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Life on the inside

1 February 02

Author’s experience of working on secondment to the HR department at Guinness UDV

by Smith, Adrian

More firms now recognise that being truly client focused involves sending solicitors on secondment. Adrian Smith describes a positive experience for all concerned working on the inside with the HR department at Guinness UDV

The provision of employment law services is a highly competitive market. The escalating amount of legislation and case law has resulted in an increasing demand for these services. There is a greater than ever need to meet customer requirements and exceed their expectations. All solicitors are presumed to understand the law – so how best can you differentiate your services?

Fresh legislation and resultant change causes uncertainty and anxiety amongst most employers. Whilst employers’ organisations are involved by the Government in consultation, resistance to change is mainly futile and employers need to utilise their energy in understanding, interpreting and applying these changes.

Guinness UDV

As an employer striving to keep up with constant evolution of employment law and practice, Guinness UDV adopted a fresh approach – to bring in, on secondment, an employment solicitor from Mackay Simon, the employment law division of Maclay Murray and Spens, to review their business practices and develop an effective employment law strategy. John Evans, their HR director, believed that there was a need to develop these services from a client’s perspective.

“This is a win-win situation. Having a widespread and diverse workforce, our solicitors will develop an even deeper understanding of the challenges we face, as we receive employment law advice, training and consultant services, when and where we need it.”

Guinness UDV is one of the world’s leading drink companies and owner of some of the world’s top selling brands, including Guinness, Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Gordon’s, The Classic Malts and J & B. In Scotland alone it has approximately 3,500 employees, located at 45 sites, encompassing production, warehousing and blending, technical services, malt distilleries, and central administration.

On secondment

As a secondee you have to ensure that you remain in contact with your own organisation, but also become truly involved in the business where you are temporarily based. In order to develop a thorough understanding of Guinness UDV, I was resolute in my demands to be part of their business and not be regarded as a temporary adjunct from an external supplier.

In order to fully appreciate the size, value and culture of this business I was taken through an induction process within Edinburgh Park where I am based, and visited distilleries, production sites and bottling halls. I quickly had to learn the structure of the business – why, where and how do things get done?

When placed on secondment it is essential that there is clear agreement as to your remit.  What expectations of this secondment did all interested parties have? We had to be able to measure its success both in levels of customer satisfaction and financially. In order to sketch out solutions for their employment relations issues, I had to have an awareness of where they were now and where they wanted to be in the future. This demanded careful planning and a considered approach.

HR community

It was clear that I would be working closely with the HR community. I quickly needed to establish good working relationships and I was fortunate to become part of the Edinburgh Park HR team. From this vantage point, I see evidence of HR’s wide-ranging responsibilities. Little wonder, that for some, keeping up to date with employment law becomes a forlorn hope.

However, there is no doubt that the HR community were well aware of the impact of employment law on their everyday activities. But the amount of legislation, its complexity and variety causes concern. As one HR manager said:

“It is not only the amount of legislation and case law that is our problem but the fact that we are inundated with information. We don’t need more information, we need advice and support; an interpretation of the law and guidance on how it impacts us in a practical sense.”

A lesson to be learned by all employment solicitors. The HR community do not want to be bombarded with articles or seminars on new legislation – any solicitor can do that. It is not always the legal principles underlying a Directive, nor the possible interpretation of legislation that is of practical importance. What matters to HR about new legislation is what they actually need to do about it.

Risk Management

Another essential lesson for me was the issue of risk. When an employer acts in certain ways, employees may be entitled to pursue a claim through an employment tribunal. What an employment solicitor needs to do is assess the likelihood of such claims, potential costs to the business and an assessment of industrial relations issues. There is a need to advise your client on their range of options and assess the impact of each. The business will take a commercial decision based on a number of criteria, of which the law is only one. Make sure they are enlightened and that your message is clear and understood.

To effectively manage risk an employer wants proactive advice and support. Traditionally many solicitors have become involved after mistakes have been made. The IT1 lands on a desk and the solicitor embarks on a damage limitation exercise or expensive and time consuming litigation. As an employment solicitor you should not wait for issues or problems to arise. Act early. What changes can be anticipated in the business as a result of forthcoming legislation? You cannot blame your client for their mistakes. Ask yourself if you or your firm have designed services aimed at risk management?

Policy Development and Training

Having drafted and revised key policies, I now see the need for a more holistic approach to policy development. Creating a new policy is just the start. In order to meet business needs and ensure acceptance of new policies you may need to ensure that the relevant groups including management, HR, team leaders and trade unions are consulted and involved.  Once the policy is agreed there needs to be effective communication and management of the process of change. A policy sitting on a shelf, unavailable or unread, achieved nothing. This leads to the issue of training. I have been well warned by my HR colleagues that training is not ‘death by power point’. I was told, “please do not present from a carefully written script and then dump on us your well worded 22-page handout”. An OK learning style for some but certainly not all. There is a need to involve your audience and encourage participation. Utilise movement, varied activities, role plays, quizzes or tests and even humour. When using case studies ensure they are relevant to the particular audience. It may be team leaders one day and senior managers the next. Goodbye to bullet points and slide shows and welcome to distinct but connected activities, delivering and reinforcing key learning outcomes.

This was an area where all parties benefited from the secondment. Guinness UDV have an excellent management training programme, entitled ‘Building Leadership Excellence’ and I was fortunate enough to be a participant in this programme. I learned how to ‘coach’ not just ‘tell’. The essence of this is having ‘coaching conversations’ with individuals and utilising a wide range of approaches to increase understanding and confidence of those making key decisions. An exciting range of employment law training modules have now been developed. Such is their value that other parts of the business, both in London and Ireland, have expressed significant interest in receiving this training. Training is about changing behaviour. Have your training events changed the behaviours of its participants?

Fresh perspective

When you are right in the middle of such a business you become directly involved and many opportunities exist to influence people at critical times. Because of the diversity of the workforce and the effects of an ever-changing commercial climate, I have played an important role in situations involving redundancies, fixed term contracts, maternity, TUPE and dismissal. Nothing new perhaps, but fascinating from an internal perspective. This is a unionised environment where Guinness UDV are constantly developing its ‘positive partnership’ with the unions. This has presented me with an opportunity to view modern industrial relations in action.

The experience I have gained is inestimable and has allowed me to suggest a range of internal/external services including workshops, phone and e-mail advice, information on the Intranet, guidance notes, tailored training and support, coaching and consultancy services at the highest level. The services are now highly tuned, not just in content but also as regards delivery. Is this type of relationship with a client the future of employment law services? Our client certainly thinks so.

Conclusion

As I stated earlier this is undoubtedly a win-win situation. The HR community have access to informed and practical advice where time is available to develop long-term employment law strategies. Solicitors need to understand their clients’ requirements and then deliver on it. From my personal viewpoint a secondment can be an invaluable experience. This will depend on the vision of your firm and the willingness of a client to open itself up to evaluation and assessment. If you are fortunate enough to be presented with such an opportunity, grasp it with both hands.

Adrian Smith is a solicitor with Mackay Simon, the employment law division of Maclay Murray Spens