10th April 2024

The Post: Culture & Engagement Manager, Northern Ireland Water

Post Holder: Dr. Alison Sweeney (PhD), Chartered FCIPD

As Culture & Engagement Manager with NI Water Dr. Alison Sweeney is responsible for developing and leading a variety of key people strategies that help support the company’s ambitions to provide a great place to work.

What is your job title and what does your role involve?

My job title is Culture & Engagement Manager at Northern Ireland Water (NI Water). I have been with NI Water for over eight years now and my role involves leading on people strategies. I have been lucky enough to have led on a variety of interesting people initiatives that support NI Water’s ambitions to provide a great place to work, such as our multi award winning health and wellbeing programme, the design and delivery of our corporate values and the delivery of our exceptional Management Development Programme, to name a few.

I thoroughly enjoy my work and am delighted that we have been recognised in a number of highly prestigious awards across multiple areas of Human Resources (HR) including our Health and Wellbeing Programme, our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work and our Apprenticeship Programme.

What was your career background/training?

I got my first taste of Human Resources more than 30 years ago, through my work in the media sector when I was given the responsibility of developing the personnel department. Since then, I have worked across a range of sectors including education, transport, logistics and now in the water industry. During the course of my career, I completed a degree in Humanities, a Masters degree in Human Resource Management and a PHD in Education.  While these weren’t essential for my job, I found that studying for these qualifications really enriched my exciting and rewarding career in HR.

As with any career in HR, you commit to ongoing personal development and I’m really lucky to work for an employer which supports this. Since starting here eight years ago, NI Water has supported and funded me to complete an Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) level 5 certificate in mentoring and coaching in 2018 and award in effective mentoring in 2021, a PRINCE II qualification in project management and more recently my Chartered Fellowship in HR with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

As people professionals, our role in any organisation is to champion better work and working lives, and I love that I get to make a real difference to my colleagues’ lives and also in my community through my work.

Were there any essential qualifications or experience needed?

For most HR roles, its generally expected that you’ll have a Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) qualification or to be working towards it. Like most professional bodies there are different membership levels from a Foundation Certificate (equivalent to A-levels) right through to Chartered Fellowship. I am very proud to hold the level of Chartered Fellow.

As a Silver Diversity Mark accredited organisation, it’s important that NI Water’s employment opportunities are accessible.  We recognise that people may not have been privileged to complete their education or attain degree qualifications, and so for many of our jobs, we accept applications from those with experience in the field in HR, and we’ll support them in obtaining the qualifications while they work for us.  For my current role it is helpful to have people and project management experience and qualifications. 

Is the industry what you expected it to be?

Working in the water industry has by far exceeded my expectations.  As the only water company in Northern Ireland, we are responsible for delivering 575 million litres of drinking water and treating 340 million litres of wastewater to two million people. Every. Single. Day. It’s a big responsibility and we need highly skilled people across a breadth of areas to achieve this, from HR professionals to finance, and engineering to science.  I love that I get to play a small role in that by making sure that our 1600 strong workforce is skilled and supported to deliver this essential and precious resource to the people of Northern Ireland 24/7.

The water industry and NI Water in particular is a real hidden gem. Working here provides me with the opportunity to make a real difference both within my organisation and also externally in my local community.

Why is what you do important?

My role is important because I am responsible for developing and leading a variety of key people strategies that supports NI Water’s ambitions to provide a great place to work. These strategies help develop and reinforce our really positive workplace culture that supports our employees by creating a healthy and safe working environment. Working in a supportive and high-performing team has helped us to achieve great things, positively impacting the lives of our employees and contributing to NI Water being named Employer of the Year in 2023.

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to pursue a similar career?

For anyone wishing to pursue a career in HR I would say go for it. It’s an extremely rewarding career with a range of specialisms which provide great opportunities to be creative and innovate to support a business’s success.  HR professionals can work in any number of diverse fields, including Recruitment and Resourcing strategy, Culture and Engagement, Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, Learning and Development and Reward, to name a few.

Having said that, I would encourage people to gain experience in all areas of HR before settling on a specialism. Doing this allowed me to appreciate all areas of HR practice and see how they interact with each other – for example, my work on health and wellbeing strategy links directly to employee attendance and welfare, as well as to our employee benefits practices.

I’ve enjoyed my career in HR so much that I have encouraged my daughter Caitlin to pursue a career in it – there’s no better recommendation that that!

Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

After a 30 year long career, I recognise that the people you work with are as important as the work you do and in NI Water, we really do believe that here, everyone matters.  Being part of the high-performing, hardworking and successful HR team at NI Water has been by far the most rewarding phase of my career to date.  As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together. 

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