Spotlight: Hamilton Nash Employee Relationship Management
In our “Spotlight” articles, we take a closer look at one of our members’ businesses. Today, we’re in the spotlight with Jim Moore, co-founder and partner of Hamilton Nash, an HR consultancy firm that specialises in employee relations.
How did you get started in your business?
Starting the business was more of an evolutionary decision than a sudden one. I had spent 25 years working in a corporate environment for a major IT multinational. I started out as a software engineer and, 10 years later, moved into management. Over the following 15 years, I had gained loads of experience managing people from diverse backgrounds, across international boundaries and each with their own local employment regulations and HR practices.
What I liked about working with people was understanding the psychology of the employment relationship, trying to diagnose situations when things weren’t going well and figuring out how to find a win-win solution for both the employee and the company. This was a big change from working on software, because people are so diverse and there were often grey areas to navigate.
In addition, I was helping colleagues in our UK corporate HR team by acting as an independent hearing manager for internal grievances and appeals. I guess that was what originally sparked my interest in HR and, in particular, the employee relations side of things.
At around the same time, I met my wife, who had a Masters in International HR Management. I could see that my corporate career had a limited shelf-life, as the division I worked in was having almost annual redundancy cycles, so we decided to launch Hamilton Nash.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Well, I started Hamilton Nash precisely so that I could do the thing I enjoyed most! 🙂 That’s dealing with employee situations that are – or have the potential to be – uncomfortable, difficult or sensitive. I enjoy the psychology of it; the challenge of finding a fair and reasonable balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the business. These could be grievances, disciplinary issues, performance problems or maybe just things with the potential to be difficult. For example, redundancies, contract re-negotiations or even managing change.
Perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the most accurate word. People are often emotionally invested in whatever situation they’re facing, which can sometimes make things quite challenging to deal with. Dealing with an ill-tempered stakeholder is hardly enjoyable. I guess I’d say that I find it fulfilling, rather than simply ‘enjoyable’.
What differentiates you from your competition?
There are a lot of HR consultancy firms out there. From small independents like us, to national HR consultancy franchises and even HR ‘outsourcing’ service companies.
What makes us special is that we’re really focused on sorting out those complex, controversial and/or difficult situations. We’re not really in the business of doing routine, administrative day-to-day HR activities. We could do those things but, as I say, there are a multitude of other HR service providers who can do that.
Our clients use us specifically for handling those difficult situations. If you imagine that other HR service providers are the ‘HR infantry’, we’re more like the ‘special forces’ – parachuted in to those challenging engagements that really need an employee relations expert.
Some of our clients are other HR professionals, by the way. Not everyone likes dealing with grievances, disciplinary issues or conflict generally. So we are sometimes engaged by other HR folks to handle these issues for them, or maybe handle an independent appeal hearing for a situation they’ve been working earlier.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
You have to be motivated and tenacious. Getting started is hard, especially building up an initial customer base. Sometimes you might read a story you read about a 20-something year old who became a millionaire within two years just by making T-shirts in their garage. Well, for each of them, there are a thousand other startups struggling to take off.
You must be able to keep putting the effort in, even on days when you’re feeling tired and despondent, when you’re low on confidence and questioning yourself. Be honest with yourself – can you handle it? Starting a business isn’t for everyone. People have this romantic notion that being your own boss means more flexibility, bigger earnings, nice holidays and so on. Well, those things don’t come without a huge amount of effort on your part. There are no short cuts.
Also, have a plan. Don’t just ‘wing it’ and make it up as you go. You don’t just need a product or service that people want, you need your potential customers to know you exist! That’s tough…marketing is tough. You can blow a fortune on e-marketing and get nowhere if you don’t have a plan.
Honestly, I would strongly recommend business networking. Joining something like BNI. Word of mouth referrals from business networking had, by a country mile, generated more business than any other ‘marketing’ strategy I’ve used.
What are the current trends and changes in your industry?
There are two parts to this; changes in employment law and changes in HR best practices. Often the latter tracks with the former. By changes in employment law, I’m not just talking about the Government passing new legislation. The law, as written on the Statute books, can never cover every single situation, circumstance or eventuality. Therefore, a huge amount of employment law relies on previous decisions made by the Courts as they interpret and apply the legislation.
The biggest one right now is probably around self-employed workers. This is where a business uses someone who’s registered as self-employed with HMRC to do work, rather than having a ‘regular’ employee on the payroll. These workers are not really independently trading businesses, they’re still working for and representing the employer’s business. The so-called gig economy is what really put this in the public eye and it’s catching out more and more businesses. People need to make sure they’re using self-employed workers correctly.
After that, I’d say it’s the increased focus on equality. Things like the gender pay gap, executive pay, sexual harassment and so on. These issues generate a lot of social and political pressure and I don’t see this subsiding any time soon. Employers need to be prepared and ensure they’re implementing fair policies and practices. Their brand and reputation are at stake.
What is the most effective way to promote your business?
As I said earlier, I’ve found that word of mouth marketing via business networking generates the most business. That said, I don’t think you can rely on any one approach. You really need to have several working in harmony; social media for sure. It helps generate some awareness and, if anyone looks you up on the internet after hearing about you, it helps to be visibly active.
Make sure that every customer goes away with a positive impression. You want them feeling good about engaging with you. You want to exude credibility and professionalism. Your reputation is precious. Protect it!
What change do you most want to see in your profession?
That’s a tough one. So many things to choose from! 🙂
Let’s start with the Employment Tribunal system. It was originally intended for employers and employees to represent themselves in a Courtroom setting but without the formality (and required legal expertise) of a regular court. Well, that’s just not true and hasn’t been for a long time. You cannot be successful at a Tribunal without understanding the legislation and, in particular, the precedent case history. You also need to be practised in the art of making an argument.
You could just go in there and represent yourself. But if your opponent has legal representation, you’re going to be facing an uphill battle. Your opponent’s lawyer is probably going to be better informed on the law than you, and better practised at arguing a case.
As a result, most employers use solicitors to help with all the Tribunal preparation and administration, and often a barrister to argue the case at the Tribunal. This means it can easily cost in excess of £20,000 just to defend against a claim. As a result, employers will often try to reach a financial settlement even when the complaint is unsound. You will struggle to recover your legal costs from the claimant if you win, so settling is often cheaper.
That said, the second thing I wish would change is how employers manage conflict internally. Many of the situations I deal with have escalated because the management involved either didn’t tackle the problem soon enough, or tackled it clumsily when they did. It’s always easier (and often cheaper in the long run) to get early advice and try to nip a problem in the bud.
What big things are on the horizon for your business?
We’re looking at tools and training. Tools to help small businesses manage difficult situations more effectively, at least to the point where they can engage us. On the training front, I’m looking at assembling a conflict management course that helps managers to understand, diagnose and resolve conflict. Or at least prevent things from going nuclear until they can get some professional advice from us!
What challenges are you facing at the moment?
I think our biggest challenges are a combination of electronic marketing and the very reactive way our clients tend to work. Most of our clients don’t look for help until they’re forced to deal with a situation in the workplace. This makes it tough to engage with prospective customers as they don’t recognise the need when they don’t have a problem. That carries over into the electronic marketing challenge. We need to constantly refine and re-test our marketing strategy but that does cost money. We don’t have the budget to compete with well-established brands and, frankly, we’re just not getting results (yes, even with a paid expert managing the campaign).
Put it this way; word of mouth marketing via business networking has generated a good profit (well over the costs of membership and participating). Electronic marketing has only generated a loss.
What type of customers are you looking for?
Our typical client profile is a small to medium sized business with no in-house HR function who’s got a problem to deal with. It could be a change in the business affecting their employees (e.g. relocation, restructuring, redundancies) or dealing with a problem employee (e.g. complaints, performance or discipline).
We also help with changing or updating contracts of employment, which has to be handled carefully. We’d love to hear from any business owner who wants to be more proactive and have us review of their HR policies and practices!
Most of our clients use us because they value our expertise and want a ‘pay-as-you-go’ service, without any contracts or service agreement lock-ins.