Interview with Neil Morrison, group HR director, UK and international, Penguin Random House

Neil Morrison, group HR director, UK and international, at Penguin Random House, decided to join the world of employee benefits after a brief spell as a clinical psychology lecturer.

The University of Sheffield graduate wanted a change from the theoretical and research-orientated world of academia, and so moved into the role of personnel services officer at Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust.

Morrison explains: “I really wanted to do something that was applied, and I really enjoyed doing something where you can visually see a connection and a difference. I like to see how things work, so something more applied appealed to me.”

Morrison describes the transition from academia to HR as ‘great’ and says he was lucky to secure the job because competition was fierce. “Lots of people advertised that they wanted people with two or three years of experience, but there were very few people willing to give anyone with zero experience that first opportunity,” he says.

After the hospital trust, Morrison’s next job was at Rentokil Initial Management Services, where he worked as an HR adviser. He then spent eight years at Home Retail Group, latterly as HR manager, where he led a team of HR managers and advisors supporting corporate functions across the organisation. There he developed a graduate leadership programme and implemented a group-wide approach to measuring employee engagement.

Morrisoin joined Random House as group HR director in 2008. The publishing firm won this year’s Employee Benefits Award for ‘Best work-life balance strategy’ for its proactive encouragemen of its workforce to achieve a good work-life balance.

Morrison has since been promoted to group HR director, UK and international, for Penguin Random House, which was established in July 2013 following a merger.

Morrison says one of the main lessons he has learned over his career is that HR professionals sometimes make HR too complicated. “We over-manufacture what we do and forget that we are dealing with people,” he says. ”I think it’s important to remember we are dealing with human beings, not with an enemy we’re trying to beat off. We don’t need to overcomplicate the processes.”

Morrison says HR should be a positive influence, seeking to contribute to an organisation rather than trying to gain control. “Everything I do is about trying to do things simply and easily, and in a way that it sits well with the organisation I work in,” he says. 

The HR director’s biggest hurdle has been to find the right calibre of HR professionals to work with. “Getting people who really understand the way I want to deliver HR isn’t easy. I look for people who have a good philosophy when it comes to working with people. You can train skills, but it’s harder to train mindset and attitude.”

Morrsion, who has a non-hierarchical management style, says the tough economic environment poses a challenge for employee benefits practitioners. “Using benefits as a retention and motivation tool can be fantastically powerful,” he adds. “That is often a real challenge.

“Also, understanding the impact of changes in pension provision over the last 15 years, and the impact in the next 20 years, is going to be quite remarkable. For example, employees staying in the workplace, people’s ability to retire versus their inability to retire, and the impact that will have on workforce planning: all that will be interesting.”

Morrison believes HR and reward departments should be focused on making organisations better places to work. “My whole career has been trying to make work a better place to be,” he says. “As long as I’m coming into work and feeling that my team and I are making it a better place for the people that work there, then that’s all the reward I need.”


Who is your inspiration?

A name that springs to mind is [Olympic medallist] Ben Ainslie. The ability to go back time and time again to perform at the high levels that he’s done, in a low-profile way, is everything. Someone who’s performed incredibly over time and who’s been happy with the rewards that come with that is very inspirational.

Can you recommend a book?

My early philosophies came from John Paul Sartre and existentialism. That drove my philosophy on how you treat people in life and work. For instance, one of the fundamental principles of Sartre’s work is that you are as other people see you. So it doesn’t matter what you want to be, you are defined by the views of others. Often, HR doesn’t get that point. It believes it is one thing, and in fact it’s perceived as something else by the organisation.Therefore, the only way to change that is to act. You can sit and complain and say ‘I’m not like that, I’m like this’, but if people are judging you, the only way to persuade them is through action.

What are your hobbies?

In the spare time I’ve got, I do a lot of writing and I’m a quite frequent blogger about HR, but I also do some photography and cooking.

What is your favourite benefit?

The best benefit is Random House’s summer hours scheme, which is between May and August bank holiday. People work an additional 45 minutes a day and finish on a lunchtime on Friday. So throughout the summer, every employee gets 12 to 13 Friday afternoons off. It has a great emotional effect.


Curriculum Vitae

August 2013 – present
Group HR director, UK and international, Penguin Random House

September 2008- August 2013
Group HR director, Random House Group

July 2000-August 2008
HR manager, Home Retail Group

January 1998-July 2000
HR adviser, Rentokil Initial Management Services

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August 1996-May 1998
Personnel officer, Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust