Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Last Wednesday, 31 January, public sector HR professionals braved the rough weather to gather in Dublin 8’s Radisson Blu Royal Hotel for PAI’s sixth annual conference on HR. This year’s conference explored the developing jobs landscape in Ireland, and how HR professionals can lead real change through effective HR Management systems.

The conference was chaired by Sile O’Donnell, a HR and Training Consultant, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in TCD, and member of PAI’s Academic Council.

The line-up of speakers was as follows:

  • Oonagh Buckley, Director General of the WRC (jump to)
  • Vicky Menzies, Human Capital Practice Lead for the Public Service at Deloitte Ireland (jump to)
  • Georgina Corscadden, CEO Peak Connexxion Group; Speaker, Author, Master Coach, Psychologist and Thought Leader (jump to)
  • Dave Barry, Director, Talent and Transformation, Fastnet – The Talent Group (jump to)
  • Oisin O’Gogain, HR Director at Aon Ireland (jump to)
  • Catriona Heslin, Organisation Development & Design at the HSE (jump to)
  • Dr Sarah-Jane Cullinane, Assistant Professor in HRM and Organisational Behaviour at Trinity Business School, TCD (jump to)
  • John Ryan, CEO of Great Place to Work, Ireland (jump to)

Be careful of complacency

Oonagh Buckley began her speech with an examination of the current employment landscape in Ireland. Employment rates are often a much better metric of how a country is doing, according to Ms Buckley. Ireland is currently as near to full employment “as makes no difference”. By the end of 2018, it is estimated that the unemployment rate will be 5%. That means that 2.2 million people in Ireland will be employed in full-time roles – a 2% rise on the previous peak.

However, she noted, this brings about its own pressures for those in HR and recruitment.

When looking at rates of pay inflation year-on-year, we are far below the rates in peak times, before the Crash. The Central Bank estimates that our current rate of pay inflation is around 2%. When the rate of living costs, housing, and childcare are considered, Ms Buckley notes that we begin to approach the pre-crash level of 8% per annum very quickly. This puts the public sector at a significant disadvantage. With the legacy of the FEMPI legislation still controlling wage inflation in the sector, it is tough for any public organisations to compete with private companies. This is a particular issue for areas such as IT and other highly valued skills, where outside wage inflation is much higher.

So, as the public sector begins to “wade back” into the job market, there are a few things that could aid those in public sector HR roles in filling roles and retaining talent. They are:

  • Expand age brackets of what we would normally consider appropriate for certain roles;
  • Move towards encouraging employees to stay on past retirement age[i];
  • Changes could be made to current pension models, including the portability of civil service pensions; and
  • Improving “all of our diversity metrics”, not just aiming for gender balances but also for balance in race, background, religion, sexuality and viewpoints.

The biggest caveat Ms Buckley had for the audience was around the idea of complacency. “Just in case we get too confident about how we’re integrating new immigrants into our culture and job environment,” it’s important to remember that a majority of cases seen by the WRC are discrimination cases.

Oonagh closed her talk by discussing the HR and leadership challenges that faced her when she took to the helm of the newly created WRC in 2016. She discussed some of the lessons she learned from the process, and the things that worked for them.

One of the most important things was a positive and consistent message. A public acknowledgement that things were wrong, and they were working to fix it, was vital. This included admitting there were cultural issues that needed to be overcome, and admitting fault when necessary. The transparency and openness was a large player in improving the public image of the WRC and the confidence in it.

There was also a strong focus on supporting staff through the hard slog. When faced with very public criticism, she noted, it was possible staff could take it personally, despite putting in “Trojan” hours and aiming for their best. This was one reason she made sure that there was visibility of senior management on a regular basis. “You’d be surprised how much of a difference visibility can make.”

Getting to this point had a lot to do with “championing small wins” and learning from “small losses”.

Their new strategy hopes to reverse-engineer their services from a client point of view, asking “what do our service-users need from us?” They also hope to train their existing staff in all elements of the Commission’s work, for maximum “interoperability”.

Nothing happens without leadership

Vicky Menzies took the podium to explore the trends gleaned from Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends Report 2017: Rewriting the rules for the digital age[ii]. As a preface, she noted that “sometimes the public sector can be somewhat constrained with what they can do to engage global trends”, but there is still value in understanding what is happening in the jobs market as a whole. This year’s report had the theme of “The Future of Work”. It looks at what the trends are, and what problems these seek to solve. The number one trend identified by the Report is the influence of organisational design on services. While the public sector cannot expect a total upheaval, Ms Menzies suggests a “disrupt at the edges” method: creating small, outcome-based teams with a specific end-goal in mind. The future of work will see “work done by smaller, more diverse teams – more agile, multidisciplinary groups that have independence and freedom to grow and operate”.

At a macro level, the workplace as we know it is changing. There is an ongoing shift in demographics, to a workforce that is more diverse. It is also becoming a multigenerational thing, which can present its own challenges as the need for certain skills moves with the times. The problem for those in HR roles is in attracting qualified candidates, engaging them, maintaining their expertise, and retaining them. The current recruitment models “are not going to cut it”. A shift towards a gig economy is obvious in a wider societal sense. Younger generations can be characterised by “reduced tenure in jobs”, more akin to “accumulating portfolio careers”. How, then, do you engage and retain these employees?

Digital leadership is becoming more and more important. Ms Menzies noted that,

“Nothing happens without leadership; if it does, it doesn’t go well”.

The old fear that machines would take over jobs from real working people is subsiding as we see AI and machine learning coming into workplaces – not to remove the people, but to automate tasks in order to aid those workers. This relieves some of the pressure of work. It also allows humans to “do the more creative work”. It is interesting to consider, in light of this, “what uniquely human skills will be valued” in a workplace where mundane, routine tasks are carried out by machines.

The adequacy of the training and education sector must be evaluated as we move forward. We must ask, “How can we ensure the learning modules and education sector keep up?” Moving towards a culture of continuous learning will become ever more important. The workforce should be “learning all the time, in real time.” And it should be part of the organisational culture; from the top down, learning should be viewed as a “continuous process, not an episodic task”. This means it is not just the responsibility of those in HR functions. It is up to the management and leadership structures to support this culture. Going forward, it is essential that softer skills – emotional intelligence, communication – are not undervalued. Finally, do not be afraid to invest in people and their continued upskilling, even if they leave the organisation.

Mission-driven organisations have much better retention rates for skilled employees. In the public service, this is an asset. But it is useful to note that there are now “heightened demands from what the citizens want from their public bodies”. After a long period of public distrust of state entities, it is unsurprising that citizens expect more. It may be useful to “reverse engineer” services and service delivery “from the customers’ perspective”. Use the customer experience journey to help you build purpose-driven teams and design processes. Ms Menzies also noted that “transparency drives loyalty”.


Our next speaker was Georgina Corscadden. She began her presentation by commenting that, often, we get bogged down in the negatives when it comes to public services. She posited a change for the morning, a shift to “focus on the good things that we do in the public sector”. Because, she said, “it holds up society, and there are some positive changes down the line”. There are a lot of people working without applause in the system, so instead of focusing on the pitfalls of the system, “we need to recognise the people in the system”. She continued,

“People have been running on a wheel for the last ten years in a way that is just not sustainable.”

Now, faced with the potential massive loss of knowledge due to a high rate of retirement among public servants, working in a public body can seem demoralising and it could be easy for employees to burn out. This is where “beacons of purpose” become vital. They are the people around you that believe in the role of the organisation and the good that it can do. “There has to be some light at the end of the tunnel”. Effective, inspiring leaders can help employees find that light for themselves. There must also be a shift towards a greater sense of collegiality.

Authentic leadership isn’t about a label, it’s about actions. For example, a leader will be able to recognise when someone has a particular talent, and can then think of a way that that person can use it in the workplace. Ms Corscadden continued, “If leadership is to be at every level, start with asking yourself about your own purpose.” And then ask those you lead, “What is it that lifts you on any given day?” and how can you help them get more of it?

Ms Corscadden is a firm believer in the four components of Psychological Capital: the HERO model.


True change starts with leaders who can look inwards and begin to ask themselves, “how do I turn up?” By maintaining the four components mentioned above, we can drive real change and inspire real empowerment in others.

Data needs to be our friend

Dave Barry, Director, Talent and Transformation at Fastnet Talent, spoke next. He started by echoing a sentiment professed throughout the morning: there is so much change ahead of us. Mr Barry believes that, because of this, “we have to be data-driven”. Data needs to become our friend.

The public sector is in the exact same “war for talent” as private sector companies, and with fewer cards to play. Therefore, we should be “become more talent-management focused”. Those in HR roles “need to have a louder, more influential voice at the top table”. They need to drive change in order to stop the public sector losing out on employees with necessary skills. This means adapting the ways in which public bodies are set and beginning to use much of the information – or data – that is available to them.

We need, predominantly, to remove the fear around the topic of people analytics. “You don’t need to be deeply statistical or analytic to use data”. He reminded those in attendance that data wasn’t just about stats or website engagement. It was all information they knew about people. For example, questionnaires used in recruitment could present information about hidden skills of new employees. There is little point, Mr Barry noted, in collecting data in this ways if there is no intention to use it. Performance reviews and exit interviews can hold a wealth of knowledge about what is going right or wrong at an organisational level. He noted that “when people leave an organisation, it’s very rarely about the money. Money might be the final straw,” but there are likely to be other issues that need addressing. Moving forward, there needs to be a balance between what Mr Barry called the “classic” elements of HR and the use of data. At the end of the day, you should “lead with your gut and expertise, but have that underpinning of data”.

As an example, he spoke about an anomaly in an organisation, wherein new hires were taking a long time to become productive. At that point, it would be important to ask yourself what expectation is in place around this issue. By setting a data point about where you expect people to be productive after they join or move, you can more effectively identify when a new hire or new placement is not working for the organisation or the employee. “With everything that is changing around us, we have to think of things from end to end”.

Mid-morning Q&A

The morning’s talks were followed by a Q&A session. An attendee from the Central Bank who commented that their HR strategies were previously driven by compliance. Now, however, they are trying to “drive better conversations”. The attendee asked Mr Barry for suggestions of models that can help those in HR do that.

Dave is a supporter of the 3-2-1 method. This does not replace the usual cycle of performance management but provides a framework for conversations around it. It “substitutes the reams of paper detailing what we did”, but instead asks what resonated and made a difference from a contribution perspective, and the lessons learned from that. HR professionals should ask, in one-to-one reviews, three positives from the period, two things they think could have gone better, and finally one development area.

Ms Corscadden agreed with this method, stressing the importance of one-to-ones and increasing the dialogue.

An attendee from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht asked,

“Psychometrics isn’t necessarily a good indication of how well someone will perform on the job or mesh well culturally. What is the alternative?”

The panel agreed that they were not always the best tools, but perhaps should be used in conjunction with other methods to ensure an employee is a good fit, including those data points that Mr Barry discussed earlier in the morning.

Oisin O’Gogain weighed in a little later, saying that the timing of psychometric testing was incredibly important – it needs to be administered at the right point in the hiring process.

When questioned further as to whether focusing on analytics can “damage unleashing the potential already in the organisation”, Mr Barry noted that it was about balance. Use the knowledge that you have of employees to see where the potential is. Set benchmarks through that data. Then use it to recruit.

Ms Buckley reaffirmed the value of the Public Appointment Service, but said that at the moment,

“PAS’ job is essentially crowd control. Over the next few years, HR professionals need to put pressure on systems to make change.” They can do this by working with universities. Be creative. Also, do not shy away from training people even if it is not a permanent job.

Diversity is being invited to the dance

Following the mid-morning break, Oisin O’Gogain gave a dynamic and participative presentation about a subject he was very passionate about: diversity and inclusion (DNI). The two ideas, while interlinked, are not exactly the same thing. Diversity, he said, “is being invited to the dance. Inclusion is being asked on to the dancefloor”.

While it is fundamentally based on the principles of equality, it “is not about being politically correct. It makes good business sense.” The numbers speak for themselves. According to a Forbes survey – among companies with more than $10 Billion in annual revenue – 56% strongly agreed that DNI helps drive innovation. For every 1% change in diversity there is a 3% increase in financial improvement[iii]. That is just to name a few.

Oisin asked: “Even when considering gender, is the playing field really even?” This question was followed by an exercise in unconscious bias. Oisin asked those in attendance to consider words, adjectives that might be used in a job specification, for example, and say whether they felt those words were masculine or feminine. The room was generally in consensus about which way those words swayed – words like ‘confident’ and ‘ambitious’ were viewed as masculine words, whereas words like ‘dependable’ and ‘committed’ were seen as feminine. This exercise is expounded by various studies, such as the Hays Simon & Susan Study[iv] and the US-based Jennifer & John Study[v]. Mr O’Gogain called for those in the room to be “conscious of the words we use, and the impact that they have”. Gender is just one of a multitude of categories of diversity and equality. Mr O’Gogain agrees with Ms Buckley, we need to improve our inclusion across all categories.

The beginning of any DNI campaign is education. Engage with new initiatives, talk to managers and business leaders. As with all organisational change, it runs throughout when it begins at the top. Through education, you can “understand what you stand for” and “where you’re going”.

The audience was assured that they are not too small to make a difference. As with many of the presentations of the morning, Mr O’Gogain’s advice was simple: just start the conversation.

Value the employees, provide better services

Next up was Catriona Heslin, Organisation Development & Design at the HSE, who discussed the HSE’s new Health Services’ People Strategy. At its heart, it “prioritises people” and positive workplace culture. It is a way to place great “value in the workforce and thus deliver better services to the people who depend on them”.

While creating the strategy, there were myriad things to take into consideration, for example, “the complexity of changes in health and social care,” or “power dynamics in wider society”. They began by commissioning a literature review, undertaken by the Health Policy unit of Trinity College Dublin. This gave them a “significant” foundation for their work. The Framework is now pending sign-off. Ms Heslin clarified that, although the Strategy is set out in a linear fashion, there is an understanding that real change is a much more fluid thing. In the long run, “people’s need should drive change”, she noted. This reflects the point that Ms Menzies made earlier in the morning, a sign that the new strategy is likely to be fit-for-purpose in the changing landscape of work.

Remove the fear of sharing

Dr Sarah-Jane Cullinane gave the penultimate talk of the day. Her presentation addressed the issue of “building a culture of continuous learning”, but also a culture of knowledge-sharing. This is something which will be invaluable to the public sector as large numbers are approaching retirement in the coming years. It is a great loss to an organisation to have so many long-time employees leaving, and taking with them a trove of tribal knowledge.

Dr Cullinane believes that “there is a place, always, for formal education design, but we’re moving much more towards knowledge-sharing” as a means of ensuring an adequately skilled workforce. Societal shifts solidify this principle. The idea that “knowledge” workers are the white-collar workers (i.e. lawyers and doctors) and are in the minority is becoming more and more outdated. Now, “all work is knowledge work”.

Human capital is an intangible asset. Where there is a culture that doesn’t intrinsically support knowledge-sharing, you see the development of internal assets “that cannot be substituted or imitated”. This is often driven by a sense of competition among colleagues. If you share knowledge that you, and only you, have, you may lose your value or your competitive advantage over others, and thus lose your job.

By shifting to a new model, which steps away from traditional hierarchical systems towards a “learning organisation”, you can adjust “the HR relationship with people based on where they fit in in the model”. The more valued and confident employees feel of their place in the large scheme of an organisation, the more likely they are to share their knowledge and expertise. The process of building a positive environment, and creating a culture where this is possible, is considering what the barriers currently are to knowledge-sharing, and in what ways these can be tackled.

A learning organisation is one where “enquiry and dialogue is embedded in the processes and culture of the organisation”. Strategies that can help with this include taking on informal knowledge management initiatives, which can often be more powerful than traditional education. Communities of practice and special interest groups can also help employees feel seen in a workplace. People will then feel safe sharing knowledge. Breaking down hierarchies and adding elements of fun into learning can also have strong results.

Ultimately, people learn more from sharing and by helping others solve problems. A collaborative and sharing-positive workplace is more effective.

The hits are coming your way; it’s about being able to handle them

The final speaker of the day was CEO of Great Place to Work Ireland, John Ryan. He reiterated the great changes underway in the HR landscape. He spoke about how, several years ago, many Government Departments met the qualifications to be classified as a Great Place to Work. However, at the time, many chose not to be so branded, for fear that it would “look bad”. Now, however, that is changing. But, as Ms Corscadden commented earlier in the day, a lot is still done without applause. Mr Ryan asserted that there is “phenomenal work going on in the public sector, but with an attitude of ‘let’s do this quietly so no one notices’.”

This, he believes, is hindering them in what Mr Barry earlier called the “war for talent”. The employer brand of the public sector needs to be strong; they are, after all, in competition, so they must make the best case. Meeting the standards of a Great Place to Work “doesn’t happen by fluke”, it takes work. It means that those who work there “trust who they work with” and “have a great sense of pride in what they do”. When a number of people were surveyed regarding the things that they felt made an organisation a good place to work, there was “no mention of beanbags and free food”, just positive attributes and qualities that instil pride in workers. If the organisation wants to get to an end-goal, they should focus on “the values of the company that can support the destination change”.

Mr Ryan was in agreement with Ms Buckley and Mr O’Gogain regarding broadening the categories of people that are brought into consideration for employment. For example, he said, considering the employment of those on the autism spectrum. Although alternative methods of management and accommodations will need to be made, it is worth it for the very real impact and growth that they can bring to a work environment and business.

Finally, Mr Ryan spoke about the importance of wellbeing and health in maintaining a Great Place to Work. “One of the biggest impacts on your health and wellbeing is interpersonal relationships”, many of which occur in the workplace. “Work isn’t just work if it’s painful”, he said, painting a picture of the heavy ball of Sunday night dread that faces many people in poor working environments. A negative environment in work can impact everything in your life. Organisations need to prioritise the health of its employees. They can start the process by having a clear definition of where the health of those in the organisation is at. From there they can build and develop “an environment where people absolutely can flourish”. This is not just about fitness and eating healthy; physical health is the last piece in the puzzle. Often, he noted, having employees self-report on their health can gain much more accurate insights then having a doctor do an evaluation. John introduced the attendees to a new initiative from those at Great Place to Work: Healthy Places to Work.[vi]

Afternoon Q&A

The final Q&A of the event saw a question for Mr O’Gogain from an attendee with the National Disability Authority, who enquired about the business case for employing those with disabilities. They noted that there can be a “bias towards hiring for fulltime hours”. This is despite the fact that “people with disabilities can be very effective, but not always in working fulltime hours”. Mr O’Gogain’s perspective was that organisations need to invest in the design of their management systems. This does not, as Mr Ryan already noted, happen by accident. Conversations with those with disabilities, as well as parent and carers, and bodies like the NDA, should inform policy on a wide-scale and lead conversations on the level of flexibility that can be accounted for at an organisational level. A follow-up comment noted that it is a core “public sector duty to protect human rights of staff and customers” and that legislation ensures the representation of those with disabilities in public bodies. So then, the conversation should be around how best to accommodate and support those workers in their positions.


[i] View the WRC Guidance on Working longer here.

[ii] You can view the Deloitte Report here.

[iii], “DTT – Measuring Return on Investment in Diversity & Inclusion”, June 2014. Available here.

[iv] Hays, “Same CV, different gender. Same results?” 2014. Available here.

[v] Margaretta Midura, “John Vs. Jennifer: A Battle of the Sexes”. Yale Scientific Magazine, 2013. Available here.

[vi] Details about the Healthy Place to Work certification are forthcoming.


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