Review: Retail HR North Manchester
Retailers continue to have their perennial challenges around recruitment and retention, but progress is being made in the sector around diversity and inclusion as well as introducing innovative recruiting methods and training strategies along with the greater use of technology.
It is certainly a vibrant sector that offers a great opportunity to young people, according to Luiza Gomes, employment policy advisor and D&I lead at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), when speaking at The Retail Bulletin Retail HR North conference 2024 in Manchester as she highlighted that 25% of people employed in retail are under 24-years-old compared with 11% across the total UK workforce.
“It offers the first job experience for many people,” she says, adding that the flexibility in the industry is a key attraction for many individuals and that the majority of contracts are for between six and 16 hours whereas only 20% are employed for more than 35 hours per week. Retail is also ahead of the game in its progress on gender balance, with the pay gap 7.3% between genders compared with 14.3% across all sectors.
However, there continue to be challenges in recruiting. Gomes highlights that 88% of companies find it hard to fill roles in store management and other supervisory roles, while 81% find IT roles a challenge, and 71% state that programming & web development is a tough area.
Injecting fun into recruitment
To address the problem retailers are introducing new methods and mindsets. Sophie Melrose, global talent acquisition lead at Astrid & Miyu, it is all about injecting some fun. “Applying for a job is not fun. How do you make it more inclusive and fun? We now enable options in the application process to let people apply how they want. They could record a video or an audio, or upload a PDF, or send in images. We allow people to leave their mark/personality. It moves us away from corporate CVs and also for us it’s more fun,” she says.
For Catriona Gault, head of people at Sue Ryder, a major change has been the shift to “hiring for aptitude rather than experience”. “Surely their values, and how they operate, are far more valuable than their previous experience? We have also removed educational requirements where they are not really required,” she says, adding that the D&I element has also been introduced to the process by simply asking candidates if they “need any adjustments at the interview”.
With D&I now firmly on the agenda of retailers Charlotte Rees-John, head of retail, leisure & hospitality sector at Irwin Mitchell, says there is some hesitancy among retailers around any type of discrimination. “Managers are often fearful and there is a nervousness around asking candidates about family and health. It’s about how the answers to the questions are used by managers. There is no legal risk from asking questions,” she explains.
Safe working environments
Creating an environment that makes people comfortable to talk about sensitive issues around diversity and inclusion is vital, according to Asiye Yuzer, global diversity, equity & inclusion manager at Aesop, who says: “People need to feel safe to say things. It’s important to create an inclusive environment. Make sure there are policies and systems to support people. It has to be replicated across the board from senior management to the micro-groups in the company.”
Rees-John suggests ageism is likely to be the next area to come under the discrimination spotlight: “We need people to work longer but we are not set up for it. It’s the next challenge for the industry.”
One grouping that has also been discriminated against are former prisoners but change is afoot as organisations such as Iceland introduce policies to bring in more people who have been released from prison. Former prisoner Paul Cowley, director of rehabilitation at Iceland Foods, says: “I’m not starry eyed about prisoners and not everyone is employable but we’ve got to offer the chances for people to change. Offer hope and employment to those who’ve made a mistake. Ninety-five per cent of prisoners are not a threat to society. Prisoners are seen as liabilities and we need to change that view.”
Initiating mindset change
At Iceland he has been charged with deriving at least 10% of the workforce – currently 30,000 at Iceland – from prisons. This is a sizeable 3,000 people and Cowley has so far brought in 88 employees from the 300 jobs so far offered, with another 80 from this group in the pipeline. These have been a result of 600 job interviews in 72 different prisons. Although Cowley says this initiative should not be seen as the solution to solving the recruitment problem in retail he says retention is 20% better with former prisoners and they incur 20% less absences.
The process of bringing in more such individuals is very much ongoing and would not be possible without the support of Iceland founder Sir Malcolm Walker, according to Cowley, who says such a change requires broad change in an organisation and this is only possible with full leadership support.
Annette Andrews, non-exec director at Foxtons, is very much aware of this need to get senior management onboard in order to drive change in businesses. This has been the case in her experience when bringing in a wellbeing strategy and she suggests HR needs to seek out data and other metrics to support their case.
“There have been occasions when I’ve been asked to give numbers and facts to support it. There’s lots of data on mental health and the community. There is also internal data such as engagement surveys. The ROI on wellbeing could be the voice of the people in the company. You need to think about the business case because boards need hard data for these initiatives. You could highlight the damage to the brand if they don’t do it. If you say what the worst case scenario is then this could be used as an argument,” she explains.
Wellness boosts retention
When wellbeing strategies are embraced the upsides can be very impactful, according to Rowan Eden, head of people at Ribble Cycles, who says: “If there are good levels of wellbeing then people will bring their best selves to work. Absence levels will be lower and engagement levels higher so productivity will be better. Improved retention of staff reduces turnover and training of new people, which is a drain on resources.”
Elizabeth Cowper, founder & CEO of Ludo, agrees: “With wellness as a contributing factor you are more likely to bring your true self to work. You are psychologically safe. Our job is to create a culture and environment that enables you to bring your true self to work.”
This enhances retention, which is very much on the minds of retailers. Simon Tindall, director of skills & Innovation at The Open University, found his work with Amazon and Uber revealed retention is a priority for the businesses in these times of tough recruitment.
“Uber wanted the best drivers to stay with it so it introduced a programme where they could study for a degree part-time and Uber pays. As many as 80% of drivers are first generation migrants who often have overseas qualifications but these are not recognised in the UK. This year Uber had its first year of graduates and it has been a major success. It’s been extended out to couriers. It generates loyalty and also PR for the company,” says Tindall.
Offering educational elements is also an important element at Sue Ryder where Kate Home, head of L&OD at Sue Ryder, says the company pays for employees to attain the required GCSE grades in English and Maths for them to be able to undertake apprenticeships: “It’s been hugely welcomed by people and has had a big impact on the company.”
Changing training journeys
This is part of a wider move to broaden the types of training offered at retailers. At Lincolnshire Co-op this now includes virtual, e-learning, face-to-face and classroom-based methods. For Holly Grubb, senior people partner at Charles Tyrwhitt, the training and promotional aspect in the company now focuses on not being about where people currently sit in the company but about their growing individual needs.
”It’s a positive conversation and when we’ve identified their potential we do an individual development plan that follows the 70/20/10 rule with 70% learning on-site, 20% through social interaction and 10% formal training,” she says.
At the Lincolnshire Co-op there is also a culture development programme being delivered having recognised that culture is massively important when considering all aspects of HR and people. This has been particularly apparent since the change of CEO at the company, which has led to a serious overhaul of the culture within the organisation.
Sara Barrett, learning & development manager at Lincolnshire Co-op, says: Culture is a massive change at the business. It was a siloed company with the food, pharmacies and funerals businesses not encouraged to work together and share ideas. It’s all changing and the new strategy is being built by the people. All levels are involved and all the information is being taken on-board.”
There is also much cultural change taking place with Sue Yell, HR director at Warburtons, who is in the midst of a major implementation of a technology solution from UKG that will replace as many as 20 legacy systems that straddle all parts of the HR function and its wide responsibilities.
“We do not think about it as a technology project but as a culture change. It’s 50% culture and 50% technology. It’s been a game-changer. The people analytics module provides real-time data for management decisions. We started [the implementation] 2.5 years ago and since then the world has changed and culture is now so important,” she says.
Tech driving cultural change
Neil Pickering, senior manager of HR innovation at UKG, says it is important to recognise what role technology plays in both HR and business outcomes. Clearly WFM (Workforce Management) solutions enable scheduling but it is also the same technology that is being used to build culture because it is the flexibility of scheduling that helps drive inclusivity by factoring in things like disabilities. Tech solutions can easily assign people to the relevant tasks rather than relying on management to do this.
“Technology is empowering the managers and freeing up their time. Some of which can be spent with employees. Technology and AI automates processes so organisations can spend more time on making things more human within the workplace,” suggests Pickering.