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Seconding employees from other businesses to drive innovative thinking

Seconding employees - Gareth Bull (left)
Bull runs employee secondments between his two businesses.

Immersing an outsider in your business helps drive innovation. Seconded staff offer a fresh perspective and new expertise. Employees get the opportunity for personal development, returning with new skills. It’s a win-win-win opportunity, so why are secondments so rare?

The perceived complexity of these arrangements means they’re often overlooked. It doesn’t need to be that way. Be the Business spoke to business leaders and a human resources expert about creating contracts, managing placements and getting the most value out of placements.

Seconding employees to share experiences

Fast-growing consultancy Elixirr has 120 staff. Talent and HR principal Steve Leeson said candidate quality and calibre is the limiting factor to the company’s growth. Employee secondments with partners and clients help drive innovation, according to Leeson.

“The partnership is all about sharing ideas. It opens a new avenue. You can share resources and talent with clients and people can gain experience that both sides benefit from,” he said.

Secondments offer an opportunity for employees to develop their careers. Elixirr works with large corporates meaning staff they take on secondments get a taste of what it’s like to work in a smaller company.

Leeson said one employee returned to their original company in a more senior role after growing in confidence.

“The benefit to the individuals is to work in a totally different environment. They have come out of a highly structured environment to work with a company’s that’s truly entrepreneurial, that isn’t encumbered by legacy,” he added.

Setting out terms for seconding employees

It’s important to define how an employee secondment will work. To cover what happens in different outcomes. The agreement takes the form of a contract between the original employer and company the employee will be seconded with.

Common points include:

  • Expenses such as relocation
  • Who plays the employee and the mechanics for reimbursement
  • Secondment length, how it will end and under what circumstances it can finish early
  • Who manages discipline, appraisals and grievances
  • Make it clear they are still employed by the original company

It’s possible to use a template for these agreements or commission a law firm.

Seconding employees - Tony Hyams-Parish
Hyams-Parish said a contract should be drawn up between the two companies.

Management of the employee needs to remain with the original employer to ensure employment status doesn’t change. This can include discipline and arranging time off advises DMH Stallard employment law partner Tony Hyams-Parish.

“The company that seconds the employee must make sure they keep control of that employee. If the management goes completely to the host, you could get a claim for unfair dismissal when the secondment ends. Both parties must guard against that. That’s partly why you have the agreement in place,” he added.

Employees normally receive a letter setting out the arrangement for the secondment. This will cover many of their same points at the contract. Detailing the secondment length and continuity of employment. It’s useful to set out the objectives of the placement too.

“Usually what employees want to know above all else is what happens to their job. Do they have a right to come back?” said Hyams-Parish.

Negotiating secondments and ensuring the paperwork is properly created may seem onerous. However, employers that go through the process will find it much easier to arrange placements in the future.

“Once you’ve done it and made a success of it people start to talk about it. I expect we will have more and more of these arrangements,” said Leeson.

Informal arrangements with sister companies

Secondments can provide employees with an opportunity to work in other companies within a group. These tend to be more informal and might not need a contract.

Bulldog Digital Media director Gareth Bull uses secondments to share staff with his second business. The digital services brand has grown to 25 employees over the last five years. Bull launched EmailOctopus in 2014 with his brother and staff have moved between the two companies on short-term placements.

“Tom from EmailOctopus helped us with forecasting and mapping what growth will look like. From Bulldog’s end, another Tom does that PPC advertising for email Octopus, he embedded with them to help understand their problems,” he said.

EmailOctopus is a smaller company and an underperforming hire or consultancy deal can have a big impact. The approach provides cost savings and reduces the risk of using consultants.

Managing employee secondments

Whether you take a formal or informal route to employee secondments it’s important to manage staff effectively.

Understand the employee’s motivations. It’s great if they have requested the secondment and see it as an opportunity for personal growth. If the employer requests the secondment, it’s important they ensure the employee is happy with the idea.

Seconding employees - Steve Leeson
Leeson schedules regular catch-up meetings with seconded employees.

The host companies onboarding procedure should mirror the approach taken with new hires. Tell staff about the length and objective of the secondment. This helps make the new team member feel comfortable and highlight potential opportunities.

It’s crucial to keep channels of communication open during a placement. Set up regular check-ins to talk about whether they’re enjoying the placement and adjusting well, and any changes to their long-term objectives.

“It’s difficult to know how it’s going to play out until someone is in an organisation,” said Leeson, adding Elixirr speaks to seconded employees at least once a quarter. “The only way to manage it is to encourage the individual to keep an honest and candid dialogue with their original employer.”

Get regular updates from the host organisation too. They may feel the secondee does not fit into their organisation culture or have other concerns.

What happens when the secondment is over?

Seconded employees often return with new skills and renewed enthusiasm. It’s worth thinking about the onboarding process, particularly for secondments that have lasted more than six months.

How can seconded employees use their new skills? Should the company look for an alternative job role? Is there an opportunity to share insight with the rest of the team?

Seconding employees requires a level of contractual diligence. But that doesn’t mean it’s out of reach for small businesses. Staff and employers have a lot to gain from sharing expertise and building relationships.

“Be unique in your approach,” advises Elixirr’s Leeson. “You may have objectives of your own you’re looking to achieve. As long as the calibre of resource meets the target company’s expectations people can get a lot out of it. It’s a great opportunity to exchange ideas and perspectives.”

What to learn more about employee motivation? Check out Be the Business’ articles on employee engagement.

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