Insight Series: Elizabeth Divver – HR & Group Services Director at the Big Issue
In our new series of interviews and profiles, we caught up with Elizabeth Divver – HR & Group Services Director at The Big Issue to ask her a few questions on The Big Issue, her career and everything in between…
1. How long have you worked at the Big Issue and what is your background?
I joined The Big Issue in 1999 on a 6-month fixed term contract and have been here ever since – the longest I’ve stayed with any employer. Immediately before I joined The Big Issue I had taken a break to do an MBA. Before that, my career had been in FTSE100 companies across a range of sectors including oil and FMCG, mainly in HR management but also in sales and sales management. I’ve learned and grown in every job but at The Big Issue I have the huge added satisfaction of contributing to our mission.
2. What do you enjoy the most about working in HR?
Making a difference. Knowing that the work of my team makes a positive difference to the running of a business and to the experience of the staff working for the organisation. Because of what we do, the business runs better and that is satisfying in any organisation. At The Big Issue, the HR team is supporting staff who work with people in council bed & breakfasts, in squats and in hostels as well as rough sleepers. The average age of death of a homeless person in the UK is 43-47, which is a deeply shocking statistic to discover, but as long as The Big Issue exists the most vulnerable people in our society will have a legal alternative to begging as well as our support staff to help them get back control of their lives.
3. Describe the major challenges of working in HR?
HR people need to be interpreters and translators. We take what can be abstruse academic information and translate it into practical approaches to getting results through people in a way that makes sense to line managers. We have to work within a complex legal framework confidently and correctly. And in any job where you’re dealing with people, whether it’s HR or sales, someone somewhere will do something completely unpredicted and we have to be able to deal with it. The other perennial challenge in HR is that we can’t achieve much until we’ve established ourselves as experts – once the business finds out you are a useful person to have on a team, barriers melt away and your input will be sought. But all support functions have to gain credibility in exactly the same way.
It has taken the drudgery out of handling applications and has streamlined the whole process, so my team are using their time much more effectively. I was blown away when I found out what MyPeopleBiz could do to lighten our load.
5. Given that you now have applicant tracking, analytics, interview and agency management, as well as social networking, which single feature of the portal do you feel has been the most beneficial both in terms of time and money and how ?
The analytics are great for targeting our efforts and refining our processes. We can see cost-effectiveness at a glance and benchmark ourselves against our own measures such as time to recruit.
6. Summarise if you can, the biggest challenges facing HR and recruitment in 2012?
Technology changes and we get better tools to work with but the underlying challenge remains the same: finding the best people to take the organisation forward and creating the conditions for them to do their best work.
7. If you weren’t in HR, what would you be and why?
In fact, when I graduated from my MBA course, I could have used my sales background and general management qualification to move into a different discipline and I have line management experience outside HR. I came back to HR because I really enjoy it. To be any good in an HR role you need to get under the skin of the business. You need an overview as well as an appreciation of the priorities of the individual departments and specialisations that make up the organisation. My role can be very strategic, but also hands on and practical. In HR you have an entrée into every part of the organisation and I know from experience that anything else would be second best.
8. Name two famous people you would invite to a dinner party, and why?
As this is a fantasy dinner party, I’m going to raise Barbara Castle from the dead. As Minister for Transport she saved untold lives by introducing seatbelts and the breathalyser. At the Dept of Health & Social Security she had child benefit paid direct to mothers and as Secretary of State for Employment she was responsible for the Equal Pay Act 1970. Gordon Brown referred to her as ‘my mentor and my tormentor’ and she seems to have been someone who was loved or hated and never backed off from a fight. Still in fantasy land, I’d send my private jet to collect Gore Vidal. I’d suggest that or anyone not familiar with his written work follows these links to a couple of his essays as an
introduction: http://www.gorevidalpages.com/2001/09/gore-vidal-september-11-end-of-liberty.html and http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/01/home/vidal-drugs.html as I think he’s perhaps better known for his social commentary than his novels. His family background means he comments on American culture and society from a position very close to the seat of power and his style demolishes the argument that Americans can’t do irony.
9. We recently wrote a blog piece about strange interview questions, so we couldn’t resist, which car best represents you and why?
I’d choose a Landrover Defender with a winch and a snorkel, ready to find a path across any terrain and pull other vehicles out of the mire.
10. Finally share with us the most unusual interview question that either you have been asked or that you have come across?
I knew a manager who liked to ask interviewees how they would transport a giraffe from London to Glasgow. He was most impressed by the interviewee who asked him whether the giraffe was dead or alive. However, I’m not convinced that any of the answers he got were enormously helpful to recruitment decisions.