Rearing trust at the Zoological Society of London

Written by
Tom Ritchie

27 Jul 2017

27 Jul 2017 • by Tom Ritchie

When you visit a zoo, it’s very rare that you stop to think about the welfare of the humans that make the place tick. But in truth, with the variance in its employees; from scientists, veterinary nurses, shop assistants to the press team and accountants, the human ecosystem is just as varied as the animal species that are on display.

This is certainly the case at both London and Whipsnade Zoo, both of which are run by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). While there may be close to 700 species on show, with animals such as emperor tamarins, tigers, gibbons and tapirs taking pride of place, there are also more than 1,000 employees to manage. Taking charge of their welfare, is ZSL’s HR director, Fiona Evans. 

Getting stuck in and mucking out

So how do you go about managing a workforce with such a disparate set of skills and responsibilities? For Evans, creating a level of trust through understanding of individual responsibilities is integral to making each employee feel valued.

“If you can sell a vision to your own staff and the organisation, then people will come with you on that journey,” says Evans. “And so far, that’s played out here too.  People are happy”

Evans explains how she generates buy in by helping people out. During her first couple of months on the job, she made her commitment known to the staff at the Whipsnade Zoo by helping muck out the elephants.

“The zookeepers realised I wasn't averse to hard physical work. It’s important that if you're going to win people over, that you understand what they face on a day to day basis. It was important for me to get their trust.”

Worldwide responsibilities

Not only does Evans oversee the recruitment and training of the domestic staff, she also looks after the welfare of over 250 overseas staff, some of whom are based in the remotest areas of the globe, conducting important conservation work.

“We have staff working in countries like Nepal, the Philippines, Mongolia, Cameroon, Kenya, Thailand and Chad - all  fascinating but difficult places, that's where the animals that are in jeopardy are,” explains Evans.

“Our staff are doing tremendous jobs out there: working with governments, in difficult situations and environments. We make sure we are compliant with the legislation in all of these different countries, to ensure staff are safe. If you're working out in the forests of Cameroon, it can be quite isolating.”

Besides the practical difficulties that operating in such a wide range of countries throws up, Evans and other directors regularly visit their employees conducting this side of the charity’s work to make sure they are fulfilling their needs.

“Every time I have gone out to spend a week with a member of staff, they feel more connected to ZSL – they feel valued when a director comes out to meet them.”

Changing the ecosystem

This trust and engagement with HR wasn’t so apparent when Evans first took the role in 2014. Where ZSL’s HR function had been seen as an administrative arm of the charity, there was little faith in its ability to either affect genuine change for the employees working with the animals, or have a genuine role in strategy at a senior level. Evans looked to combat this by implementing a staff survey, with tangible outcomes for all employees of the charity.

“The first year, people didn't believe that senior managers would actually take any action as a result,  they just thought: ‘I'll fill this in and nothing will happen’,” explains Evans.

“We set up a champions group, from the staff groups to work with HR on it, they went out and galvanised employees and got them interested in filling out the surveys. They then fed back to people about the results, and we came up with action plans for every director, and they each got judged on how well they did.”

And they’ve done well. Confidence in senior directors has gone up by 10% since Evans took over, with staff also 12% more likely to feel that senior managers are inspiring them to do a good job. All in all, 26 initiatives have been implemented since Evans first conducted the survey, with a staff forum, a new reward scheme and improved internal communications all coming off the back of staff feedback. 

From tortoise to cheetah

One of the most substantial changes has been the complete revamp of ZSL’s recruitment function. As one of the most famous zoos in the world, Evans and her team receive as many as 2,000 applications per zookeeper post. Whereas previously applicants would be sorted manually, with HR involved in every process, Evans implemented an automated service, that would be overseen by a specialist recruitment officer and line managers with more in-depth knowledge of their specific needs.

 “If you have a specialist person doing recruitment, who knows what they’re doing, you get the greatest service for the managers. They've got an overview of the whole process, and you get economies of scale from bringing in the right systems.”

Appreciation of the new process has been widespread, with 100% of employees recommending the system and training, with the training processes scoring an 8.7/10 for satisfaction. The entire process has also been reduced from an average of 12 weeks in 2014, to six-seven weeks in 2016.

The acceleration of recruitment has had a knock-on effect on HR’s ability to influence other parts of the business. Since 2015, ZSL has been reaching out to local colleges for students to take part in a two-week work experience at the zoo, to both promote jobs in the community and improve the diversity of ZSL’s core workforce. Seven students have been hired from the scheme, with four coming from BAME backgrounds.

“We really push our young people to get involved,” says Evans. “A lot of young people don’t know what they want to do when they come here. It's not a traditional ‘nine-to-five’ people who come and work here have to  really care about animals.”

"The road to success is always under construction"

While the changes Evans has made have had a positive impact on the running of ZSL and the perception of HR within the business, external pressures haven’t always made the job plain sailing. In 2015, the national media picked up on a love triangle involving the zoo’s staff that resulted in one of the keepers being sacked for violent behaviour at a staff party.  Cue some pretty wild headlines, and some potentially negative press for ZSL. “If it hadn’t been London Zoo – it would never have reached the papers,” says Evans.

“The important thing for me, is that you have to do the right thing and you have to follow through on decisions, even if they may not be popular. We followed all of our procedures. It was the right decision to make at the time; you can't have inappropriate behaviour in a workplace.”

Even when discussing potentially sensitive subjects, Evans’ passion for her work is infectious. Be it discussing the reorganisation she’s overseen, a disciplinary issue, her love of the elephants at the Whipsnade Zoo or Jae Jae the tiger in London, her commitment to her vision for the charity is apparent. Looking forward, she is bullish about the role HR will play in developing the charity’s use of technology, development of its leaders and bolstering employee engagement.

“When I came in here I had a three-to-five-year vision for where I wanted to take this department. We’ll be a critical component in driving the success of over the next few years,” says Evans.

“As the saying goes, the road to success is always under construction.”