I am the Assistant HR Director for Operations, which means that I look after the HR Operations team for the whole university, including our HR officers, advisers and partners. I also look after our HR Services team and Compliance team. I am relatively new to the role, having started in October 2019, but I actually started at the University ten years ago as an HR Adviser.
I have grown and developed here at the university, having previously worked as an HR Partner, and then Head of HR Operations before I came into this role. From my initial role as HR Adviser, I accepted a secondment (an opportunity to explore different career possibilities by temporarily changing roles within the same organisation) as an HR Partner, covering the HR Partner who themselves was seconded to an Operations Manager role. Eventually, both those moves became permanent. Later on, another secondment opportunity came up to act as an interim Head of HR Operations. Taking that opportunity really helped me secure my current job when it was advertised. I’m a big fan of secondments – it’s kind of a try before you buy!
Visit the jobs.ac.uk career advice section for more information about going on secondment.
Choosing a career in higher education
I started my HR career in the private sector, working for a company that operated in a number of areas: predominantly rail and road industry, but they also had one division that built and maintained accommodation, including halls of residence. So even at that point I would be attending university sites and working alongside University employees.
When I made the decision to enter the HE sector, I’d had my first baby. My previous job was a regional role which involved an awful lot of travel. You were expected to be on-site at 8 am, regardless of wherever it may be, and it was hard to think about how you could do that with a baby, particularly your first child. I’d already had that interest in the University for a long time and I knew how well universities looked after their employees. I decided that I really wanted to work at the University, even though I knew that I would probably be taking a lower-paid, more junior role initially. I felt that they would look after you, they’d offer the flexibility that you often need as a new parent, and there wasn’t the pressure of travel that I used to have. In most other HR roles, you tend to get to a certain level and know that you’re going to have to travel frequently.
Career development in higher education
I don’t know if I’d appreciated this before working for at York, but my experience is that universities genuinely want to get the best out of and develop their employees. They give you opportunities, even if it means losing somebody good to another department. If someone wants to get some experience working in an academic department, wherever possible we support this because it’s for the greater good of the University. At the moment I’ve got an HR Adviser seconded to our Student Life and Wellbeing section, and our previous Deputy HR Director is now the Director of Student Life and Wellbeing. If I look at my team, there are a number of them that have come into one role and have then progressed internally within HR or externally within other University departments. We don’t just look at ways that you can work within HR, but also ways in which you can work across the University, considering transferable skills, and how you can use those in other departments as well. We consist of a team of specialist and generalists, so even within the HR department, there is the opportunity to work closely with colleagues in L&D, Pensions, Reward and Occupational Health.
A supportive employer
In 2018, I was off work because I had treatment for cancer. During the entire period of diagnosis, treatment and my return to work I felt incredibly supported. My manager would give me details of upcoming meetings, training events etc. and I had the choice as to whether I wanted to attend. I had regular contact with colleagues and never felt disconnected at all from the University. In coming back to work, I was very much in control of the phased return, and they continue to support me with any ongoing appointments or treatment.
I often found in a commercial environment that the priority was the business and staff absence was just viewed in terms of how it might impact the business. I feel that at the University, the people are the priority. We support the individual and it is really about what we can do to help because we want everybody that works here to be the best they can possibly be.
Tackling the misconceptions about working in HE
I remember saying to my boss when I worked in the private sector that I’d really like to work for a university, and their first response was to put forward a number of reasons why I shouldn’t. I think sometimes there is a perception that universities are too bureaucratic, too slow, behind the times. I would like to encourage people to reconsider that perception. There’s a world of people out there who are really ambitious, who want to move forward in their careers and they might think that they can’t do that in a university – that’s the stigma I would like to break more than anything because it is simply not the case. I am living proof of that. We get to work with people at this University who are creating cutting edge technology. You learn so much by sheer exposure. The knowledge that you gain isn’t just about your sector, it’s exciting and it’s all there for you to have if you want it.
On top of that, you realise that these kinds of institutions are where we’re going to get our world leaders, the people who are going to join the battle against cancer, who are going to be moving the world forward. I think that’s when you are able to say to yourself, “I might not be the one that’s doing that, but I am helping individuals grow and develop into those people. I’m helping departments so that they can do that teaching, so that they can do the research in those important areas”.
If I think about some of my career highlights, there’s definitely something about working in partnership with our trade unions. One of my personal career highlights is being nominated for a ‘Making the Difference’ award by one of our Trade Unions after working with them on a number of restructures. If you’re in HR, you can sometimes be seen as sitting on the opposite side of the table. We have spent so long working on those relationships, so it makes you feel valued.
Working on campus
In terms of facilities, we have a swimming pool, two full gyms, a velodrome, all of which we have access to and can use at a discounted rate. I was a member of the York triathlon club, so I used to train at the swimming pool and had lessons through the triathlon club. I used the cycling track for training as well. We have people who are trained yoga teachers and run lunchtime sessions. It means that during your lunch hour, you’ve got that opportunity to be able to just go and do something like that, should you wish to do so. For mental health awareness month or at certain times of the year, there is a focus on promoting these activities and facilities.
We also have access to so many cafés, restaurants and bars on campus, which might not be the case if you work on an industrial estate or in a business park. If we’ve got a one-to-one meeting, we can sit in Costa to have that meeting, and those opportunities aren’t always there for everyone. There’s often the perception that if you’re in an office building, you’re expected to remain in that office building, but we do off-site meetings and even walking meetings where we walk around campus, particularly during summer.
From a very personal point of view, as an individual that’s actually working for the University, it really is an opportunity for development. I believe it is the way that you are looked after and encouraged to develop, to grow, to live. We are genuinely about flexible working and achieving that work-life balance.
This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Working arrangements on university campuses may have changed due to social distancing measures.