Sticking to the fundamentals: Helen Giles, HR lead at homelessness charity St Mungo's
Helen Giles’ home in Leytonstone, East London is a treasure trove of collectors’ items. Via Zoom she shows a cabinet of vintage kitchenalia; Black Cat and Players cigarette machines on the wall; a spare room with floor to ceiling racks of records.
As a self-professed lover of the old days, the executive director of people and governance at homelessness charity St Mungo’s is the kind of leader that rejects HR fads.
“You soon learn what works. People say one size doesn’t fit all. But actually, in some cases, at least the principles do fit all,” she says.
Throughout her career, Giles has been a collector of what she deems the fundamental, universal, deal-breakers in life when it comes to people management – non-negotiables like a sound performance management system that gives people a clear picture of what to aim for, how their development is being supported; and clearly communicated values so people understand what is expected of them.
“It’s working out what the fundamentals in life are and not being afraid to maintain them when fashion dictates otherwise,” she says. “A lot of HR directors over time have been accused en masse of being very subject to ‘initiative-itis’, which is the opposite to really taking an evidence-based approach.”
By sticking to her core principles, one of the things Giles has managed to help achieve for St Mungo’s is a zero gender pay gap.
The charity announced that it had achieved this in 2019 for two years in a row. With the fundamentals in place, Giles explains it is relatively easy now for the organisation to keep this equilibrium.
“It’s not anything we’ve done with pay,” she says, but rather creating a culture and talent pipeline that has equality running through it.
“I start from making sure that in all of our assessment centres we’re not taking on people who are going to be inclined to be prejudiced in one way or another.”
As part of the induction process, the charity has mandatory inclusion training for all staff and managers, and it ensures that employees have full clarity about the organisation’s standards and expectations on inclusion. There are no automatic promotions either, so people progress on merit and merit alone.
Flexible working is offered as a benefit to employees, enabling them to juggle work alongside other responsibilities.
“In the early 1990s, there was a brief fashion for flexitime and then organisations phased it out. They said that it’s old fashioned. But I’ve always said no – because number one, it’s always been probably the most popular benefit that we’ve had,” says Giles.
In relation to pay parity, Giles says flexitime has helped to keep doors open for women returning from maternity leave. A senior female staff member, for example, who took leave to have two children, chose to come back full time each time she returned to work.
Giles adds: “She said if it hadn’t been for our flexitime arrangements, she simply wouldn’t have been able to do that. So those are some of the things that set the platform whereby women can fit into the workplace, juggle other arrangements, because women do still have to manage the bulk of care arrangements whether we like it or not, and progress on their merits.”
A track record for establishing a genuinely diverse and inclusive culture is one of the things Giles is most proud of at St Mungo’s. In the latest staff survey she says 91% of employees agreed that the charity is genuinely committed to D&I.
One area she sees potential for improvement though is in progression and recruitment of employees from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to the organisation’s more senior roles.
Giles and the people team at St Mungo’s have therefore put together a set of aspirational targets, including the aim that one in three appointments to head and director roles over the next five years taken in aggregate will be BAME.
“We’re looking at setting up specific programmes to support that and looking at changing how we recruit, and hold managers to that,” she says.
“It’s not an aspirational target for HR, or for the board or for the chief executive, it’s an aspirational target that we’re holding all the managers of those posts accountable for.
So, it becomes a personal responsibility for senior managers to think about how they’re recruiting and think about how much time they put into supporting the progression of talented BAME staff within their department.”
Speaking generally about this challenge for businesses, one of the common mistakes HR makes, says Giles, is writing person specifications that are too exclusive. This is partly why she is a strong advocate for competency-based recruitment.
“I swear by it simply because I’ve seen the difference between using that and the different approaches to recruitment in organisations I’ve worked for […] The results are visible and measurable,” she says.
Reverse person specification
A competency-based approach is also key to helping Giles tackle her personal aim of eradicating workplace bullying.
When running recruitment workshops, Giles describes an exercise that she calls the reverse person specification – getting leaders to write down all the things they think make a bad colleague.
Nine times out of ten, the items people wrote down were not skills, they were competencies relating to the interpersonal space. As competencies overlap with aspects that make a bully, e.g. rudeness, taking a competency-based approach from the start can make sure bullies are not making it into a workplace in the first place.
“There is a 360 degree of bullying that organisations don’t necessarily always appreciate,” says Giles. “People always assume it’s managers bullying staff, which does of course happen, but it can also be clients bullying or harassing staff, and there can be peer-on-peer bullying and harassment, and then of course, there can be upwards bullying and harassment.
“I take a zero-tolerance approach because in my experience, unfortunately, people who bully and harass don’t change their behaviour very easily.”
Though much of the work to eradicate workplace bullying can be taken care of in the talent pipeline and culture creation described by Giles, it is an ongoing process.
In 2019, St Mungo’s was taken to a tribunal over an allegation of victimisation of a former employee. Initially it ruled in favour of the complainant.
There had been unresolved allegations of bullying against this employee at the time of her employment, but St Mungo’s has since successfully appealed the ruling. An oral judgement this year found in favour of the charity on both grounds of appeal and the case had been remitted to be considered by a new tribunal.
The attention given to this case also brought to the fore a piece Giles wrote for The Times in 2011 describing employment tribunals as “clogged up with claims of no merit encouraged by opportunists”.
Since then, her opinion has changed.
“At that time, I had a view of it because I was working with a lot of very small businesses and charities,” Giles explains.
“That was a time when there were strong views about [the tribunal system] and HR magazine had a sort of a line on it. But, no, it’s not something that I would necessarily put my name to now.
“It’s right that people have access to tribunals if they feel they’ve been unfairly treated, and it’s right that there’s an appeal process if either party feels that the decision was wrong,” she adds.
Giles has spent almost all of her career in people management for the homelessness sector. For 12 years she was HRD of Broadway Homelessness and Support having worked her way up through the ranks of the Housing Services Agency.
Though she has considered switching to other sectors in the past, she says that nothing else has every really appealed to her as much
Other profiles from HR magazine:
“I made a very brief foray into the private sector when I was in my early 20s in secretarial roles. In those days it was a very different world. Sexism was very marked, for example, and there were all kinds of inequities and unfairness. But I knew from school days that I always wanted to work for organisations that made a difference.”
Giles’ desire to make a difference initially led her, mistakenly she says, into teaching, and then education welfare. But rather than working on the front line, she wanted to be on the business side of things, supporting people to make that difference.
This desire to support people earned her the opportunity to help others outside of the homelessness sector and learn more about other organisations. Prompted by a colleague in the non-profit sector, Giles helped set up social enterprise consultancy Real People HR Consultancy in 2005, giving people management advice to other charities and SMEs.
Though she has faced many challenges in her career Giles says that setting up and running this business remains one of the biggest: “I’ve had lots of big challenges in terms of changing the cultural direction of an organisation […] but they’re not really huge challenges in the way it was setting up a social enterprise consultancy from scratch.”
“To set up a business without formal business skills; build up a customer base from scratch then all the marketing. Drawing people in on a business footing was probably the biggest challenge.”
Though challenging, Giles managed to make a success of the business for 14 years, only making the decision to wind it down in 2019 due in part to continually managing talent succession, and the complexity of her role at St Mungo’s.
“I regrettably had to wind it down. I know that it made a huge difference to so many organisations that couldn’t afford their own internal resource.”
Long-term impact of COVID-19 still yet to be seen
The challenges of 2020 by comparison appear to be something Giles has taken in her stride. However, St Mungo’s and the homelessness sector are still facing a significant upheaval that will require people teams to dig deep.
Overnight when the pandemic broke out the charity was faced with the challenge of getting 3,000 people off the streets and into safety in hotels. In partnership with central and local governments it rose to the challenge, and Giles says she is incredibly proud of the effort all staff put in.
“Our staff rose amazingly to the challenge,” she says. “Like a lot of other organisations, there has been a big learning there of things that you can do [in a difficult situation].”
From an organisational point of view, the charity was able to adapt by leaning on the values and common purpose that run throughout its culture, and by doubling down its wellbeing efforts.
“Our front-line staff – we’ve supported and done loads of wellbeing stuff, but it’s been really hard work, working with people, taking them in. And it goes on.
"The pandemic hasn’t gone away. The threats are still there. And our staff have done a fantastic job, and probably quite a lot of them will say they’re quite exhausted with it. Like everybody else, we’re waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The effort now for Giles is to support employees to uphold the things they managed to achieve throughout the pandemic and continue working with government to make ensure homeless people are supported beyond COVID-19.
“We’ve just reset our strategy for the next five years and we’re determined to – in partnerships with government, local and central – to really try and support the government to meet its own espoused target of ending street homelessness.”
This challenge, like others before it, will be tackled with the same fastidious commitment to the fundamentals that have driven her successes to date.
As Giles says: “If you find something that really works for people, why change it?”
This piece first appeared in the January/February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.