Sharon Benson – HR Magazine’s Most Influential Practitioner and Transformation & People Director at Edison Young People – sat down with Giles Heckstall-Smith to discuss HR best practice, and how HR teams can secure their place at the exec table.
A specialist in transformation, Sharon has held senior positions leading people and culture change programmes at Sunrise Senior Living UK, Gracewell Healthcare, Studio Retail, Acorn Care and Education, and the Co-Operative Group.
What advice would you give to HR teams trying to understand their working culture?
The key is consistency. Whenever I enter a new workplace I ask for a couple of weeks down in the business to meet the staff and see their day-to-day. It means whenever you speak to the exec you understand their teams and their functions.
I also engage the third-party providers we use. I learn what brief recruitment agencies are working from and hear the feedback they’ve collected from candidates. Is it perception or is it fact? It’s important to differentiate – warts and all!
The most difficult part is delivering that message back to the exec.
How do you deliver that feedback to the exec team?
Usually quite directly! I organise a meeting with them and then relay what I’ve heard. It’s most impactful when it’s direct, rather than typing up a brief to send over. We agree to focus on 2 or 3 things that create a lot of noise. If you can solve those problems it gives colleagues a lot of confidence that you’re engaging with the culture and solving problems, which means they’re encouraged to support any new initiatives later down the line!
What are the key foundations and building blocks of HR?
The business strategy is the foundation block. If the organisation doesn’t have an embedded business strategy (and some don’t!) that’s got to be where you start.
From there, you look at the organisational structure and ask some questions.
Is it built to deliver services well to the customer?
Does everyone have clear purpose?
Does everyone know what a good job looks like?
Does everyone know how to progress in the company?
I’ve facilitated workshops with third-parties to engage with as much of the workforce as possible, and these are always the key questions. A colleague will never tell a HR person what they truly think, but they will tell a third party – so utilising that resource is incredibly helpful.
Once you’ve got that information back in, it’s time to look at actions.
When I worked at Studio, this exercise taught us a lot. We saw there was duplication of effort across functions. There were roles that didn’t have accountability, they just cleared up stuff that people didn’t want to do in their jobs.
That became a clear priority and we invested back into IT and DevOps to restructure so the team could become a key player in the digital market.
What's the best way to deliver actions once you've learned about the culture?
It completely varies from company to company – so experiment!
Sometimes a good old-fashioned e-mail or newsletter is a great starting point, flagging any upcoming changes or encouraging new ways of thinking. I’ve worked at companies in the past where colleagues don’t even have an e-mail address so posters – usually on the back of a toilet door – can work!
Cascade Comms can work too. Giving the message to team leaders and managers so they’re passing it to their teams directly. This means it doesn’t feel like a classic “HR Message,” and helps to embed the culture.,
How do you promote retention and internal mobility?
My specialty is care, so with the recruitment crisis in mind, Skills for Care came out with its report this week with some stark statistics. Vacancy rates are up 52% this year. There’s an expectation that they’re going to need an additional 480,000 care workers by 2035. Care workers with 5 years experience are paid 7p more an hour than workers with less than 1 year’s experience. 80% of jobs in the economy pay more than jobs in social care.
Combine all of this with a high turnover rate, retention and succession planning is key.
One of the things we’ve done at Edison is we’ve mapped out the Candidate/Colleague experience. This follows a worker’s entire time at the organisation, up to them leaving. What do we want them to know, to do, and feel at those key moments that matter, and how can we keep them for a little bit longer?
When we’ve looked at our applicant tracking system, those questions are the foundation for how we use it. Is our candidate experience going to make a care candidate feel safe, secure, and inspired by Edison?
From there, we make sure we advertise what people need to do if they want to step up in the organisation. What new responsibilities will they take on? What are the steps for internal promotion?
Calculate retention & attrition costs
Every role I’ve had, I’ve looked at the cost of retention versus the cost of attrition. Losing a member of staff isn’t just a blow to the culture, but also a blow to the budget.
We worked out the typical cost for bringing on a care worker was £2700. For every person you can prevent from leaving, you can essentially save £2700. Being able to quantify that is so important.
If you park the financial implications, can you imagine the impact losing a staff member would have on the people in our care? Consistency and reliability in the faces they see every day is so important, so losing a member of staff undermines the business strategy as well. My advice is to quantify this information and present it to the exec team.