· Features

Interview with Clive Bunyan, HR vice president at Symantec

Just as Symantec's products destroy malevolent PC viruses, its HR vice president, Clive Bunyan, does much the same with HR policies that the company has inherited from its acquisitions - but only the ones he feels could stifle the business culture.

It's like being at a party, with loads of girls. They might all look equally great, but knowing which would be girlfriend material is completely different. It's rather how I see recruitment. We need to find the best, for who they really are, not just the pretty ones with the cute outer shells." As metaphors go, Symantec HR VP Clive Bunyan's is what you might call eccentric, but there is a science to its simplicity. "Sometimes I've been shocked at the complacency Symantec managers have demonstrated in hiring staff," he says. "Managers used to target companies - typically rivals - and poach people because it was the easy option. But they weren't targeting people, or competencies. This must change. The best feedback is when new recruits say joining Symantec is tough. Great. It's needs to be more of a badge to get in here. I've told managers they must be more fussy."

Tough talk, delivered with a lightness of touch, is about the measure of Bunyan. The 18,000-strong Symantec may not exactly be well-known, but turn on virtually any computer and the anti-virus software that kicks in while booting up is likely to be Symantec's. And just as Symantec's Norton or McAfee products hunt down and destroy rogue, malevolent PC viruses, Bunyan does much the same. But while he hones in on the corporate bacteria (policies) that do most harm, and need swift elimination, he is flexible enough to know which bacteria, while slightly irritating, won't exactly kill, and are not worth getting too het up about. "I want to create business success," he says. "If I look at, say, holiday entitlement and find differences, I align things as quickly as I can if they have a business-threatening impact. But if they don't, I leave them. You have to be flexible to allow for differences between businesses that have joined us at different times, and have different systems (such as Message Labs purchased a year ago), even if it adds extra admin because to try to resolve them would stifle the business."

This thinking means that unlike other companies that grow through acquisition and attempt to merge businesses together and create a common culture, at Symantec Bunyan believes the different businesses should largely remain apart. "It would stifle our culture," he repeats, "if we brought Message Labs into Symantec. They're growing at 30%; we're growing at 9%. It's a different company; you couldn't put people on the same bonus plans, because one is rewarding growth, the other cost savings; so let's not let it get drowned by the rest of the business."

All of which explains why Bunyan so passionately endorses killing the one deadliest bug in the system - recruitment apathy. He sums it up with a quote most HRDs would balk at saying: "30% of our staff did not chose to work for us," he says. "They worked for companies we have acquired," he clarifies. "It means every future employee really must want to work for us, and who we are now. By making it tough to join, I believe we strengthen the brand. We're upfront, saying we're growing and we're dynamic, and you should want to see your role grow too. Come along, but remember, we're not old-school."

The move to being more selective started a year ago, and has been supported by potential/performance matrix meetings with managers every six months. "It's not a science, but it's a structure and a health check of how people sit within the business," he says. "Attrition from acquired companies was already low - for Message Labs it was 4% - but since the focus on people and competencies has been introduced, attrition of top talent has reduced by a half."

Where possible, Bunyan says he prefers Symantec to recruit at the lower end of the scale, and move people up through the company - the broad aim is for 25% internal movement each year. It means the IT firm will hire someone who does not meet all its required competencies if it thinks there is potential to grow, but he will still not go much below 75%-80% of competency matching. "We're trying to switch away from typical profiles of people and want to attract more women into Symantec too," he says. "There are too many men in IT; having more women is a chance to alter our dynamics. We don't have targets, but our new mantra is for us not to miss an opportunity."

A plus-point of Symantec's acquisition-based growth model is that it has given it the scale Bunyan says he needed to re-evaluate the way HR is done. "We've doubled in size; I felt this finally gave us the opportunity to take a different approach to HR, so we've launched an HR partnership group that links up with the top executives." It may sound like business partnering, but Bunyan is adamant it is not. "We don't call them business partners. They take back what HR needs to do to the rest of the HR department," Bunyan says. So far, there are 12 for 4,500 staff, and none of them do any transactional work. "What they've done is to get people issues discussed much earlier in the decision-making process. The quality of decision-making has become a lot better."

The quality of service HR gives to the business is evidently a matter of personal pride. "HR headcount has not grown by the same amount as our employee base growth," he says of his department, which has a ratio of about one HR professional for every 65-70 staff: "95% of people who contact HR are satisfied with the experience they receive; 91% of queries are dealt within 24 hours and 80% are done within the same working day," he rattles off. When a large number of calls started coming through about changes to taxation, the spike was enough to cause HR to run a bespoke webinar about it. "My message to my team is quite simple," says Bunyan. "Remember your job title; don't talk like HR bureaucrats. It's worked - we're a small cost base, but one that I feel has great impact."

Like any company coping with the recession, one of the greatest challenges for the HR team has been motivating staff at a time when merit pay has been frozen and rises are a modest 3%. According to Claudia Terry, senior manager, compensation and benefits, EMEA, Symantec is "above average in pay", but concedes it is "probably average in benefits. It's been our view that in IT you need to pay more to get the top talent," she says. Partly in response to this, 2009 saw the launch of an imaginative recognition scheme, which judges at last week's HR Excellence Awards praised highly. Called 'Applause', it fuses recognition for great work with the chance to earn some extra cash. "Pay is important, but you can't pay your way out of things. This is much broader; it rewards people values in the company and the contribution of their success," says Bunyan.

He adds: "It partly solves some of the randomness of the reward and recognition schemes in our different companies, and comprises various levels. Applause level 1 is a simple employee-originated note of thanks to someone that gets copied to their manager; level 2 is an award of $25 that needs no approval process and can be awarded by anyone, to anyone; the highest level, 4, goes up to $500, while there is also a $1,000 'standing ovation' award that can be made for exceptional work/results."

The way it is managed means employees can pick, from a list of options, what they want to reward colleagues for, all of which HR can record so that, as Bunyan says, "we can see what people value in other people". There's no limit on the number of times staff can give or receive awards and in its first year 55% of the Symantec population received an award while so far this year it is 80%. The most popular award is for 'actioning things' (58%) and being customer-driven (30%). To make sure staff don't miss it, the money is not added to their salary, but put into a special individual 'account' they can see build up.

Bunyan concedes the financial director had concerns about creating what could have been a runaway system for employees awarding each other cash. But he says the process has been well-respected. In the UK about 20% of the population has 'given' an award to someone else. While it is difficult to link this to increases in performance and satisfaction alone, Bunyan says he has seen a transformation in employee engagement. "Our Net Promoter score is the most important figure for us - it tells us who would recommend us as a place to work - and last year 36.1% gave us nine out of 10. Our average score is 7.8."

With a new graduate scheme being introduced, more hiring in the pipeline and a new operation in China, Symantec is upbeat about its continued growth. Since the interview, it is believed it has also acquired VeriSign's internet security business (although this has not yet been finalised). It will no doubt present Bunyan with a new set of HR policies and procedures he will have to decide whether to keep, ditch or allow to run in the background because they don't really do any harm. He must be doing something right, though - someone in the company recently awarded him. Praise indeed.

2007: Vice-president international HR, Symantec Software
2006 - 2007: Vice-president HR EMEA and APJ, BP
2002 - 2006: Senior director, HR EMEA, BP
1999 - 2002: Senior director, HR EMEA, Symbol Technologies
1989 - 1999: Various roles at EMC/Data General, culminating in HR
director, international operations
1986 - 1987: Personnel officer, services group, International Aeradio