The value of secondments. By Dan Martin
Adopting a secondments programme can help employees gain new skills and opportunities, while it can also improve a firms' reputation for supporting the local community. HR Zone business editor Dan Martin investigates the benefits of secondments for businesses and what pitfalls HR should bear in mind when setting up a programme.
What are secondments?
Secondments come in various guises. They can be the temporary transfer of an employee to another department within the same organisation or to a completely different organisation. Secondments can be within public sector organisations, private sector firms or even charities.
Employees who have taken in secondments report several benefits. "Secondments are about giving people access to experiences and opportunities that they wouldn't get in their current role," says Angela Baron, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
The process gives secondee employees to expand their career development. As most secondment are organised for particular projects, they can also gain experience in project management. Employers meanwhile are likely to benefit from enhanced employee skills and improved teamworking which in turn boosts the morale and motivation of the wider workforce. Firms encouraging secondments can also build a reputation as a good employer and positive contributor to their local community.
Firms involved in charity secondments receive particular benefits. "Modern businesses have developed greater understanding that they don't operate in isolation but as part of a community and social infrastructure," Baron says. "They think about making their impact on the community more positive."
Experts claim that those businesses which develop a corporate social responsibility strategy – part of which can be employee volunteering or charity secondments - reap significant rewards. According to the Business for Social Responsibility, companies noted for their corporate citizenship may experience a three-to-one advantage in attracting investors, business partners, new employees and establishing customer preference.
The process of running secondments have traditionally been more formal in the public compared to the private sector where civil servants regularly moving between government departments compared to the private sector. Baron admits that often within private firms "secondments tend to happen just because someone asks for one". "A case is made, it's decided it's a good idea and then it goes ahead."
However, while such ad-hoc arrangements may be common, it is important for firms to ensure key questions are asked when secondments are established, whether employees are being moved around internally or sent out to a different organisation, HR has a key role to play in this process.
"The management of secondments a big issue," Baron admits. "HR should be responsible for thinking the process through. They should examine how it's going to happen, how going to be manage and how the seconded employees' work will be covered while he or she is away."
Questions HR departments should ask include whether the secondment is for a fixed term or an indefinite period subject to notice. Businesses seconding an employee will generally remain responsible for their basic salary but agreement should be reached beforehand on the arrangements for overtime, bonuses, expenses and training costs.
HR should also make sure they are aware of the consequences of persistent absences, whether or not they are genuine and how disciplinary issues will be dealt with. As Baron says, employers should also work out who, if anyone, will fill the role vacated in the home organisation and whether the secondee will remain in contact during their placement.
How firms deal with charity secondments is similar to non-charitable activities but has key differences. Although it will look good for firms to be supporting worthy causes, they should not get involved solely for reputation's sake. "It should be part of the whole HR strategy," says McBain. "HR should look at what non-tangible and tangible skills the firm is looking to develop and whether the action is linked to corporate social responsibility. HR strategists should align their secondments or volunteering programmes with where the business is going."
Helen Tanasijczuk, from social enterprise organisation HTI, agrees that HR has a key role to play in the success of secondments. "The process should be integrated into current HR procedures via the interview process and induction programme," she says. "Also by setting realistic expectations, reviewing progress with benchmarks and constantly monitoring and evaluating the process so it works for their particular organisation."
Secondments have traditionally been viewed as something only big companies get involved with. Small businesses have been put off because of the effects of having a staff member out of the office. However, an increasing number of smaller firms are embracing the process. Baron, from the CIPD, says: "It is harder for smaller business to have people out of office but the CIPD is a small business and we have lots of internal secondments. It's beneficial in that in improves internal communication through time in different departments and different roles."
McBain adds: "SMEs should look at going down the joint/swap secondments route so they are not a staff member down."
While the benefits of secondments are usually significant, firms can fall foul of common problems. It is possible that when a seconded employee returns to their original organisation they will have had such a rewarding time while they have been away that may want to leave their old job in favour of the new one. To overcome this, experts agree that returning employees should be immediately encouraged to put their new skills and experience into practice, meaning that their role may have to change.
"When people return they will have had exciting and beneficial experiences," McBain says. "HR should make that they are able to apply those skills when they come back to the original organisation. Firms should not assume people will return to their old job and settle back in happily. They will want to use their new skills."
On the other side of the fence, firms taking on a seconded employee may find problems develop with the existing workforce who feel uncomfortable with a new person being brought in. Tanasijczuk, whose organisation runs a scheme which allows teachers to take a placement within a business, says communication is vitally important. "Good communication to the workforce should be carried out beforehand informing them that the secondee is there to carry out a specific project for a specific period of time which will not impinge on their responsibilities but act as an added resource," she advises. "Providing a mentor for the seconded teacher is a good way of overcoming some of the obstacles they are likely to face. Good support throughout the secondment period is essential."
HR are constantly on the look out for ways to offer extra career development opportunities to employees. Secondments could be the answer. They don't have to be long, six month placements with a big business - a few hours a week with a small charity can also bring significant benefits. But whatever the length of the secondments, HR must ensure that returning employees are able to use the new skills they've gained or suffer the consequences.