Interview with Olga Pollock - Human Resources Manager, Phoenix Natural Gas Ltd

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 6 February 2018
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Legal Island

Olga Pollock
Name:  Olga Pollock
Position & Organisation:  Human Resources Manager, Phoenix Natural Gas Ltd
Number of Employees:  approx.. 170
Time in Post: 14 months
Previous Job:  Human Resources Manager, Totalmobile Ltd


Tell us about your business in a sentence

We own and operate the largest gas distribution network in Northern Ireland covering Greater Belfast, Larne and East Down.

What was your first ever job?

My first ever job was as a Sales Assistant in my local supermarket at the tender age of 17. It was also my first opportunity to earn money that I had no idea how to manage, though I had fun trying! I was responsible for stacking the shelves of the cat and dog food aisle and soon got a taste of customer service; some good, some bad. It was during this role that I suppose I got my first insight into poor line management. I had little to no induction and had to figure things out by myself by pestering colleagues. Often when I knocked on the door of the office seeking help I was ordered to ‘go away’ and one time was ‘guldered’ at across the shop floor. Being just a number meant I inevitably didn’t stick it out long. Having a bit of money for clothes and makeup wasn’t enough to motivate me. But looking back it was a learning experience and highlights to me now, the importance of good people management and behaviours. Perhaps if I’d had a decent induction and treated with respect I may well have stayed longer. It wasn’t all bad though; I met my first boyfriend who was working at the frozen food cabinets!

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Definitely juggling the day-to-day, operational against the more strategic, and value-adding needs of the business. I remember someone telling me recently that the ratio of HR staff to employees is something like 1 in 100. Soon after I joined Phoenix the HR team went from two strong to one, and all of a sudden yours truly was thrown in at the deep end. So very quickly I had to prioritise my workload despite still being in the midst of a steep learning curve. Nothing sharpens the mind more than being in a sink or swim scenario. Thankfully with great supportive leadership and colleagues I came out the other side and even managed to recruit an exceptional HR Officer along the way.

I think most HR practitioners would agree of the need to be commercial. The HR function has come a long way from the old personnel days. We need to understand the business, the candidate market and have marketing skills to promote our brand and benefits both internally and externally. So we need to move away from being an administrative function alone to one which partners with the business and is comfortable liaising with all levels of staff right up to the CEO, and if needed shareholders.

We also need to be resilient, emotionally intelligent, exceptionally organised, hold the highest levels of integrity and have the ability and awareness to balance the needs of the business against those of the employee ensuring that one does not swing too far in favour of the other.

The list could go on but in summary, there are a significant amount of skills and behaviours required to do this job properly and all the while trying to ensure our paperwork is in order and that we are complying with the huge raft of employment legislation. But despite all the challenges I am very lucky to work in a profession that I love and that I am passionate about.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

In HR we inevitably face some difficult situations whether related to employee relations issues, redundancies or dismissals. We are very often at the coal-face when dealing with matters such as a grievance from a disgruntled member of staff. I have been involved in very difficult conversations with staff and often highly emotional. Frustrations, anger and resentment have been directed at me and that’s where resilience needs to come in. I like to think I have a heart and when an employee directs their anger at me I always try to see things from their perspective. After all, we are dealing with people’s lives and we should show compassion and support when needed. I also work on the ‘how would I like to be treated’ principal and in doing so hope that I am respectful in return.

Having been through a redundancy situation myself during which I was treated with genuine benevolence has reinforced to me the importance of not seeing these matters as merely something that needs to be done properly to avoid a claim. The kindness shown to me will always stay with me and I left the employer on great terms without a bad word to say about them. It makes all the difference especially in a small recruitment market like Northern Ireland.

Ultimately there are so many great aspects of my job that they far outweigh the bad and so it’s good to see things from that perspective. Of course if you’re lucky enough to be working for a great employer, in a stable company, then it’s much easier to deal with the tough things. As much of a cliché as it sounds, we spend far too much time at work to be miserable.

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

Honestly, in terms of realistic expectations, it would always be HR.

In a fantasy land it would have to be a chocolatier. No explanations needed!

Who do you most admire in business locally and/or internationally? Why?

Locally based owner and founder of Vibrant Talent Development, Craig Thompson. His company was set up to help organisations across Europe attract and retain the best talent. I met Craig at a Legal Island Network meeting after he had delivered a talk on motivation. I remember listing to him in fascination and took the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions at the end of the event. After that we met for coffee allowing us both the opportunity to chat through what Vibrant offers and how this may help our people strategy at Phoenix.

Craig is intriguing, knowledgeable and genuine and is a fountain of knowledge in terms of staff engagement and attracting talent. I learn something new from him every time we talk. He made the brave move to resign from his secure job and jump into the unknown as he was fed up trying to do great things for staff without the necessary support around him to make it work. So he spent some time soul-searching in Barcelona, contemplating his next venture until his path eventually lead down the entrepreneurial road of setting up his own business. Now he gets to work with companies that want to make a difference.

I have had the privilege of working with Craig on a number of projects and wouldn’t consider turning to an ‘off-the-shelf’ provider. He takes so much time to really understand the business and the learning needs before he even starts to put pen to paper. I know if he reads this he will probably be cringing, but that humbleness makes him even more likeable and authentic.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

I love getting home to my children who are still young enough to be pleased to see me. The Friday night ritual in our house is pizza so that is my time to chill and pig out after a hectic week. My husband bought me a Kindle for Christmas. I always thought I preferred to turn a page but I am hooked. I love the simplicity of the device. I can immerse myself in a good book with a nice cup of tea.

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

Negativity. There are times when we have reason to moan but I hate when people complain for the sake of it, even when it’s about something good like the Christmas party venue!

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

These people have a genuine passion for their job. It is more than just a nine to five for them. They are enthusiastic and go the extra mile for fun. Of course, as an employer it is our responsibility to keep that fire burning.

What piece of advice would you give to a person trying to reach your position?

Integrity is essential for this job. There is no place for office gossip or sharing confidential information. Treat people with respect. Always. If you are put in a position which compromises this, you need to seriously question whether that organisation is the right place for you or not.  

This article is correct at 06/02/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

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