BBC's shamed HR department set to undergo extensive transformation

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez November 23, 2014
After facing a number of high profile failures in recent months, the BBC's HR department is set to face cuts and will transition to providing remote support.

The rattled and shamed HR department at media giant the BBC is set to undergo a massive transformation programme, which will see jobs cut and support moving to online tools and services in a bid to drive efficiency gains.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph last week, the broadcaster's managing director of finance and operations, Anne Bulford, said that she would seek to reduce the size of the organisation's HR department when it moved from London to Birmingham next year.

Her comments come just a short few months after the BBC's HR department has been heavily criticised for a number of shortcomings in the governance of its processes, a cavalier approach to the use of public funds and for a adopting a culture that undermines the fundamental principles of fair dismissal.

The attitudes of BBC staff towards their HR function were evident in September last year when reports emerged of cheers in the BBC newsroom when the organisation's previous HR director, Lucy Adams, was accused of being a liar when being questioned by the influential Public Accounts Committee over controversial payoffs to a number of executives.

The current cuts facing BBC HR are part of a wider cost-cutting programme to generate £1.5 billion in annual savings by the end of the current Charter in 2017, which has led to 1,000 redundancies in other BBC departments since 2011.

Bulford explained that BBC HR has some bloat when compared to HR functions in the private sector. She said:

HR is one of the areas where our number of people per number of staff is high relative to benchmarks.

We have a transformation programme looking at how we run HR over the next two to three years which is going to be quite tough.

At the same time we’re relocating a lot of the HR function to Birmingham so there’s a lot of change to run through there.

Not only this, but she pointed to London staff needing to get used to the fact that there may no longer be HR support on-site. She said:

That’s another one of the things that will start to feel different for people.

There will be much more use of online and telephone support rather than the HR guy round the corner sitting with you. That’s what you need to do to deliver these sorts of savings.

However, whilst Bulford's comments clearly address the ongoing efficiency agenda, which to be fair is pretty much her only remit, it will be interesting to see how the BBC manages this money saving agenda with a clear need to transform the culture at the heart of the HR organisation.

A number of high-profile incidents over the past year or so have pointed to what appears to be an unhealthy and a sometimes less-than-ethical approach within the BBC's human resources function. If not managed carefully, stripping out costs and moving to online support could potentially further damage the opinion of the department and increasingly alienate staff – something new HR director, Valerie Hughes D' Aeth will be all well aware of.

Former BBC CTO, John Linwood

Less than five months ago a damning report was released by an employment tribunal over the unfair dismissal of CTO John Linwood, which found that he was used as a “scapegoat” for the high profile failure of the BBC's Digital Media Initiative (DMI) and that the broadcasting giant ignored proper HR protocols.

We have written extensively about the failed DMI project that cost licence fee payers over £100 million and which left the organisation and the general public with nothing to show for it. However, apart from the failed technology, what was interesting about the outcome of the project was the way in which the Beeb launched an agenda against Linwood.

The employment tribunal slammed the BBC's HR processes, where it said, for example, that the BBC's disciplinary investigation was “wholly inadequate” and “not the actions of a reasonable employer”.

Not only this, but the tribunal found that instead of following protocol, the HR department was being swayed by communications and PR concerns. The report states that the main reason Linwood was treated in the way he was, was most likely due to:

...the HR department being so imbued with the general organisational culture regarding accountability for catastrophic events 'on your watch', together with 'comms' timing considerations regarding how such matters should be presented both internally and externally, as to eclipse entirely the requirements of reasonable compliance with the fundamental principles of a fair hearing.

The issues of 'comms' pressures was also highlighted by former HR director Lucy Adams, who oversaw many of the public HR debacles over the past year or so. Speaking at an employment conference in July, Adams said that senior managers “lawyered out” any personality in their communications and that they alienated staff as a result. She said:

My emails were usually written with several other people – people in HR, people in legal, people in the press team and people in internal communications.

As I re-read the most recent communications, I realised with dismay emails were crap.

They seemed pompous and sterile, lacking any humanity or humility. I had adopted the royal executive ‘we’.

Prior to her standing down from the BBC, Adams had also been accused of “dereliction of duty” for her role in authorising a number of controversial pay-offs to outgoing BBC executives, including the £1 million paid to former deputy director general Mark Byford. The BBC has made over £60 million worth of severance payments since 2005.

Conservative MP Stewart Jackson said the practice would be called “corporate fraud and cronyism” in any other organisation. MP Margaret Hodge, who leads the Public Accounts Committee, criticised the way in which HR dealt with people at the top of the chain in the BBC versus those lower down the

ranks. She said:

This attitude that the top cadre of people at the BBC faced greater difficulty when they faced redundancy rather than a receptionist or someone lower down is offensive, just offensive.

My take

Whilst there is nothing wrong with using technology to drive efficiencies within HR, the BBC needs to be careful in its approach so that staff still feel supported across the organisation. This is particularly true if jobs are going to be cut from the department, when the HR function has already had a difficult year and it is evident that there are cultural issues at play.

The BBC is still a desirable organisation to work for, but if employees feel that they are not being treated fairly, this could have an impact down the line. As Dennis points out in his latest piece – the ROI on happiness is now a factor in jobseekers' decision making.