Interim and Consulting HR Director
Having spent over 15 years working in Human Resources, Elma O’Reilly – the former Global People, Culture and Corporate Affairs Director at AllSaints – has seen everything from bikini shots appearing on CVs to the evolution of social networking. Now working as a consultant internationally for creative agencies and retailers Elma is parachuted in to support businesses who need a mega transformation through to those just needing eyes on a contract. Here, she shares the story of her journey – alongside her top tips on interview etiquette.
What did you want to do when you were growing up?
When I was really small, I wanted to be a mermaid… But that was never going to work out. Aside from that, I was never someone who had a clear focus on a job title – as in, to be a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, I focused on what careers would let me explore and enjoy my passions. Even now, when people ask me about careers, I tell them to make a list of what they enjoy and what frustrates them to help assess their next steps: it is too easy to get caught up in job titles.
Can you talk a little through your career, and how you got to where you are now?
My husband and I decided to move to London from Ireland in 2000, and I got a job at the National Film Institute on the South Bank London as Front of House Manager.
From there, I joined the London Eye as Human Resources Operations Manager. That was my first dedicated HR role – and, from there, Nike approached me with an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. I was based in Niketown in London, one of their global flagship stores, where I saw how the brand develops employees as their ambassadors; I worked with a lot of people who had swoosh tattoos!
After four years in London, Nike relocated me to Amsterdam to join the recruitment team. It was a move that I was a little wary of at first – I didn’t originally see myself in recruitment – but I got to understand the business so well that I was better able to assess candidates.
I then stayed in Amsterdam but moved to PVH (Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), where I developed the talent acquisition team. That was an amazing experience, as I got to be involved in huge changes within the business, including the Calvin Klein license acquisition. One day, I unexpectedly got a call from AllSaints – and again, I felt like it was an opportunity too good to pass up.
Can you explain your current position as a consultant? What does it entail?
As a consultant it is a really varied role and really depends on who I'm working with: I am normally involved in the commercial sides of a business as much as the traditional HR activities. I'll work closely with CEO and leadership team to focus on how our people and structure will drive business growth. I also look after the full life cycle of employees, and employer branding as well as just being a helping hand to help small start ups to get their HR process in place from the get go- being able to feel like a proper business is important for lots of entreprenurs and having contracts, appraisals and general support in place means that you can focus on building your company knowing you're supported from all angles and your team feels like they are being managed too.
What does an average day look like for you?
It is cliché to say, but no two days are the same: it varies from creating a recruitment strategy for peak business, to working with universities to develop future talent, to establishing a talent plan to support business growth, and negotiating staffing plans for new markets. I always need to be prepared to drop all of my plans and deal with emergencies – so being organised is essential.
How did you find relocating to Amsterdam to work for Nike? What were the struggles of, and benefits to, working in a new country?
It was an amazing opportunity and I would encourage anyone who gets the chance to move to jump right in and take it. It is very easy to get stuck in a rut, but working in another country will help you develop so much.
Working with so many different nationalities within a Dutch culture taught me a lot: it opened my eyes to how other cultures work, and I have tried to bring some of what I learned there to my current role. I can also cycle and hold an umbrella in the rain at the same time, which I think is an exceptional skill to have.
You’ve spent the past 13 years working for fashion businesses – do you think that a particular skillset is needed to work in human resources in this industry?
Absolutely. Patience and flexibility are very important. I also believe you need to have a passion for it; it is much more than just a 9-5. Working in a creative industry offers more challenges, because you don’t want to suppress creativity with bureaucracy – and there is a lot of bureaucracy in HR. But in any industry I believe that honesty and openness can go a long way – and I am a big believer in the power of conversation.
In HR, it is easy to create a culture where you are unapproachable, but I believe in engaging with the business and ensuring that employees know who you are so there is no fear about talking to HR. Employees need to see us as objective – and, while not every conversation I have is positive, I hope it is always fair and honest. Even in the most difficult cases, I have had people thank me afterwards for dealing with them openly and honestly.
A lot of the questions that we get asked are about interview preparation – and you must do a lot of interviewing! Do you have any words of advice to candidates about how to best express yourself in those situations?
Be yourself and relax: an interview should be an enjoyable experience. Plan well and research the brand. Go and visit some stores, and buy something online to experience their ecommerce offering. Know their competitors, and be able to analyse them and give your opinion. Also, make sure that you ask questions and find out what it is like to work there to see if that matches your expectations.
I also like to see people in a more relaxed environment; I prefer to go for coffee with a candidate than do an interview in a formal office. I get to see them in a more natural environment, and they relax more. An interview shouldn’t be a test for anyone. I think that a lot of managers lose sight of the purpose of an interview: it is as much about us selling our brand as the candidates selling themselves.
Are there any things you ought never do in an interview, or when applying for a job?
A CV should be no more than two pages long, and laid out in bullet points: recruiters get so many CVs and they just don’t have time to review pages and pages. Your CV should be a stepping-stone to an interview, so you don’t have to list every single thing you’ve ever done. Make sure you express yourself – but I don’t mean include a photo of you in a bikini in Ibiza, although I get those too! Tailor your CV to the job you are applying for: I advise matching to the job description of the role so it is very clear what you can offer. Incredibly, I still get CVs with spelling mistakes.
Do you think that the proliferation of social media has affected how recruiters assess candidates? Has the digital age affected what you do at all?
For sure. Everyone is more exposed and employers have much more insight into you, whether you want them to or not. The line between private and public profiles is now very blurred and you need to consider what is appropriate for your career. On a positive note, it does open up immense networking opportunities and I would always encourage potential employees to utilise professional networks.
If you could travel back in time to give your younger self one piece of career advice, what would it be?
I have been lucky in my career to have some amazing mentors who have coached and developed me. I have had incredible opportunities and priceless experiences. Take chances and be happy – it’s going to be an amazing ride!