On a bright, blustery autumn day, the grounds of Blenheim Palace are teeming with life: coach parties are arriving, excitable children are shepherded by teachers and local residents are wheeling their buggies on to a tour of the famous Capability Brown-designed park.
“My mum worked here; my grandfather had an estate agent in the town – I literally grew up in the grounds, so to me it’s a homecoming,” says Sarah Morris.
Although Blenheim has always been part of her life, as its head of HR she’s a relative newcomer to the 300-year-old Oxfordshire estate. Its 2,000 acres were gifted to the 1st Duke of Marlborough by Queen Anne in 1704, and the 187-room palace – the only non-royal, non-ecclesiastical one in the country – is still home to the family. That ethos has a huge impact on staff, says Morris.
“When I first got here, I tried to shoehorn in some values, because they had been absent until that point. Funnily enough, it didn’t work. If you asked someone today what our values are, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. Simply put, we’re a family.”
Anyone who’s ever questioned the value of networking should take note of Morris’s career trajectory: she set up her own HR consultancy in 2009, and through local business events met Blenheim’s then-CEO, John Hoy. He invited her to undertake an audit of the HR function, and make recommendations for its future. “I made sure I was in those recommendations!” she says. From 2013, she was employed as a consultant, “and then they spent about a year trying to persuade me to come in on a full-time, permanent contract. Finally, I said yes: I couldn’t say no any more.”
HR’s presence, pre-Morris, was limited to a “very basic handbook, and some level of contracts. Systems or processes were non-existent, or very loose.” Her most immediate challenge was getting to grips with the scale of the operation: Blenheim employs 350 staff across 15 departments, ranging from the tour guides and private household to a construction team, gardeners and gamekeepers. “There was no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” she says.
Communication was – and remains – a challenge, especially given that less than a third of staff have email addresses, and some don’t even have a computer. So Morris and her team spend a lot of time talking to employees. “I’m not a desk person at all. We try to be as approachable and visible as possible.”
Morris says she realised her strategies to connect with staff – which include pretty much every tool you can think of, from noticeboards and employee forums to an intranet hub, social committee and suggestion box – were starting to pay off “when our phone didn’t stop ringing. They were asking questions all the time. For the first two years, we were dealing with issues that had been going on for years, but managers didn’t know what to do.”
Helping managers have difficult conversations and coach their staff was an uphill struggle at times, she admits. “It is really hard to teach someone how to tackle a problem head on if they aren’t used to doing that. We ran a series of workshops to address the problems – which we repeat regularly – and now we have managers who are engaged and empowered to take on difficult topics themselves, rather than asking HR to intervene.”
Four years on from her arrival – and with a bigger HR team (now numbering four) supporting her – Morris is finding time to tackle more strategic issues. Her current priorities include employer branding (Blenheim has a stated ambition to become a Sunday Times 100 best company to work for) and talent and succession planning. The estate will take on 100 apprentices over the next 10 years, in a variety of roles; the current intake includes a shepherd, a gardener, a gamekeeper and a member of the forestry team. The scheme ties in with two of Morris’s key aims: to enhance Blenheim’s reputation as a great stepping stone in someone’s career, and to build connections with the local community.
“If my 16-year-old started working here, I’d want to know what was going on,” she says. “So we have parents’ evenings; parents have my number and they know they can call me any time. We get all young people and apprentices to undertake pre-employment workshops, so they can get a sense of the place. We teach them how to budget and how to stay safe online, and we run CV writing and career workshops. We have a real duty of care to them.”
This somewhat paternalistic approach (reminiscent, perhaps, of the attitude of a lord of the manor towards his staff) extends to employees’ wellbeing, too. A programme of activities designed to support mental and physical wellbeing – ranging from breadmaking and mindfulness classes to yoga and spinning lessons (with many of the classes open to members of the local community, too) –launched earlier in 2017.
It coincided with the introduction of a mental health first aid programme for managers. “I wanted to set this up because in my first few years here I’d come across employees who were having a tough time,” says Morris. “They didn’t go looking for me, and I didn’t go looking for them, but within about six months I found numerous people in these sorts of situations. That made me really nervous, because how many other people were going through similar experiences?
“Employees feel more supported now – they’ve got a ‘go to’, and not just in HR. We’ve introduced a mentor and buddy scheme so there is always someone to provide support.”
That’s probably because, as Morris says, “we’re not a normal HR department. I’m very particular in the type of person I employ. Anyone can do ‘HR’ – we can all go and read a policy and try to apply it. But what’s more important is customer service; my team needs to be able to build strong relationships across the estate, know when to delve deeper and get curious, and also understand when to say no. I hate the perception of HR in an ivory tower, so I probably go to extremes to make sure that isn’t the case here.”