Retail workers are at the sharp end when it comes to negative questions from customers about sourcing policies, says Geoff Lancaster, spokesman for the cut-price clothing chain Primark. “We felt it was very important that they were armed with as much information as possible so they could respond,” he explains.
Last year Primark, a subsidiary of the charitable foundation Associated British Foods, was one of a handful of fashion retailers caught in a storm of controversy about the alleged exploitation of impoverished Bangladeshi textile workers.
“Our staff were not only challenged at the till about our ethical practices, they also came up against the inevitable dinner party questions about the supposed links between price-led UK fashion and the underpayment of Third World labour,” he continues. “Given our charitable status, this was a nasty shock.”
None of Primark’s employees quit over the issue, but the impact of the negative headlines on its recruitment brand was more difficult to measure. The chain subsequently decided to put all 25,000 staff, including directors, through a comprehensive training programme to explain how it monitored standards among suppliers, benchmarked itself against best practice and to explain its approach to ethical sourcing.
Primark’s staff can now consult posters at points of sale and in staff restaurants detailing its supplier policies. This enables them to be positive ambassadors for the company and feel more confident when dealing with difficult questions from customers, says Lancaster.
Coping with criticism
Primark’s dilemma is being echoed by other HR professionals.
In common with thousands of workers in sectors such as tobacco, alcohol, fast food, nuclear energy, electronic games, mobile phones and confectionery, Primark staff have already faced intense hostility over the alleged ‘sins’ of their employer, and have been tacitly accused of propping up a morally bankrupt organisation.
Whether they are accused of encouraging alcohol dependency, turning children into couch potatoes or increasing the risk of heart disease, it is often the employees – who usually have less access to relevant information than directors – who bear the brunt of any criticism about ethical practices.
For HR it can even become a personal issue. One HR manager from a confectionery company, who wishes to remain anonymous, has questioned her reasons for staying with her employer.
“I’ve got three young children of my own and I take it incredibly seriously as a parent when I see a TV programme or read an article on obesity in children, but as an employee I feel really torn,” she says.
“I’m still not sure if I should put my job first, or move to another industry which doesn’t appear to be affecting the health of a whole generation of kids. As the lobbying against us gets tougher, I know I must decide soon.”
One industry accustomed to public detestation and negative headlines is the nuclear industry. This provides British Energy, which employs more than 5,000 people, two-thirds of them in nuclear power stations, with a tough employer branding proposition. But despite the negative perception of the industry, there are now more than 1,000 graduate applications for
every 60 or 70 scientist roles.
“Staff are proud to work for this organisation and very loyal, so when they read negative comment about us, they take it personally and desperately want us to get our views across,” says British Energy’s internal communications manager Julie Dickson.
“We send our PR people on training courses so they can interpret for staff what the latest fuss is all about, but sometimes – as with the near bankruptcy of the firm in 2002 – we simply have to live through the bad press.”
Recently the increased profile of climate change and concepts such as ‘carbon footprints’ has been a blessing in disguise, according to industry trade body the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA). But it is possible to weather the storms.
“As recently as three years ago we were presiding over a dying industry as politicians spoke of de-commissioning, rather than expansion,” says NIA spokesman John McNamara. “Today, both politicians and the public accept that nuclear power has a role in any carbon-free economy. The change of heart over nuclear has been more about fate and circumstances, than about public relations.”
HR’s job in an ethical cauldron is, says McNamara, a simple one. “They need to be able to keep up-to-speed with the nuances of the debate and keep calm when the media start hyperventilating.
“When staff come and say to you: ‘What have we done now?’ HR needs to be able to offer reassurance that the industry is still on track and calm fears,” he adds.
Fast-food giant McDonald’s repeatedly attracts criticism about everything from nutrition and rising obesity levels to ethical employment practices, but feels that it has overcome negative perceptions by tackling them head-on in the way it recruits.
Last year, it ran a poster and press drive, the bulk of it in-store, aimed at overturning its image as a low-skills, dead-end employer. The ‘Not Bad For A McJob’ campaign directly led to it being named as one of The Times newspaper’s top 100 graduate employers and helped earn it Investors in People status, according to Jez Langhorn, the company’s reputation manager.
“The crew – our retail employees – take it very personally when our food or our people practices are criticised and they become very frustrated about what they see as unfair criticism over how we do business,” he says.
“We believe that by being transparent both in our dealings inside as well as outside, and by fostering two-way communication between our staff and our directors, we can help change the perception gaps around our business.”
HR, says Langhorn, plays an enormous role in communicating with staff when there are negative headlines.
“Our people know that our burgers are 100% beef, that our eggs are free-range and that our milk is organic, but we recognise that there are still inaccurate perceptions about our brand that we need to work on.”
But even if some consumers remain unconvinced, staff loyalty levels at McDonald’s are enviable compared with the rest of the catering industry. Its latest internal survey showed that 73% of staff felt proud to work for McDonald’s.
Tackling consumer ignorance is another hurdle employers need to jump. If green campaigners are to be believed, 4×4 vehicles represent all that is evil in terms of cars that damage the planet.
At Toyota, where the product range includes the Land Cruiser, employees have become highly sensitive to criticism, despite the fact that the campaigners don’t always get the facts right.
“Lobbyists often fail to distinguish between the gas-guzzlers of this world and the many ordinary cars that emit just as much carbon dioxide but don’t happen to be 4×4 in design,” says Tom Denton, environmental affairs and corporate social responsibility manager.
“We are proud of the fact that we are investing so much time and money in hybrid vehicles [which use a combination of gas combustion and electric engines] and we spend a lot of time explaining to staff why this is key,” he says.
At Toyota, as at any employer, communicating as much information as possible about product development strategies pays dividends. “It’s incredibly important that when you go to work, you carry your ethical values with you,” says Denton.
“By demonstrating to the workforce that we are actively developing hybrid technology, all of us at Toyota can hold our heads up high and face our critics.”
Working on the front line, facing criticism every day, that knowledge becomes a powerful thing.
The good guys
According to the Business in the Community/Sunday Times Companies that Count 2006 index, the UK’s most ‘ethical’ companies are:
1 The Co-operative Bank
= 4 BT Group National Grid and PricewaterhouseCoopers
= 7 CE Electric UK Scottish and Southern Energy and Veolia
= 10 Co-operative Insurance Society HBOS and Lloyds TSB