by Sarah Marten
Rachel Wall developed her career in personnel work after completing a degree in International Transport Management at Cardiff University. She obtained A levels in Maths, Economics and Geography. Once Rachel had gained varied experience in human resources departments within two large companies she moved to her present role at the University of Exeter. She is currently studying for a CIPD Master’s qualification in Personnel and Development.
What does your job involve?
My role as a Personnel Officer at the University of Exeter involves providing a range of services to academic and support staff within the Business School, The School of Arts, Languages and Literature and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. This involves advising line managers and employees on employment law and the University’s own employment policies and procedures.
Personnel Officers are involved in providing support and advice to employees and line managers on all aspects of the employment life cycle, from the time they are recruited until they leave.
The first stage is the recruitment of new staff, when I receive a draft advertisement, job description and person specification from a line manager in one of the academic schools. I make suggestions for changes where necessary and then approve the final version before the advertisement is placed.
The recruitment team deal with all the arrangements for interviews. I do not sit on the interview panel; my work continues at the offer stage, where I ensure that the successful candidate has the right to work in the UK. I might need to apply for a certificate of sponsorship for a non European Economic Area applicant. Some roles require me to arrange a CRB check. Approving contracts before they are sent out is also my job.
What else do you do?
When one of the academic staff members has sufficient funds to recruit new staff (perhaps after a successful grant application) I advise on the recruitment and selection process and may undertake a job evaluation. This involves checking the job has been graded at the right level in comparison with other jobs in the University.
Staff recruited from overseas may need extra support, perhaps with applying for a National Insurance number, or help completing tax forms. We also provide a letter of introduction to enable our international staff to open a UK bank account.
I receive between 30 and 40 emails every day, some of which can be answered quickly, and others may need research. Answering questions by phone and in person also takes up much of my time.
Another aspect of my work is the monthly personnel surgeries I hold within each academic school to provide drop-in advice to staff members on personnel matters. Whilst I am always available on the phone, many people appreciate face-to-face guidance on any personnel issue including promotion, maternity and paternity, or flexible working for parents and carers. Line managers sometimes approach me for guidance, for example, on how best to help a member of staff who has been underperforming.
If someone is underperforming at work, how can you help?
Together with the line managers I look at the reasons for this. There might be a personality clash, or a misunderstanding regarding expectations about the job. Sometimes the employee might not have had the necessary induction and training, or the job may simply not be right for them. I try to identify and support the line manager to rectify the problems and then possibly take further guidance, perhaps from our occupational health department if necessary.
Who do you work with?
I work within a team of four personnel officers and we each report to a separate personnel manager. The personnel officers work together in one office, where we can share ideas and support one another.
Why did you choose this type of work?
I really stumbled on this career by accident rather than design! After graduating I worked as a temp for Parker Pens in their personnel department. My first degree was in transport management, although during my second year I decided not to pursue a career in this field. However, the course was very business-focussed, which has proved to be an excellent background for a career in personnel. After gaining three years’ experience in Human Resources at Marks and Spencer I moved to this job.
What are your working hours and how does this affect your work-life balance?
I am contracted to work 36 ½ hours a week, although this department is very busy and I occasionally work extra hours. I usually work from 8.30 am to 5 pm with an hour for lunch, although we also have the benefit of flexitime with core hours between 10 am and 12 noon and 2 pm and 4 pm. This flexible pattern enables me to fit my part-time study around my work whilst leaving most weekends free for relaxation.
What are the facilities like?
The University of Exeter is set within a beautiful campus, and the facilities are excellent. There is a heavily subsidised staff gym with exercise classes, and I also make use of the lunchtimes to walk around the campus or the surrounding area, which is nearby some lovely countryside.
What training have you had?
Before joining Exeter University I completed various HR training courses whilst working for other companies. Exeter has a superb learning and development department, and I have been on several excellent courses including ‘How to Handle Difficult Conversations’, ‘Recruitment and Selection’ and ‘Personnel IT Systems Training’. I am now in the second year of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development MA course in Personnel and Development, and the syllabus relates really well to my job. The University is supporting me financially through this course, which takes place at the University of Plymouth one afternoon and evening each week. On average I spend about ten hours a week on study related to the course in addition to the lectures.
What skills and personal qualities are important?
You need to be very well-organised in order to manage your time well and therefore cope with the many demands of this job. Good listening skills are also vital, with the ability to guide people within a balanced perspective. There are always two sides to a story! Excellent verbal and written communication skills are essential. It is also important to work accurately to tight deadlines.
What do you enjoy about your job?
I really enjoy the varied workload and the fact that no two days are the same. The opportunity to meet interesting people, including those from different cultures is great. Listening to people’s problems and helping to find solutions is very rewarding. I also love the fantastic team of people I work with. The only downside is the administration, which, although necessary, is not as rewarding as other parts of my job.
What ambitions do you have?
There is still a lot for me to learn in this job, but eventually I would like to become a personnel manager within the University of Exeter.
What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
I wish I had studied for my CIPD qualification sooner. My MA course provides a depth of understanding which makes the job more straightforward. Once you have a CIPD qualification your prospects are also much better.
What other advice have you got for people interested in this career?
General personnel experience is invaluable; start as an administrator if necessary and then you can work your way up. A work placement in personnel or HR would also be very beneficial. You can do the various CIPD courses part-time or full-time, so research the options.
If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?
I would probably be a primary school teacher, as this is something I had always thought I might enjoy when I was younger.
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