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I chose to do a sandwich degree at university, which meant I spent the third year working before returning for my final year. I remember seeing the jobs posted on the noticeboard (yes they were real noticeboards not virtual ones back then). Even though my interests lay in marketing (as did most peoples) a placement in HR caught my eye. The opportunity was working for an oil company in London, manageable for me as my parents live on the outskirts so I would be able to live at home for the year. But what struck me the most from the ad was how organised and structured it was, the successful candidate would spend a few months in different parts of the HR team, and therefore get a really insightful placement.

I applied and was delighted when I got the job! I had a really great year and it was certainly interesting to be part of a huge international organisation. I spent time with the Employee Relations team, where my tasks, among others, were to organise the monthly company induction for new starters and to arrange the annual recruitment for the next years 20 or so placement students across the whole business. After a few months with this team I spent time in the salary survey team. This was the most interesting thing for me. I had no idea that all the oil companies worked together to set salaries, so that they didn’t lose skilled professionals to each other. I attended meetings at Shell-Mex house in London where they would go through every individual job role to ‘match’ or otherwise and score where their salaries were positioned. Of course all the information was anonymised, so anyone picking up a copy of the report would not be able to tell which companies were paying what. My role with this team was to print off all the graphs that would go in our own company report, using a fabulous piece of software called Graphwriter. I bet they don’t use that anymore. My time with this team taught me when working with numbers or details to check, check and check my work again (not my natural strength). I then spent time with the Training team – this was interesting as I had not really ever been aware or thought of in-company training before. The trainers were all seasoned professionals (men) that flew all over the world doing outdoor leadership events. It seemed very glamourous.

Conoco were really generous. I was able to attend loads of training courses such as Recruitment & Selection, which I needed as I had responsibility for recruitment of the next year’s placement students. I still remember today the series of career development workshops that I attended that used a workbook format and guided discussion from an HR Manager, something I have since introduced in my current role.

One stand-out event for me was the annual company day. I remember a team of volunteers in HR getting together to decide what our ‘stand’ would be for this day. Unlike any business I have worked in since, we had an unlimited budget, and a firm of consultants ready to arrange/create whatever we came up with. We decided to re-create an old fashioned barber-shop, as this fitted with the idea of HR providing good customer service. So our stand was fitted out with a proper barber’s chair, and a professional barber-shop quartet (they were the guys that did the Tetley Tea TV ads…) were hired to sing a song about ‘Good old employee relations…we’re hard-working, friendly and fair…’. Those of us that manned the stand on the day wore stripy aprons and straw boaters.

The day was simply jaw-dropping for me. I was blown away with the scale of the event. The PR team had arranged a ‘surprise’ visit from the then Prime Minister (or his lookalike!) John Major. Somewhere there is a picture of me in my boater and apron shoe-shining John Major’s shoes while he is sat in our barber-chair! The IT department had a ‘roaming’ robot wandering around the stands – a scale R2D2. The coolest thing was whoever was ‘controlling’ it remotely had a camera and a microphone so it would scoot on up to you and say something….

This was my first taste of an employee engagement event, and while I may have since missed the kinds of budgets they had in that sector, it did all seem a touch excessive at times.

At the other extreme, I remember a fabulous team-building afternoon that was put on for the entire HR team (around 30 people) organised by the team.

Our office location being just off Marble Arch, London (they have since re-located to Warwick) – our team event took place in Hyde Park. I remember a glorious sunny afternoon running around London searching for clues, doing school ‘sports day’ style races with eggs and spoons and sack in the park, and ending up in a Greek restaurant complete with plate-smashing and dancing. So much fun, and zero cost to this event completely. I have used the treasure hunt format several times as a team-building activity.

The whole placement was a successful experience for me, and this, coupled with a great lecturer who had negotiated with the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) that I could get student membership from having done my year’s placement, if I then took all the relevant modules on my degree course. This meant that I very easily obtained my membership, a pre-requisite for any job in HR, and which usually entailed lots of additional study and exams.

I do remember it being quite a push to cover the cost of the annual membership whilst still a student, however I took the view that this was an investment, and I was right, my membership opened the door to job opportunities almost as soon as I had graduated.

Other blogs from me that you may like:

Mentoring: a formal arrangement or an informal conversation?

Having your cake and eating it…