Ex-Asda chief labels managers the ‘threat’

Trade unions are not the enemy of your business – your own managers are, according to one of the UK’s foremost business leaders.

Archie Norman, the ex-Asda chief executive credited with turning around what was a failing retailer in the 1990s, told delegates at the HR Futures conference in London last week that he had no problem with union recognition agreements.

“What I have a problem with is management, because people join the unions to protect themselves against management,” he said.

Middle managers were the biggest threat because they often hid the truth of what was really going on in the business from their superiors and were strongly resistant to change, he added.

Norman said managers could no longer get away with lording over their workforce, as staff would simply go somewhere else to work.

“People no longer come to work just to earn a daily crust,” he said. “The relationship between employees and employers is fundamentally different now – the deference is gone.”

Norman said all staff deserved equal respect and had to be treated that way by their managers. Making absence rates and turnover a measure of a manager’s performance would push this agenda, he said.

When Norman joined Asda in 1991, the company had a 40% turnover rate and 82% of staff were members of the GMB union.
One of the first things he did was to change 190 of the top 200 managers. He also tore up the union pay negotiation agreement, which he labelled “an annual farce”.

By the time he left the company in 1999, Asda had the lowest turnover in the retail industry, trade union membership was down to 13%, and share prices were up 1,000%.

HR and the i-generation

A debate at the HR Futures conference on the question: ‘should HR techniques and practices be re-evaluated for thei-generation?’ initially stalled, as no-one was quite sure who constituted the i-generation.

Two panel members argued it out over the motion, though they failed to sway the audience, who voted 68.5% for the motion at the start, and 68.5% at the end of the debate.

Jonathan Donovan, HR director, O2

NO: “We need to adapt to changing business needs. It’s a different world with different competitive markets. However, the tenets of business are exactly the same and HR is about driving the people agenda – perhaps in a slightly modified way, but with the same values and the same preponderances.”

Ralph Tribe, HR director, Getty Images

YES: “The i-generation will be the first generation that requires a customised work proposition. They will have grown up in an age where the vendors they buy things from – the i-tunes and Amazons of this world – have operated on a mass customised proposition for buyers, and they will expect this in the workplace.”


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