Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

John O’Dowd, chair of the two morning sessions, welcomes delegates

PAI’s Annual HR conference took place last Thursday 15 October, at the Westin Hotel. The delegates stepped out of the brisk morning into a day of lively debate and new insights into the year ahead for the Human Resources industry. A strong theme through the day was that there should, and will be, a shift in our culture towards one that is more effective, more communicative, and easier to navigate for all parties.

John O’Dowd, chair for the first two sessions, started off the morning by revealing the results of a recent survey undertaken by PAI service users. A lot of respondents were managerial level. The highest concern for respondents was maintaining employee morale. It was noted that this was no great surprise, “in the context of the recession, additional work quotas and cut-backs”. Of those five issues that received the greatest response, continuing with cost-reducing measure was the lowest ranked.

He also spoke some about the new WRC system, saying that there is “a deal of work on the WRC”, and in general there is “a lack of optimism that it will supply a simplified system”, according to the survey.

Louise McGirr took the podium next. Top of her agenda was the news that her department would be establishing a central HR Policy Unit. One of their main obstacles will be the fact that current policies were “designed at another time, reflecting another environment”, and that they can be “difficult to follow or understand”. The Department is also committed to a new learning and development approach, which takes account of what is required at your grade and place in your career.

There is also the forthcoming Civil Service Renewal Plan. “It is the first large-scale plan for direct employee engagement. This is the first type of engagement that has gone directly to staff and managers to get their views”. It is a way to isolate skills gaps in departments, fill those gaps, and retain those skills within the department. The Department want to assure that all department have access to “a whole range of resource options for you to fill your skill sets”.

Finally, she called for feedback. Her department know that there are “different things in flux”, but they would like to hear from departments, from a central perspective, to ensure policies address all the relevant problem-areas.

Louise McGirr and John O’Dowd sit on our first panel

Shay Cody of IMPACT spoke next. He took a look at the impending Landsdowne Road Agreement. He said the agreement, after a long period of cut-backs and reductions, was the “first opportunity to get something back”. The agreement was voted in by the largest majority ever, at 11-1.

In it, there was a rollback on the wage cuts that were taken by civil servants under the Haddington Road Agreement. These have been secured and will be rolled back out between 2017 and 2018. He noted that there may be some increment anomalies, but these would be “coming down the track”, and were not immediate. Also of note, under the agreement, civil servants would be given a “clean slate” with regards sick leave.

Mr Cody commented that the Haddington Road agreement had been made whilst the country was in “crisis mode”, and “a lot of band-aids” were put on bad approaches. There would be call for going back on the tenants of this agreement.

Debate was abound at the morning coffee break

Pat Brady began the second session with a review of the new Workplace Relations Commission, the system that will now replace the Labour Relations Commission. Although Mr Brady is an adjudicator for the WRC, he gave a personal account of the new system, aside from his current position.

He illustrated the old system with a graphic—one he commented was reminiscent of a map of the London Underground, not a system for resolving disputes. “The only simple thing is making a complaint”. This system would often take months, or years, to see a complaint through to the end. According to Mr Brady, “justice delayed is justice denied”.

The new WRC will be a consolidated, “first instance body” under which the “culture and style of how the adjudication will be run will be different; it will be closer to that of the Equality Tribunal.” He noted later, during discussion, that the purpose of this system was to “avoid a courtroom style of doing things”.

Emmett Whelan called for the delegates to “park legislative questions” for the duration of his presentation, which ran through some key cases in the HR sector over the last couple of years. One of the main cases he investigated was Boyle v An Post  which illustrated that HR departments be aware of a) how far they can go in correspondence before you are deemed to have prejudged the case, and b) the language they use. “Certain wording of [communications] can show that there is prejudice against the employee”.

He also noted that all private investigators, for those wishing to use them, are legally required to be licensed from November 1 2015.

Maria Hegarty gave an overlook of equality in the public sector. She identified three main rationales for employing a diversity approach: Rights-based (because it is the right thing to do), social justice-based (to support minorities), and economics-based (to see greater returns).

She talked at length about why undertaking an equality assessment was important, and what exactly the outcomes would be. The key to a successful assessment is clarity. “You should be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.” The data should inform policy-makers, and should not lie idle. You should not monitor your organisation’s equality and diversity stats because there is a statutory duty to do so, but rather actively engage in the monitoring to ensure better outcomes.

Dr Corina Grace opened the afternoon session, after lunch. She stated that “the workplace that works best is one with a supportive, yet challenging, environment, where workers are out of their comfort-zones”. From a psychology perspective, workers often need to be re-engaged. This is done through an open dialogue. “Everything is about conversations”, “at the right time, in the right place”.

The aim, she said, was creating a space for people to really learn.

A room full of HR professional get key insights to the coming year in HR

Sile O’Donnell was next to the podium, commenting that of the greatest importance is “understanding good performance, and that highly capable people can underperform”. We need to look at how attitude and capability combine to achieve maximised potential. “Where underperformance isn’t managed, and there is no mechanism to reward good performance, there is a tendency to mediocrity”.

She outlined a number of motivation theories, such as goal-setting and theory X and Y. However, fundamentally the absence of extrinsic rewards is something which general dissatisfies workers. People will be more motivated and perform better when they have clear goals, feedback, training and support, and rewards that are valuable to them (but not necessarily monetary rewards). In the public sector, there has been a culture where not performing was seen to have no consequences. New policies, when in place, should combat this.

She said that, when under-performance is a continued issue, early intervention is key. An employee should never be surprised by official complaints brought about them. It is important for employers to document the under-performance, and complaint process.

Alex McDonnell was the last speaker of the day. His bold speech started with his assertion that “most organisations are systemically dysfunctional”. His company often has customers asking them to “re-engineer” the systems in place. Alex comments that the “problem with ‘re-engineering’ is the assumption that someone engineered it in the first place”.

He noted that “today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions”, and that really the issue was in there being no strong and concise systems in place for all employees. “Front-liners know what the problems are but don’t have a framework for fixing them. They are frantic to talk to someone to explain what the problems are”. Another issue is, when they do give this feedback, and subsequently managers “having no follow-through, integrity and sincerity”.

He likened the current HR structure to an eighteenth-century bureaucracy, where managers where the ones who knew what to do, and the under-educated needed those managers to tell them what to do. However, realistically at the moment, “many of our employees know how to run the company better than the managers do”. The bottom line for Mr McDonnell was the question: “When will we lead the revolution”?


  • Dr John O’Dowd, HR Consultant
  • Louise McGirr, Principal Officer at DPER
  • Shay Cody, General Secretary at IMPACT
  • Pat Brady, Chartered Arbitrator and WRC Adjudicator
  • Emmet Whelan, Associate at Byrne Wallace
  • Maria Hegarty, Director of Equality Strategies
  • Dr Corina Grace, Organisational Change and Leadership Development Consultant at Grace Consulting
  • Síle O’Donnell, HR Consultant
  • Alex McDonnell, Master Practitioner in Operational Excellence and Systems Thinking with Expertivity