Interviews – Telecoms – John Steele

John Steele, Human Resources director at British Telecommunications, talks about graduate entry at BT, and what it takes to be a successful HR professional

What is the BT Academy?
It’s a learning portal — launched in February 2000 — providing access for all employees to a wide range of learning opportunities, including a network of partnerships both inside and outside the company. The Internet College is an important part of the Academy dealing with internet education. It’s a new mechanism devised by BT to help people to understand and use the web in business, training, and internal processes.

What kind of courses does the Academy offer?
There’s a whole range from short online packages covering basic skills through to externally accredited degree level courses. Within our portfolio of management training, we cover everything from introductory skills for new managers to Business School development for senior managers. There’s also professional training in sales and marketing, IT, finance, customer service, technical and communications.

What kind of qualifications can employees gain?
We link up with a number of external colleges and universities to provide degree-level courses. For example we offer a first degree in computer science with Queen Mary College, London, or a masters degree in telecoms with University College, London. There are also a number of informal, non-accredited courses and an extensive range of NVQ supported programmes.

Working for BT

What are BT’s main graduate recruitment areas?
Over the last few years we’ve recruited between four to 800 graduates a year. About half go into Adastral Park, our development and technology centre, and the rest go into sales and marketing, IT, finance, personnel and the operational areas. Adastral park is great, full of high quality people doing very innovative things. The problem we have is because it’s in a very pleasant location in Suffolk, some of them like to stay there, and you’ve got to drag them out with some attractive opportunities elsewhere. It is particularly important to get more of them into frontline operational/customer roles to develop and broaden their talents.

What proportion of your graduate entrants will stay at BT?
Our retention rate is one of the best in the UK, because we actually give people jobs to do when they come in, rather than send them round the company. Some of them come in and end up managing 20 or so people almost straightaway.

What is the ratio of men to women at BT?
Overall about 27% of our workforce are women. We have aimed for a female graduate intake of about 35% of our total but given that women now make up half the workforce we are looking for a corresponding increase.

In some parts of the organisation the proportion of women is already rising, for instance in customer service centres. On the other hand we don’t yet have enough women going through the management ranks. There are no women on the executive committee and we need to try and break through this glass ceiling. We’re also looking at equal pay to make sure that we are closing any pay gap. In our pay programmes over the last couple of years we’ve put in extra money for gender balance, and are beginning to see the impact.

How well are ethnic minorities represented in your workforce?
In relation to figures from the last census, very well, but again as you go up in the organisation they’re less well represented. So we need to work on that. In a big company like BT you never solve all of the problems, but we are working hard on this aspect of our Diversity programme.

How do you see employment trends changing in the new millennium?
People are trying to balance their personal lives with what they do in the office or wherever they work. The need is to create an employment pool of ‘whole’ people. In other words they should have outside interests and be developing their other interests. Better overall balance in their lives will enhance their business contribution and performance.

Working in Human Resources

How did you get into Human Resources (HR)?
I started as a management trainee at Ford Motor Company. I had the benefit of going round the company for a couple of years experiencing all the departments. Then they said they had a job in personnel and did I want to do that? I did staff relations for a year and a half and then I went on to the employer relations side and dealt with the unions. From there I moved to IBM and then, 11 years ago, to BT.

What are BT’s strengths in HR?
We spend a lot on training and development because we believe it’s an investment rather than a cost. We also spend a lot of time focusing on developing our partnership with our trade unions, making sure we’ve got the right terms and conditions but also the right environment for people to be able to contribute effectively.

However, reputations are hard to earn but easy to lose. You’ve got to be aware that across the board the perception is in fact reality, so you always measure yourself against the best.

What does HR offer as a career?
HR work gives you an opportunity to be involved in decision-making within the business. To be effective you’ve really got to understand the business you’re in and feel you’re able to make a contribution. It’s an intensely rewarding arena, but also very challenging.

What’s the most important characteristic to have in HR?
Being professional, understanding your business and highlighting priority areas where you can make a contribution. You need to be positive not passive and you have to be able to respect confidences at all levels. Trust is a key ingredient. You also need to be able to say ‘no’ and stick to your guns!

What practical tips can you offer for people trying to get into HR?
Work hard, earn people’s trust, and have the ability to bounce back when the going gets tough. You also have to have the courage to say what you think.

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