Claire Fox: “When your employees are being kidnapped, flexible working takes a back seat”

23 Aug 2018 By Hayley Kirton

Unicef UK’s new chief people officer on the chastening realities of life in a global charity

Life for HR professionals in the international aid sector has rarely been so complicated. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Claire Fox, the new chief people officer at Unicef UK, remains so focused, whether it’s expanding on her thoughts about the future of work or sharing wisdom from her recent book, Work Life Symbiosis: The Model for Happiness and Balance. Formerly global HR director at Save The Children International – a separate entity to the scandal-hit Save The Children UK – she has a wealth of experience on the front line, some of which she shared with People Management.

What were the highlights from your time at Save The Children International?

I delivered the charity’s first global employee engagement survey across 18,000 employees in 100 countries. It was tablet and mobile phone-friendly, but we also used hard copies because there were people in remote places with no connectivity. It was logistically a massive operation but it was a brilliant opportunity to understand the work the organisation does. We achieved a 72 per cent response rate, which was excellent given the number of hard-to-reach locations employees were based in.

I like clear boundaries outside work, but having a [joint] chief procurement officer job put a different focus on things. My first weekend in the role, two of our employees were kidnapped and one of our countries was evacuated due to escalating violence. Obviously you can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t work at the weekend’ when that happens.

What has your career taught you about how to develop as an HR leader?

For one, there’s huge benefit in activities outside work that relate to becoming a more rounded professional. I’ve learned more about motivating people through having children than any training course.

You can also use your experiences in clubs or communities. I’ve learned a great deal about evolution of culture through captaining a tennis team. 

You’ve championed getting women into senior leadership roles. What really helps deliver on that?

Positive role models are important. It doesn’t matter whether they’re men or women. And top jobs need to be appealing to people. A lot of women self-select out because they look at the life a senior leader lives and think ‘no thanks’. 

Those responsible for making appointments also need to reflect accurately what they’re looking for in the candidate search. I’ve seen examples where a leader will talk about wanting somebody who will collaborate, listen and motivate employees – skills you might say stereotypically you’re more likely to find in women. But when you then read the job description, it’s all about sales, closing the deal and hard numbers.

Does more need to be done to encourage people to work flexibly?

I see organisations that advertise only full-time roles but, when they get the candidate they want, that person negotiates part-time working. There might have been 10 other amazing people who would have applied if they’d known they could have done it part-time. Given the changing nature of work, organisations that can’t offer significant flexibility will be less attractive to post-millennial talent in particular. 

Candidates have a role to play too, both men and women. If the top five individuals for a role all said, ‘I’ll only take it if you give it part-time’, that drives change.

What’s on your agenda at Unicef?

Unicef UK is full of talent, but it’s also got an enormous mission to achieve. In the charity sector, people buy into vision in a way I haven’t seen in the private sector, but it’s still hard to keep momentum going on a daily basis. Storytelling about experiences of our work is important. It helps people connect what they do on a day-to-day basis with helping children.

My role also includes overseeing of internal communications and facilities management. Some people might see this as an odd mishmash but those functions, together with HR, own 
the overall employee experience.

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