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Review: Retail HR Summit 2023

Retail might be in the midst of great change from technology and changing working practices and suffering a headache from difficulties around recruiting but the executives… View Article


Review: Retail HR Summit 2023

Retail might be in the midst of great change from technology and changing working practices and suffering a headache from difficulties around recruiting but the executives in charge of people are up for the challenge and are increasingly involved in strategic activities to help address these issues.

At The Retail Bulletin’s Retail HR 2023 conference in central London there was a recognition among various speakers that recruitment has to be handled differently to in the past in order that companies can successfully fill their vacancies.

Flexibility and agility essential

Una O’Reilly, group chief people, culture & sustainability officer at The Ivy Collection, Bill’s and Burley Clubs, says: “We’re finding it very tough. We’re being flexible and agile but it’s still tough. More so in city centres than rural and especially in central London. There’s Brexit, visas, and government changes to things like service charges that are on the way. We’re now bringing in completely inexperienced people, which can impact service levels.”

Companies are clearly having to adapt to these challenges. Lucy Clough, group people & board director at ScS, says: “We’re leading a cultural change in the business under a new leadership involving being more values-driven. We’ve created a recruitment process to be more values-driven rather than saying [candidates] must have experience in sales. With the new processes we have seen changes. Who we attract is the culture we will create for the future.”

A values-driven focus is undoubtedly appealing to a younger audience who also approach the job search differently and young companies’ actions also reflect this. Phil Vickers, director of HR for UK, Ireland & USA at Charles Tyrwhitt, has taken note of the way start-ups handle recruitment: “They are doing it in a new way. Job boards are less effective and we’ve therefore looked at social media – pushing job ads across social media feeds. It’s started to make a difference. The quality is a bit hit and miss but it’s attracting more eyeballs. We’re now looking at using videos for candidates to showcase themselves.”

Putting the ‘S’ into ESG

An added challenge for Anne-Marie Lister, chief people officer at Atom Bank, is the lack of diversity and skill-sets in the North East where the business is based and the company is addressing this by “reaching out into the community who may not have the funds” and is supporting maths training and the STEM subjects. “This is the ‘S’ in ESG (Environment, Social and Governance). We map this back to business benefits but it is part of ESG,” she says.

There has also been a strong focus on the ‘S’ by O’Reilly, who says: “It’s integrated into all our people strategies. People want to know what the social impact is. It’s business critical to attracting talent and also customers.”

There is no doubt that the ‘S’ is playing a big part in the activities at Iceland Foods, with the company last October employing Paul Cowley, director of rehabilitation at Iceland Foods, with the remit of recruiting ex-offenders. He had discussed recruiting former prisoners with Iceland founder Sir Malcolm Walker in the past but it had not progressed, however, action was taken last year and Cowley was brought onboard.

He explained to Walker that operational changes would have to be introduced if the initiative was to succeed. This included having the role as a board position, having the individual on the operational executive team, putting money into it, telling people why it’s being done, introducing new policies for HR, and getting managers and other relevant parties all on-board the initiative.

Iceland warms to recruiting ex-offenders

What Cowley also highlighted to the company was: “Don’t look on it as a recruitment exercise [to solve the staff shortage problem] as it’s quite a slow exercise.” Once he came onboard he has undertaken 250 interviews of which 120 were unsuitable. Of the 130 offered jobs 35 are now either working in-store or as drivers while 37 are currently being processed by HR and 68 “have been lost for various reasons”.

The employment of ex-offenders is certainly being taken seriously because Cowley reveals the plan is to have 10% of Iceland’s workforce coming from this pool, which equates to 3,000 people, within the next five years.

There is no doubt whatsoever about the authenticity of this move by Iceland in support of the ‘S’ in ESG but for other companies looking at promoting their support of diversity and inclusion there is a warning that they must back it up with actual action. One of the new areas companies must be aware of in a legal sense is ‘pink-washing’, which refers to the practice of attempting to benefit from purported support for LGBTQ+ rights, often as a way to profit or to distract from a separate agenda.

Diversity actions must be authentic

Kate Meadowcroft, partner & head of employment at DWF, says: “Retailers can have noble intentions but problems arise if it is not authentic. Companies can put a rainbow on a website [to support Pride] but if that’s all it is then there is a risk it could be publicly challenged. If it’s just about logos then retailers can open themselves up to criticism.”

Another area for companies to be aware of is ageism in the office, according to Kirsty Rogers, head of environmental, social & governance employment at DWF, who says there has been an increase in claims against companies, especially around the area of menopause since awareness has been raised recently. “Banter is so often used to describe these actions. My head hits the desk when I hear it. Age is the next area to be scrutinised,” says Meadowcroft.

Certainly the recruitment of older workers would help with recruitment and so often they have the advantage of having many years of experience. This has not solved the issues for Milet Lukey,

VP of people & culture at Dorchester Collection, though who says the challenges in the market have prompted the hiring of more people with no hospitality experience at all and for younger people there is also a need to deal with them on the basis of a post-pandemic world where they are lacking in some of the soft skills as a result of communicating by text so frequently.

“The managers are trained in how to deal with a by-product of Covid-19. They are counsellors and parent. Managers need to deal with emotional elements – asking how they are, what are their challenges? This is critical to employees and we need to equip managers for it,” explains Lukey.

Developing a wellbeing framework

Such activities will now likely fall into HR’s framework for wellbeing, according to Andrea Wareham, former chief people officer at Pret A Manger, who says there are two important areas to focus on. Firstly, is the line managers and their relationships with employees: “Do they care/support? The one question I’d ask is, do they care? Make sure the line managers are leading with their heads and hearts. You need to get a balance.”

Secondly, is the employee’s own mental resilience and this is something a company can help with. “I’ve learnt that mental resilience can be coached. It can be increased. How you give people better mental resilience is important,” says Wareham.

For Abigail Wilmore, chief people officer at Tom Ford, the area of wellbeing has become so vast and the pressures on HR increased so much that she has developed a strategy whereby she deals with HR activities through the same lens as if developing a new product and marketing it. This involves envisioning the product, making it accessible, and then testing it. And then comes the marketing of it to segments of the audience, and using inclusive language.

Linking wellbeing to profits

This wellbeing of the employee base is critical, according to Jo Causon, CEO of The Institute of Customer Service, because it can be directly linked to customer experience and ultimately to company profitability. She cites a survey that found 40% of customer-facing employees were considering leaving their roles – partly driven by the terrible situation of the behavior of certain customers to retail employees on the shop-floor. This invariably leads to the delivery of a poorer customer experience and research shows that where there is above average customer satisfaction then this results in 7% greater revenues generated and a resultant 10% higher EBITDA.

The importance of the people dynamic should lead to greater board presence for HR leaders, according to Fabiola Williams, chief people officer at McArthur Glen, who says these individuals should be seen as business leaders who just happen to have their expertise in people.

HR gets strategic

She has been involved with the high-level strategic thinking that McArthur Glen has been undertaking since Covid-19 when the company decided to relook at its values. “We’ve done a lot of self-analysis – starting with who we are and what do we stand for? We looked at what resonated in the business and what we’ve done rather than what we say we are going to do. Also what are we going to stop doing? What are the key things to focus on?”

We are also seeing people chiefs like Alyson Fadil, chief people officer at N Brown Group, becoming actively involved in strategic activities such as the company’s current transformation programme. This is taking it from a catalogues and financial services business to an organisation that revolves around data and technology.

“The transformation agenda found we’d not got the capabilities in the business so we recruited tech people. We also needed to change operating roles…we’ve changed 80% of our ways of working, including HR. People love it. It’s inclusive, empowering and there’s accountability. The retention is the best we’ve had in four years and it has improved recruitment,” explains Fadi

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