Inside track – Lucy Omidiran

Lucy Omidiran, who was appointed as the University’s HR Officer (International) in May, introduces herself and explains what the newly created role involves.

Lucy Omidiran, HR Officer (International) August 2018

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Originally from Leeds, I completed my undergraduate studies here, before qualifying as a solicitor in 1999. I spent the next eight years working for a firm of solicitors in the city, handling family law and emergency protection work. 

I have just returned to Leeds after almost a decade working overseas in West Africa.

I was working as HR Manager for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. IITA is a non-profit institution that generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s challenges of hunger, malnutrition, poverty and natural resource degradation. 

IITA has previously collaborated with Leeds on a project tackling global food insecurity, and also on pest resistance in plantain. 

I was responsible for handling issues affecting expatriate employees from 49 different countries across the world, handling global recruitment and selection, policy development, workplace gender mainstreaming, diversity and inclusion, as well as training and development. 

I also worked extensively on important issues for expatriate staff, including general reward management, the salary and benefits package, housing subsidy policy, health, welfare and insurance, home leave travel and provision for dependents, as well as ensuring and enhancing the general safety and wellbeing of staff and their families while working away from their home country.

What made you want to move to West Africa? Isn't working abroad a bit daunting?

My husband and I had a desire to do something different, and to give our children a broader view and understanding of the world than they would have if we remained in the UK. 

We set out with the philosophy that if it works, great, if it doesn’t and we come back in six months’ time, at least we have tried. As it turned out, it was the best decision we could have made! We spent almost ten years living in a safe and beautiful campus environment of 1,000 hectares, including unspoilt tropical forest, a huge lake, research fields and recreational and leisure facilities. 

My children enjoyed so much freedom, had access to a whole range of outdoor activities, including daily swimming, tennis, cycling, horse riding and hiking, and had the opportunity to make friends with other children from all corners of the globe. They attended international schools with first rate teaching and small class sizes. My children are now global citizens and recognise the incredible opportunities created by diversity and the richness of culture there is across our planet.

It was daunting in the beginning, but there are many things that can be done to mitigate the risks and we did all we could. For example, I was scared of catching malaria but in ten years, not one of us suffered. It is a leap of faith, but working abroad is so much easier than it was in the past, and there are so many safeguards in place that the risks are significantly reduced.

What did you enjoy most about life in West Africa?

There were so many things – the beautiful environment in which we lived, the freedom of movement and the safety my children enjoyed within the campus. The people I met and the friendships I formed with people of so many different nationalities. The warmth, cheerfulness and optimism of my Nigerian friends and colleagues, and I loved the work I was doing, which was very much mission driven. 

My former colleagues are extremely dedicated to the mission of improving livelihoods for farmers across sub-Saharan Africa through agricultural scientific research, and are determined to achieve the vision, despite the sometimes tough field conditions in which they work and their demanding travel schedules. 

In my support role as HR Manager, I felt I was also contributing towards the achievement of the vision by ensuring the best and brightest staff were recruited, developed and retained. Many staff had been with IITA for more than 30 years and many others left for other organisations only to return to IITA years later.

I had the opportunity to travel widely within sub-Saharan Africa and appreciate the rich diversity of that huge part of the world. I now have a much greater appreciation of how fortunate I am, and I try not to take anything for granted in life.

So, why did you choose to return home? 

After almost ten years working abroad, I returned to my hometown to bring my global perspective – together with my knowledge and experience of working with expatriates – to the University in this new position. 

Overseas working does not have to be a forever decision. Often, family circumstances will feature significantly and there are optimum times in life when it works better than at others. I also came home for family reasons in that my older two children are now both in higher education, and I wanted my youngest to become accustomed to the UK education system while he is still primary age. I may well choose to work abroad again at some time in the future.

What is your role at Leeds?

This is a newly created post. I am working as part of the HR Specialist Support team.

To shape the approach to international recruitment and global mobility, I will be developing and implementing policies and processes associated with University staff working overseas. 

With the HR Specialist Support team, this will include the development and maintenance of a bank of country-specific guidance, and the development of HR processes to reflect the strategic importance of international activity.

Why is this so important to the University?

As Deputy Vice-Chancellor: International, Professor Hai-Sui Yu, says: "The key to making Leeds a successful international university has been to attract the brightest international students and staff to Leeds and support world-class research collaborations and build strategic partnerships with leading international institutions.” 

He also said: “Leeds is a truly global university. We can contribute most effectively to sharing knowledge, innovation and education worldwide by building productive, mutually beneficial relationships with researchers, universities and other organisations in key countries.”

I look forward to the challenge of assisting in the achievement of the International Leeds strategy, and to position the University as a dynamic, agile and outward-looking institution, welcoming the best international staff and increasing global mobility. 

So, what's the plan?

I will be working in three main priority areas:

1) There are already many highly-valued international staff at the University and, as part of the strategy, this number will increase. 

The reception and welcome offered to international staff will be enhanced to ensure new staff receive enough information and support to enable them to settle quickly and comfortably into their new home and work. The commitment of staff who come to join the University from overseas, often with young families, is inspiring and it is essential we are able to support them fully.  

As part of this commitment, we are exploring a number of possibilities, taking feedback from international staff who have recently made the move to Leeds. For example, we are considering the introduction of a 'buddy' scheme, where an existing member of staff would be a point of contact to provide guidance and advice to the incoming member of staff during the settling-in period. 

The website for international staff, Relocate@Leeds, is to be reviewed, updated and enhanced. The global reach of the University, in terms of attracting, developing and retaining international staff, will be broadened, and innovative methods of attracting global talent will be deployed.

2) The second area of focus for my work is to research and establish a framework for more structured overseas assignments. It is important to recognise that a move overseas, even for a relatively short period of time, is a significant undertaking. 

A framework for international assignments is in place at the University and the intention is to review the current provision, carry out some bench marking, and ensure what the University is offering is attractive and in line with global best practice. 

3) International assignments have implications in terms of tax and social security (National Insurance in the UK), both for international staff coming to the University and for University staff considering assignments overseas. Alongside external advisors, Leeds is working to establish a bank of country-specific guidance relating to potential tax liabilities. Budgeting for appropriate costs, and awareness of obligations overseas, both for the individual and for the University, will ensure compliance in the UK and overseas. 

Establishing this guidance will ensure staff and hiring managers can be fully appraised of the tax implications of each undertaking through advance notification and reporting. 

Who's who in the International team?

Other members of the team, whose work includes aspects of international support, are:

  • Lisa Courtney, HR Project Officer, offering advice and assistance on UK visas, and ensuring the University is compliant with the requirements of United Kingdom Visas and Immigration (UKVI), with part-time support from Helena Boukili
  • Mike Cooper, HR Officer, who can advise on international recruitment; and
  • seated in the Finance team, Rachel McFie, International Tax Advisor, handles tax issues associated with international working.

They are all overseen by Jo Squires, Head of HR, Specialist Support Team.

How can we get involved?

If you are involved in international working arrangements, you may be contacted by Rachel McFie, the University’s International Tax Advisor. 

If you have any feedback, queries or suggestions relating to international working, please contact me.

We also have two new email addresses to allow any of the team to be able to help with queries. Please use this address for any queries on technical/operational issues and the points-based visa system. This email address is intended to have more of an outward focus, so can be used by staff, prospective staff and hiring managers, as appropriate.

If you were to work abroad again, what would be your destination of choice?

Given that I have spent ten years in West Africa, my next destination would be the other side of the continent, probably Kenya. 

Kenya is a beautiful and diverse country with so much to see, do and buy; wildlife reserves and birdlife, the Great Rift Valley, Mount Kenya, fabulous beaches, delicious food and beautiful arts and crafts – beadwork, hand-woven linen and rugs and gorgeous jewellery. I have visited Nairobi many times and always wished to be able to stay longer to travel and see more of the country.

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