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The design industry needs an HR health check...

It was no surprise to me that not one creative business was listed in the 2004 list of Top 50 Employers, writes Jon Alport, chairman of Alport Careers.

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The majority of creative businesses are still applying only the basic HR practices in the selection of candidates and the industry continually fails to correctly assess candidates' suitability for roles, relying on technical competence and interview only. What kind of message does this give to potential new recruits? Will people from outside the design industry, where employment and career development standards are uniformly higher, actually want to work in businesses that have such low management standards? A management step change is needed for the UK's design businesses, it's literally a case of evolve or die.

The design industry's greatest resource -- its talent -- is being neglected. This neglect will have a long term deleterious effect on the industry as a whole causing the talent pool to shrink and leading it to be less able to service its clients efficiently and profitably.

Any manager in the design business would acknowledge that they work in a "people industry". But that lucid insight doesn't seem to extend to an acknowledgement that people are therefore both an essential and elemental resource. Perhaps it's because we all work in an industry where many of the companies are run by self-taught managers, and where overall management standards are low, that people come very far down on the agenda? For example, how many agencies do you know that actually have a qualified HR manager rather than someone chosen internally to cover off "on people"?

Traditionally, agency owners or finance directors have managed the procurement of people -- that's how scientific the HR process gets. Most companies rely entirely on recruitment consultants who in their basic form are enormously unscientific, massively expensive, and on their own do nothing for the continuing development of people in our industry. Recruitment agencies, who have (and deserve to have) a reputation just a notch or two above estate agents, don't want to slow down the placement process by encouraging their clients to put in place checks and balances to ensure that the people introduced to them actually fit the bill. Design agencies seem on the one hand to accept the high fees charged for a CV "shuffling" service but on the other to decry the motivation of recruiters.

Fifteen years ago design agency owners were looking to employ primarily creative people that could be assessed by their "books". Today our industry is attempting to lure people from outside of the creative business -- management consultants, IT specialists and clients. It is an enormous task for untrained individuals to attract and retain people from different working cultures, used to high standards of "people care".

Candidates who apply for positions from inside and outside of the industry are becoming very aware of their rights and the HR practices applied by the Top 100 companies. Therefore, to appear grown up and professional agencies need to tackle some major issues. Management of design companies should be asking themselves these fundamental questions about HR policies and procedures:
- Are they abreast of recent legislation?
- Have they prepared a growth plan for the year?
- Has a budget been put aside for this?
- Have they prepared a thorough brief for roles with a commitment to personal development through training?
- Has a watertight contract of employment been presented and agreed with candidate?
- How are they to judge candidates capabilities both technically and culturally?
- How will candidates be appraised? How do they deal with out-placement of employees?

What is required is an holistic approach to HR. One that fosters open minds in creative businesses and promotes the idea that retention, recruitment and employee development are inextricably linked. As most agencies can't afford full time qualified human resource staff they need to undertake an "HR Health Check" as an essential first stage in the HR process. You need to know what makes your business tick, what makes it different to other creative organisations. What are the most dominant cultural features in your company? How do the key individuals work together? In addition, you need to get to grips with any strategic/personal differences that could be preventing the business from growing in the way it should.

The Health Check should include: a legal audit including contracts, policies, terms and conditions; job descriptions/roles; appraisal system; employee satisfaction surveys; self-perception and observer assessments of partners; culture survey and training analysis. On completion of this exercise all future candidates can be assessed against an established set of bespoke criteria thereby helping to eliminate the risk and expense of employing the wrong people.

The conservative nature of the design industry makes incidents of companies undertaking health checks a rarity rather than the norm. From our experience the industry definitely lags behind other professional organisations in their approach to HR to a point where it could affect the industry's long-term professional integrity. The majority of agencies, even some of the quite big ones, still adopt the "boutique" attitude to working practices.

I think it is now time for agency owners to realise that dynamic recruitment practices will be as essential to their success as creativity itself. Getting the right people and treating them properly can be started today. Elect a member of your team who will become the main point of contact for outside consultants -- make a call to one or two people who can help and invite them in for a chat. Good recruitment consultants worth their salt will offer a telephone helpline service, consultancy advice, training and support. Once you've made the investment you will see it pay dividends in a relatively short period of time. The people you employ will develop, flourish and turn in their best work, more importantly they will want to stay with your company and not rush off somewhere else after just six months. Once word gets around that this agency or that puts "people first", recruiting quality talent will become so much easier.

After all, job satisfaction doesn't hinge on whether you have a snooker table in the basement or all get pissed together at Christmas, it all hinges on whether you can offer what candidates want -- security, support, mentoring, development. It's time for a step change of standards in the industry and at Alport Careers we are creating an "operating culture" that we hope can make a difference.

Jon Alport, founder and chairman of Alport Careers, trained as a product designer and has worked with Conran Associates, Conran Design Group and the Jenkins Group before founding Fahrenheit Design Partnership and the Pocknell Studio where he worked on premium clients that included Corporation of London, Phaidon Press and Aston Martin. Recognising the shortfall of access to quality people and the commodity-based approach adopted by recruiters, Alport filled a niche to represent top talent within the creative industry, forming Alport Careers in January 2000. Later this month, he will launches The Alport Portal, which he intends to become a "centre of excellence" for the design and creative industry operating on a global basis as appropriate partners are identified.

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