Welcome: Sihem Bennour

New head of HR foresees a deeper culture of information sharing, listening, and problem solving with EMBL staff and fellows

Woman stands in front of railing.
Sihem Bennour looks forward to deepening HR’s relationship with staff and being more widely incorporated in staff support systems. Credit: Stuart Ingham/EMBL

If you ask Sihem Bennour how she sees EMBL Human Resources changing under her leadership, she talks about conjoining two HR teams – EMBL and EMBL-EBI – to incorporate practices together that make the most sense.  In fact, she is fond of saying, “What does right look like?” 

With experience in managing change in organisations like the British Embassy in Tunis and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Bennour joined EMBL-EBI in September 2020, amidst the pandemic, but recently became EMBL’s overall head of HR. We recently caught up, and she shared how she’s fostering a culture of compassion and understanding in HR, where she developed her very strong appreciation for diversity, and how a trip to the garden centre can be a welcome catharsis.

What is your philosophy on how a successful human resources office functions?

Often an HR department is seen as the keeper of staff rules, policies, and regulations, which is true. But I also want us to be seen as a compassionate and informed ‘go-to’ team. If you have a problem, if you have a concern, go to your HR team. They’re there to help you. That is the core of what we do. Yes, we need to be consistent as we follow rules and regulations, but right now, some staff and fellows do not view HR as part of their support network. I want to change that mindset. My goal is to make HR your trusted team that can provide you with expert guidance and advice on all HR-related matters. I’ll know I’ve done a good job if I have both a happy HR team, and one that EMBL staff, fellows, and management trust.

Tell me about the HR team.

When you look at HR, it can seem like a very big team, but over half the team is taking care of operational tasks because there is so much to be done. As an intergovernmental organisation, we pay for full-time, internally paid staff moves to EMBL, as well as removals. We take care of processing education grants for staff. EMBL has so many staff benefits like this that require our tracking, processing, and managing. Right now, I’m trying to find balance in delivering quality HR operations and services without losing sight of strategy. 

With all these responsibilities, how will you accomplish this re-balance?

Since I started, we’ve been looking hard internally at our end-to-end processes and how we can streamline them. Do we have waste that can be reduced and free up more time? What does ‘right’ look like? I found that EMBL-EBI and EMBL Heidelberg HR have functioned as two separate teams with different processes in place at times. So we’re now applying guidelines consistently across the sites, and we’re reevaluating our processes. That doesn’t mean choosing one process over another but working together to use this as an opportunity to really think about what ‘right’ looks like, and put that new or refined approach into effect rather than just doing ‘business as usual’. The downside is that while we do this our workload has increased significantly. Ultimately, I believe we’ll come out of this with an HR that works well within itself and works well for EMBL staff and fellows at all sites.

So, who should people go to in HR? How does one know the right person to reach out to for the wide range of responsibilities your office handles?

Every team and group are assigned three people from HR who can provide support in different ways. Your HR partner provides guidance and advice on all team-related matters, your HR officer provides guidance on personal entitlements, and your HR recruitment partner leads on recruitment. Staff and fellows can check who is assigned to their team and group on the HR intranet pages.

EMBL is fortunate to have several support mechanisms in place – the Staff Association is a truly valuable sounding board and resource, as is the ombudsperson. But I think we sometimes forget that Human Resources is a key part of this support network, with expert problem solvers and compassionate colleagues who are eager to listen and work with staff and fellows to resolve issues.

What drove you to work in international organisations?

In my own upbringing, my parents came from two entirely different parts of the world. As a result, I find I embrace differences and enjoy reconciling or incorporating them. My father is Tunisian, and my mother is from the UK. So, one parent came from the Arab world, and the other from a European background – these cultures are so different. From childhood, I thought about why people are different. Why do they do things differently? That mindset really gets one to listen, to be curious, and to not be judgemental. I think of myself as essentially diverse by birth. And it’s one of the things I like about being at EMBL – the diverse backgrounds that make up our community. Additionally, our staff are moving homes, experiencing new cultures, and adapting to a new organisation – they need to be taken care of. So, even in our communication, and in our management, we need to be aware of this diversity in backgrounds and how it impacts staff expectations, needs, and communication styles. 

What hobby relaxes you most after a hard day or week at work, and how does it compare to a favourite pastime from when you were younger?

When I was young, I was really into dancing and even went to competitions. I really love music. Now I’m a very keen gardener. So I spend a lot of my time out in the garden. The plants are like my babies. When I moved into my house, there was nothing there. So the geraniums,  magnolias, roses – all of it – are things I chose and planted. It’s become a bit of a joke in our house, but if we’re going out, I’m quite likely to ask, “Can we stop by the garden centre?” 

What are you listening to on your headphones these days?

Ooh, this is definitely not what I always listen to, but lately I’ve been listening to the ‘greatest hits’ that my college-age daughters normally listen to. More typically, though, I would be listening to French music, which is what I grew up listening to. I am not kidding when I say I love music of all kinds, so it’s hard to pin down my music taste.

Tags: administration, Bennour, human resources, welcome


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