Imperial College London HRD Harbhajan Brar tells Beau Jackson how his 30 years in HR have been driven by a determination to build better, fairer, more successful organisations that represent demographic realities.
Like stage hands at the theatre, the UK’s academics are an essential yet invisible part of the country. From facemasks to social distancing, many decisions over the past two years were backed by the government’s SAGE committee, formed of world-leading scientists applying their expertise to keep the nation safe in the face of an unknown threat.
Experts from Imperial College London were among those named in this year’s honours list for such invaluable efforts behind the scenes, and the quiet influence they hold is a quality shared by their HR director Harbhajan Brar.
Brar’s CV is that of an HR powerhouse. And while his talent is undisputed, he is certainly not one to boast. Often attributing his success to luck, the HRD of Imperial College London is extremely humble. And though many areas of life favour those who shout the loudest, Brar is the perfect example of how passion and a great deal of care can buck the trend.
“It saddens me that we haven’t moved fast enough in addressing issues of diversity”
Speaking from his family home in Oxfordshire, he says: “People always assume that somehow it is your networks that enable you to get your senior job. Whether it’s in the Civil Service or private sector, people have often said to me ‘Who do you know here?’ and in all of these organisations, I’ve not known anybody.”
Being one of the only ethnic minorities in the room has been a common thread throughout Brar’s career and unpicking racial injustice against others is how in fact he first made his way into HR.
In the late 1980s, then a researcher, the London Borough of Ealing had just recruited 120 new teachers. Despite being a multi-ethnic community, just three teachers out of the new cohort were an ethnic minority.
“I did a very quick piece of research, which went to a full council meeting and led to an independent investigation,” explains Brar. “That’s how I got into HR, partly through the diversity lens, and partly through the processes around how HR worked.
“It led to rethinking the recruitment practices and setting up dedicated teams around diversity to look at what more as a borough we could do, because as an employer in the mid 1980s, Ealing’s employment didn’t reflect the population it served.”
The diversity monitoring systems Brar set up at Ealing were the first of their kind for the borough and cutting edge at the time.
Three decades later, Brar is disappointed to see how little progress has been made in organisations to go beyond such systems, now considered the basics of D&I.
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“It saddens me that in 30 years of working in HR, we haven’t moved fast enough in addressing issues of diversity,” he says. “You only have to look at the data of the top 100 employers and at board membership.”
Recalling the first time he went to an NHS conference in the early 2000s, then working for Kingston Hospital Trust, Brar remembers being one of only three or four ethnic minority people in a room of several thousand people.
“It’s a little bit more diverse [now] but senior employment in the NHS certainly doesn’t reflect the population it serves in terms of number of ethnic minorities that it employs.”
One of the critical issues with diversity that Brar points to is internal mobility. Even when a company, or, in his case, a trust like St George’s where he worked for three years prior to joining Imperial, has a diverse leadership team, when people move on, those role models get lost.
“There was the director of nursing and myself who were the two ethnic minority staff members. Now we have both left, the board’s reverted, which shows just how low the numbers at a senior level are,” he explains.
“An NHS Trust in the middle of south London serving a fairly multicultural population that still isn’t representative of its community.”
One of the things that has helped make a difference to Brar is having a mentor from early on in his career.
“I had the most amazing boss in Ealing, Kwame. He came from an ethnic minority background and stayed as a mentor and a coach as well as a friend to me until he sadly passed away a couple of years ago.
“He was really instrumental in helping me. Occasionally he’d pull me back and say: ‘Is that the right move for you?’ And we’d
talk it through.”
Five things I can’t live without
My family – They are the most important part of my being
My PC – Without it, I simply would not be able to work, especially over the last couple of years
My garden – It is my outside space to clear the head
Exercise – Especially cycling or the cross trainer
My car – It’s my way of connecting with family and friends as well as with work
Returning the invaluable guidance received from his former boss, Brar now mentors and coaches other aspiring HR professionals from minority backgrounds, despite naturally being more inclined to introversion.
“Networks still play a part, and quite often it’s hard for ethnic minority folk to break into [them].
“I’m an extreme introvert on Myers Briggs. So, I’ve avoided [networking opportunities] if I’m honest with you. But my one bit of advice is to network, as it does help.”
Another common thread throughout his career has been turning around failing organisations, which has occasionally involved stepping out of HR.
The very first HR directorship he took on was at Lewisham College. Working with a new executive team, Brar put in a plan to turn the college around. Afterward it became the first college in the country to gain five of the highest grades in its Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) inspection report.
“It won award after award and seeing the improvements makes me excited. Through that, the experience for students is better, the experience for our staff is better and so on.”
Brar reprised his turnaround role at Barnet and Chase Farm NHS Hospitals. As the hospital ran into trouble Brar, then HRD, was put forward for the financial recovery role, which brought a different perspective to the recovery.
“For me [the task was] to treat it as an organisational design project and look at actually how we deliver transformation through our people.
“It’s not always about reducing numbers and certainly in the NHS, that’s not what it can be about. It’s about looking at efficiencies and effectiveness.”
Barnet and Chase’s subsequent success is one of his proudest achievements to date.
“After a two-year detailed turnaround plan and focused attention to people, we actually broke even, for the first time after about seven years.”
Brar says his directorship at Imperial will be his last “big job” before retirement, but as someone who has always prioritised challenge and variety, it could be a hard one to shake.
Brar recently reapplied to sit as a magistrate, and he volunteered with charity Nishkam SWAT (Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team) during the pandemic to help serve food to the homeless. He has also become a trustee of a school academy.
On top of a full-on HRD role at a world-leading university it is hard to know where Brar finds time for his volunteer work, but for him it is equally as important as what he does nine-to-five.
“Part of it is about grounding in reality, but it is also the ethos in the Sikh religion, practicing sewa which is about serving [Selfless service of others].”
“For me, retirement isn’t about sitting on this sofa doing very little.”
This piece appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.