truly international University which offers great opportunities to a truly international workforce.

 

Strike

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Yesterday I visited the National Composites Centre, an R&D centre owned by Bristol University. On the way over there, an American Professor was on the radio pushing her new book in which she claims that ‘grit’ is the key success factor in leadership. I have been told that there are over 75,000 books on leadership in the British Library, so I guess that this is just one theory, but she defined ‘grit’ as a combination of perseverance and passion. I visited the picket lines at the University this morning, and I saw some of that grit in colleagues trying to hand out leaflets to those arriving, some of whom were clearly more intent on getting to work. The issues the TUs are raising are important ones and whether you agree with the Trade Union or not, I did have respect for the committed way the small group was representing their cause. I do have to make a special mention of Tim Barrett from UCU who remained cheerful despite the way in which some drivers treated him.

My other observation around the current industrial action relates to the use of information. Perhaps it is what the military call an information operation, we might recognise as propaganda or spin,  or perhaps even the ‘selective use of facts’ (though an unselective use of facts might be a rather long document). The national message has been that this action is about ‘fair pay’ but the local message has been a bit more nuanced, so here are my thoughts on two of the subjects other than pay which have been used in recent communication.

  • UCU have said that “female academics are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts”. On the surface this is quite shocking and if taken at face value, would mean that women are paid at the bottom of the pay scales and men at the top. If we look slightly more deeply at the data at the University it shows that this isn’t the case. In three of the academic grades, men do earn slightly more than women, but the biggest differences are in Grade 6 and the Professoriate (and this doesn’t include senior management who are in a grade known as ALC6) where, on average, women earn more than men. It all depends how you perform the calculations, and a simple headline such as this doesn’t provide that information.
  • UCU have said that “the University of Bath is one of the heaviest users of zero hours contracts”. This is probably one of the most confusing sets of data to interpret, but UCU have recently produced an interesting report on the subject. The Union have used the data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on what are known as ‘atypical’ contracts. The University of Bath fails to make it into the Top 50 of users of such contracts (Table 1, p13 if anyone is interested). It all depends on what dataset you use, and, once again, this headline doesn’t tell you that.

If this sort of analysis interests you, I find Tim Harford on Radio 4 an excellent guide through some of the ‘facts’ presented in the media. I like to think that, as an academic institution our natural approach would be to question the facts, look at the sources of data and in particular understand the motivation of who is presenting them. These are very important issues which are firmly on the agenda for discussions with the Trades Unions. There is much more for us to do and I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress in resolving them.

 

University culture

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1980s                     Courier

1990s                     Times New Roman or Arial

2000s                    More Arial with a regrettable excursion into Comic Sans

2010s                     Tahoma, Verdana, and just discovered Blackadder

 

Over the next few months we will be writing a replacement for the University's People Strategy which was born in 2013 and comes to the end of its life this year. I expect the new document to be a "Workforce Strategy" as it focusses on the people employed by the University, rather than students, who are also people (most of the time). The University is also setting out a new strategy for the next five years, building on our strengths and achievements of the last strategy. Important for me is that our Workforce Strategy fully responds to, and helps us deliver the University Strategy. But one of the most important outcomes of a Workforce Strategy is that it delivers the culture we want. So what's that?

The term 'organisational culture' seems to be used very loosely in management circles to try and describe and codify the things about an organisation which we sense, feel and experience, but which are actually quite hard to define. There are all sorts of models of culture which can give us an insight into organisations, but in my experience none of these really capture the essence. And its often the little things which give us clues to a culture -such as what fonts people choose to write in and how/if an organisation controls this.

Our organisational culture is precious. Its often what attracts, retains and motivates people and why we enjoy working here. While culture is always evolving naturally, we can also change culture by the changes we make in the University. Just imagine what our staff and students, both current and prospective, might say about the University if we only allowed people to write in Comic Sans font! Perhaps not the image we would want to create of a serious academic establishment? While this may be a trivial example, changing things such as our grades, promotion processes, reward practice, employment terms, all of which could be in our workforce strategy, will impact our culture. So how can we make sure that any such change is positive and supportive of the overall University strategy? Managing culture is not easy, and culture change programmes rarely achieve what they set out to, but we can at least be cognisant of the effect of any changes on the culture as we write this new strategy.

Over the next few weeks I am running a small number of focus groups to get a better understanding of University culture in the context of developing the workforce strategy. Not to produce a definitive answer, but to prompt discussion and understand individuals' perceptions across the range of grades and jobs. I am looking forward to these discussions, but it wouldn't be practical to run these workshops for everyone. If you haven't been asked to come along to one, and want to offer me some views, I can promise you a response (and perhaps that is a positive part of our culture?).

 

First lectures

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My thanks to Chris Archer-Brown for inviting me to one of his lectures on digital marketing this week. I learned about the 'Paid Owned Earned' model of content marketing and how social media has blurred the lines. Also got to enjoy a Carlsberg (other lagers are available) viral YouTube video which demonstrated some of the key points of this marketing approach, such as the use of humour and subtly encouraging people to drink beer in cinemas. Great mix of material - I don't remember my old Mechanical Engineering lectures being that interesting, unless someone now wants to prove different!

A different type of lecture, but immediately after I went to the AthenaSWAN lecture by Melanie Welham (ex of this University and BBSRC Chief Executive). What struck me was the interesting data she shared about the number of grant applications made, and those which were successful by men and women. Despite a strong female population in the Biology/Biotech field, it was surprising that, of all the Research Councils, women submitted fewer grant proposals and had a lower success rate. Clearly many cultural factors at play here, and there seemed to be no single reason but it will be interesting to see what Melanie's further investigations turn up and what lessons there are for us.

Sitting in my cell in HR, its easy to forget why the University exists. It has been great to get out and see people teaching, people learning and the application of academic ideas to real life problems. Any other invitations to get out and see the breadth of what we do and broaden my education will be very welcome. Any offers?

 

A different type of diversity

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Diversity, in the legal sense, tends to revolve around what are known as protected characteristics (gender, religion, sexuality etc.) and in my opinion society is now much healthier for this recognition. However, one of the nice things about being HR Director is that I get to take a macro look at the workforce at the University. So I thought that I would share some of my findings which, for no reason I can adequately explain, I found mildly interesting. Deeper social insights welcome.

  • Among our employees there are 587 different female forenames. That is an average of 2.6 employees per forename. The most common are Sarah, Emma, Elizabeth, Alison and Susan.
  • There is less diversity in male names - 533 at 3 employees per forename. The most common are Christopher, Andrew, David, Stephen and James.
  • There are 2214 different surnames - 1.4 employees per surname. The most common are Jones, Williams, Evans, Smith, Taylor, Lewis, Brown, Martin and Harris.
  • The most common birthday is 24 May, with 19 people sharing this  (which always remind me of this maths problem). 16 people each share 15 Sep, 10 Mar and 10 Apr.
  • Our employees claim 69 different nationalities. Among the 23% who aren't British, the most common are Polish, German, Spanish, Italian and Chinese.

 

Living Wage

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I spent over an hour last night completing a VAT return, the net result of which is that HMRC owe me £7.20. By complete coincidence that is the hourly rate of National Living Wage set by the Government for those over 25 which starts next month. (And if you think that is weak segue, I assure you that future blogs may well be worse). Spent an enjoyable hour yesterday in my first formal meeting with the Trades Unions debating how we should respond to this complex, and quite emotive issue.

It was in the July 2015 budget when the Government parked their tanks firmly on Labour's lawn by introducing a commitment to a new National Living Wage. But this isn't a greenfield site; the minimum wage was introduced by Labour in 1997, and the Living Wage Foundation provides accreditation for employers who meet their standards, which are different to those of the Government. Then there are regional variations: the local council has introduced an Edinburgh Living Wage and with this Government's passion for regional devolution, we may see more of these. It is a difficult decision for employers who are expected to navigate this set of legislation and advice, while judging the effect it will have on their business. There have been many media stories about how this will make employers uncompetitive and how the costs will simply be passed on to consumers. I am sure that colleagues in Economics can advise whether the introduction of a minimum wage is, overall, good for an economy.

For the last two years we have introduced arrangements to ensure that all staff receive (at least) the hourly rate proposed by the Living Wage Foundation. With the projections increasing well ahead of inflation over the next few years, we have some difficult decisions to make about how we take this forward. It will be interesting to see how other employers and the job market respond, particularly with the weaker growth predictions from yesterday's budget. Another complexity is how this is impacting a growing number of people in the University, and having the effect of 'compressing' the bottom of the pay spine. This isn't really sustainable. We have agreed with the Trades Unions that we really need to have a proper review of how the pay system works for the lower grades, and how we can balance our responsibilities as an employer and custodian of the business over the next few years.

As a TU member, I am very supportive of the need for good, evidence-based robust discussion on topics such as this. I look forward to seeing how this debate evolves and engaging in even more 'vibrant' dialogue.

 

 

9.4mm

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In my last blog I was railing against the volume of paper I was presented with for the Academic Staff Committee. Well, we have a breakthrough. Thanks to the hard work of Fiona Blackmore and Deborah Griffin in HR we ran a pilot using iPads to structure and view the information, and it was an astounding success. My thanks to Profs Juani Swart, Vaughan Hart and Gareth Price who volunteered to try this out, and thanks to Apple for the information that the iPad is only 9.4mm thick, compared to the 63mm of paper we previously enjoyed.

I enjoyed the ASC meeting as it gave me a real insight into the breadth of work our Lecturers are doing, and how the University assesses standards and progress in teaching, research and administration. From an HR viewpoint, a couple of observations:

  • One area for improvement must be objective setting. I am not sure that ‘undertake teaching’ (a generic example) is sufficient to guide a probationary lecturer in the standards required, or to assess them later in the year. I wouldn’t want to make this into an industry, but it was obvious from the discussion that a bit more definition might help.
  • It was interesting to see the challenges of workload management. I was surprised by the variation, particularly in teaching load across the 36 individuals which just shows how varied the work across the University is. One example was how those returning from a break (sickness, maternity etc.) sometimes took on heavy teaching loads quite quickly. Just an observation, but something I am keen to follow up and understand how we can give the best guidance to those who have the challenge of managing workload.

On a different topic, I have counted three different HR processes this week where I, as HR Director, have had to make a decision. Because the process says so; I must have been sick on the day HR Directors were trained in omnipotence. In at least two cases I reckon that others are far better suited than me to make those decisions so I was really glad to be asked to be part of Steve Egan's working group on process improvement this past week. Too many organisations continue to live with poor processes, and don’t ever get round to fixing them. This is a great initiative and I am keen to get Mark Ricketts and his team working with us on some of our HR processes. Any suggestions?

Two highlights from the last week. (1) Visiting the nursery, where a very small person clearly found a very tall person in a waistcoat far more fascinating than what she should have been doing. (2) Spending an idle 15 minutes in the library between meetings, where in the Engineering section I stumbled across a book titled “How to Build a Nuclear Bomb, and other Weapons of Mass Destruction”!

 

Welcome to Academia

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The day after Valentine's Day I started a new life here at Bath. I have done a number of HR and operational leadership roles in Government, but this is my first time in academia. And it's very different.

With this blog I aim to share some of my observations, hopefully prompt some discussion and give a little insight into the broad range of things I get involved in as HR Director. It's more interesting than it sounds.

So here is my first post...

Last week 'ASC' stood for Analysis Support Construct. This week it's Academic Staff Committee or Academic Skills Centre.

Last week 'IPR' stood for Intellectual Property Rights. This week it's Institute for Policy Research or sometimes Intellectual Property Rights.

You get the idea. Perhaps the first thing I’ve noticed is that simultaneous interpretation in a new environment is really quite hard work.

By the evening it's really caught up with me. So if you meet me and I appear to pause mid-sentence, it's probably because there is some buffering going on as I try and translate what I’m about to say into University language. I'm sure it's only transitional and I'll become assimilated fairly quickly.

Attended my first Executive meeting last week. Great way to quickly pick up what is on the minds of the leadership team. I found the sharing of ideas by the Deans of how they are proposing to develop PGT particularly interesting, and really important to inform our people strategy. Data science, data analytics and informatics seem to be a priority theme across the faculties, which accords well with what I found in my last job and will be an interesting theme to pursue.

It was the Harvard Business Review which labelled Data Scientist as the 'sexiest job of the 21st century', but I’m not sure whether this was meant to be ironic. I’ll save any other observations on the Executive until I have a data set of more than one – probably wiser!

This week is my first Academic Staff Committee and I have been presented with a thick (63mm, I measured) pile of pink paper which consists of 33 probationary lecturer reports. Managed to read half a dozen while Michael Mosley made black pudding with his own blood on BBC4 last Thursday night.

My main observation is that this is a really thorough, data-informed process, unlike any other I have encountered in other organisations. The objectivity this brings, and the way the supervising staff make use of this information really stands out; it will be interesting to see how the committee operates.

With so many professors in the room, what does an HR Director bring? In my experience of similar processes, not knowing the technicalities of the subject helps me look for evidence of the individual’s underlying skills and potential, and how they are reacting to the University environment. Reading these reports has also made me want to go and experience a few lectures. Any offers?

Overall a great first week and introduction to Bath. Everyone has been welcoming and friendly and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.