by Sarah Marten
Dorette Morgan spent six months during 2009 at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand undertaking an exchange visit in the Human Resources department where she worked as a Human Resources Adviser. Dorette’s usual job is Personnel Manager at the University of Bristol, working with the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry.
The University of Otago is New Zealand’s oldest university, having been established by Scottish settlers in 1869. 20,000 students from New Zealand and all over the world enrol annually at the University, which is the country’s top-rating HE institution for research. The visit not only involved exchanging work places, but also houses and cars! Dorette recently talked to Sarah Marten about her time spent working in New Zealand.
What made you decide to work overseas?
I had already fallen in love with New Zealand and particularly the Dunedin area following a holiday there a few years ago. The outdoor life such as hill-walking and wildlife has always appealed to me, and these activities are so accessible in New Zealand. In addition New Zealanders are really friendly and are genuinely interested in other people.
Whilst visiting a friend in Dunedin during my holiday I explored the university campus and was interested to note that they had a medical school. The idea of working there appealed to me at this stage, and soon after arriving back in the UK I was already pining for New Zealand!
I had only ever heard of exchange visits for academic staff, but when a friend suggested I might consider this I decided to investigate further. A colleague at work had participated in a very successful exchange to the University of Otago several years before, and so I sent them a CV. I did not approach any other universities as I had my heart set on Otago, and it was several months before I heard from them, giving me time to think about my potential new venture.
How was the exchange organised?
My manager here at the University of Bristol was very encouraging when I mentioned the idea of a possible exchange visit to New Zealand. So much so, that during one of my appraisals my manager suggested an exchange trip could be a future objective for me. However, I was not about to board a flight for NZ immediately! It took about eighteen months to organise the visit and crucially someone from the University of Otago had first to express an interest to exchange with me. Equally I needed to work my exchange around the demands and requirements of my job here at the University of Bristol.
Once CVs had been exchanged, contacts from both Universities organised a video conference with the two HR directors and line managers which formed the basis of an interview for both of us, but also involved an in-depth discussion about policies and procedures. This went very well and both Universities were happy for us to proceed.
What other preparations were necessary?
My UK job is based in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and involves close liaison with the NHS, as well as senior members of university staff. The job is very complex, and so my post was handed over to an existing Personnel Manager colleague, a process which took a few weeks.
In order to familiarise myself with my new job I requested the University of Otago’s HR policies and procedures via email. Discovering that they were really quite similar to those I was using at the University of Bristol helped to increase my confidence about the forthcoming exchange.
On a personal level there is much to organise when you are going abroad for six months. The fact that I was exchanging houses and cars with my NZ counterpart made things very much easier, but I nevertheless needed to inform my mortgage and insurance companies, utilities providers and so on, well in advance of my visit. I had a really good feeling about my exchange partner, and had no doubts about entrusting him and his wife with my house and car. After all they would be entrusting me with theirs.
What was it like in the first few days/weeks?
Having already travelled fairly widely, including to Japan and having also worked in Saudi Arabia, the idea of going to an English-speaking country on my own was not too daunting. I flew to Christchurch in the South Island, and spent three days with friends there before heading to Dunedin on New Year’s Day. Family members of my exchange partner met me at the airport, and I organised something similar back in Bristol for my UK counterpart.
I soon felt very comfortable and happy in Dunedin, and arriving in the middle of the summer certainly helped. Everyone was so supportive, and the experience was overwhelmingly positive. The house I stayed in was in beautiful location and was situated about 6 km from the University on a hill overlooking the harbour with stunning views. Everything was perfect.
I had a week to settle in and familiarise myself with all the basics including local supermarkets and finding a church to attend. I also had a meeting with my new line manager, to find out about the job and the people I would be working with. Travelling to the other side of the world could have been disorientating, but I did not find it so, partly because I already had friends in Dunedin.
Did the University of Otago provide an induction for you?
I was treated very much like a member of staff and the induction at the University was excellent. My new colleagues were very methodical, and explained the policies and procedures to me in detail. In the first week or two I attended meetings with all the managers I would be working with within the Otago School of Medical Sciences. I also attended a formal half day induction programme which included an introduction to Maori culture and an overview of key University staff and other functions.
What sort of work were you engaged in?
My post at the University of Otago involved working as an HR adviser, and included dealing with the full range of HR policies and procedures, eg disciplinary procedures, grievances, and advising managers on employment law, conflict at work, maternity rights, recruitment issues, and so on. As soon as I started the job I began advising managers immediately and I had to prove myself from the beginning to establish credibility and to gain other people’s confidence in my work. It is important to be independent and resourceful, although I had a boss I could refer to, as I do in the UK. Clearly in order to work at this level previous experience is very important.
I was delighted to receive excellent feedback about my work quite early on – managers liked and commented on my practical and sensible approach and were grateful for my input. This all helped me to feel extremely happy and settled in my new role.
Were there many differences in the HR departments between the two universities?
The similarities between the UK and the NZ universities were obvious from the outset. The principles and policies in place at the University of Otago, including equity, fairness and consultation, maternity and paternity leave were virtually a mirror image of those at the University of Bristol.
If anything, the policies are slightly more proscriptive in the UK, and we work within a tighter framework. In NZ the policies were slightly more open to interpretation. In addition internal problems can be referred to an external lawyer or tribunal more quickly than would happen in the UK. Back home we would always try to resolve the conflict internally in the first instance.
The University of Otago also has an excellent internal mediation service, where individuals are helped to resolve issues by encouraging them to see each other’s perspective. Whilst I was there, two members of staff who had been locked into a long-term breakdown in communication were enabled to reach a speedy resolution. Although a similar service is available at the University of Bristol, it is used rather less frequently in comparison to the University of Otago
I found the working culture in the HR department in NZ very similar to the UK. In HR the working hours were broadly the same as those I was used to at home: I tended to start at about 8.30 am or earlier if meetings were scheduled and I would usually finish at 6.00 pm. My new colleagues were supportive, helpful and responsive, just like those back in the UK! HR work can have its stresses and pressures, and it was no different in NZ.
Did you need a visa or work permit for your exchange?
A work permit and visa were both needed for my exchange. Each involved the completion of a quite a long form, which although lengthy and detailed were relatively straightforward. The recruitment manager at the University of Otago had herself emigrated to NZ, and she was able to help me with the forms. I actually took my completed forms along with all the necessary documentation into New Zealand House in London, rather than sending everything in the post. Expecting to queue for hours, I was actually handed my visa and work permit within fifteen minutes!
Has working overseas made a difference to you?
Undertaking an overseas exchange in NZ is a fantastic thing to do, and has certainly broadened my horizons and made me see things differently. The whole experience has also increased my self-confidence and given me an awareness of another world and how people in NZ view life. Some of my family members were nervous about me doing this especially with the distance involved, but I did not find it difficult in any way.
What was the social life like?
I made lots of new friends in NZ, many of whom I have kept in touch with since coming home. Having sung in choirs before, I knew this would be a good way to meet like-minded people and therefore joined the Dunedin Choral Society. Everyone in the choir was yet again very friendly and welcoming, and I enjoyed performing concerts in various venues including the Oumaru Opera House. New Zealanders are a very friendly nation, and although they can sometimes be quite reserved they are also usually keen to make new friends.
Dunedin is quite a small city, and for its size has a lively cultural scene including four cinemas, a film festival, opera and a cathedral. It is situated near the sea, and is hilly (which I love!) and also very beautiful.
Whilst in New Zealand I also travelled to various places in the South Island, including Milford Sound, the Catlin’s region and Stewart Island, as well as Wellington and Auckland in the North Island. I am a hill-walker, and loved exploring this beautiful country.
What was the best moment?
When I arrived in NZ for my exchange I just could not believe it had happened. The whole visit was fantastic from start to finish, and I had absolutely no worries about anything.
What was the worst moment?
The only thing that went wrong for me was when I tried to go to Australia for the weekend and did not realise I needed a visa. Luckily I still had a few hours before I was due to leave, and was able to get the visa in time on-line.
Have you got advice for other people considering an overseas exchange?
If you get the opportunity for an overseas exchange then do take it. You will have a fantastic experience, and I found it quite straightforward to organise. It can be quite cold in winter, particularly in the South Island, and bear in mind that many of the houses are wooden without traditional central heating!
NZ offers a very different environment, but in many ways the country is also similar to the UK. I had a wonderful time and would recommend this to anyone.
After leaving school with O levels Dorette Morgan trained firstly as a nurse and then as a midwife. She then worked in various nursing positions, including Staff Midwife and Ward Nurse at St Michael’s Hospital Bristol, and three years as Ward Manager in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Dorette then left nursing and went to the then Bristol Polytechnic to study for a BA Hons in Business Studies.
Dorette then embarked on a new career in personnel/human resources management, studying initially for the Diploma in Personnel Management at the University of the West of England on a part-time basis whilst working as Workforce Planning Officer at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol. She was then transferred to the role of Personnel Officer, again at Frenchay Hospital. Dorette gained varied experience in these roles for a total of five years before moving on to become Deputy Human Resources Manager, Community Directorate, United Bristol Healthcare NHS trust, a post she held for just over two years. Within the same organisation Dorette then became Human Resources Manager in the Directorate of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, a post she held for three further years. In 2001 Dorette took up her present position as Faculty Personnel Manager in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Bristol. In 2003 Dorette gained Chartered Membership of the Institute of Personnel and Development.