INSIDE BUSINESS: The personnel department small firms can dial up

IT is widely accepted that a small business can have as many personnel problems as a large corporation.

Indeed, they can seem bigger, because it generally does not have the resources with which to deal with them.

All is not lost, though. In keeping with the current vogue for outsourcing, it is possible to have access to human resources expertise without having your own personnel department or even a single person responsible for it.

Qtab, a human resources consultancy based in the South-east, is claiming to have established Britain's first phone helpline to assist overstretched or under-resourced businesses in dealing with difficult issues.

The service, which is open from 8.30am to 5.30pm from Monday to Friday, will be manned by Qtab's consultants and should provide answers to most questions within 24 hours, says Ann Wain, one of the consultants involved.

Since its launch this month, the initiative has been mainly focused on existing core clients of the consultancy, which has advised more than a thousand organisations ranging from bean sprouts producers and Surrey County Cricket Club to Ikea and Railtrack in its 10-year life. But it is intended to broaden the scope in the coming months.

The consultancy, which is based at Kingston upon Thames and headed by Kevin Green, anticipates that employment law will account for most inquiries. But it also points out that the service is an integral part of a programme it somewhat grandly calls "Inspira" (from the Latin for "to breathe life into").

This is designed to ensure that a companyhas a human resources strategy to match its business objectives, by carrying out an annual audit covering strategy, training and development, peformance measures, and pay and rewards.

There is also a quarterly newsletter to keep clients up to date with the latest developments in the field, and an annual conference where customers can meet to exchange news and views.

The cost of the service depends on the size of the company, ranging from pounds 3,500 a year for businesses with fewer than 200 employees, to pounds 12,000 for those with more than 2,500.

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