Innovative recruitment works for Virgin

Family-friendly
recruitment policies have helped Virgin Mobile to expand into one of the major
players on the UK scene, with innovative recruitment and retention policies
driving the brand. By Liz Hall

Less than three years after its launch, Virgin Mobile is bucking the trend
elsewhere in the telecoms industry, operating in profit ahead of plan, boasting
a 1.6 million customer base and taking on around 30 new staff each month.

Launched in November 1999 as a 50:50 joint venture between Sir Richard
Branson’s Virgin and Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile, the UK’s first and the
world’s largest virtual network operator is the UK’s fifth-largest operator and
its fastest-growing mobile phone business.

Virgin Mobile has subsidiaries in Australia, Northern Ireland and Singapore
and has development plans in the US, Hong Kong, South Korea and continental
Europe.

With Sir Richard at the helm, it comes as no surprise that the company’s
brand values include innovation, challenge and fun, which have been reflected
in recent recruitment campaigns. Other company values are quality, value and
honesty.

The company has two UK offices, the HQ in Trowbridge and a satellite office
in London’s Leicester Square. Customer centre staff work in Trowbridge
alongside HR, payments and finance. Marketing, PR and financial analysts are
used in London.

Recruitment

Virgin Mobile employs 1,450 staff and has its sights set on further
expansion. This year, it plans to recruit some 300-350 staff, having taken on
114 corporate division staff and 266 customer centre staff last year.

When asked what she is most proud of in terms of personnel activities,
director of HR Lily Lu has no doubt: recruitment. "I am utterly proud of
our recruitment, of how unusual, innovative, eye-catching and fun our campaigns
are," she says. "They reflect our values of fun, openness and
innovation." (See ‘Key HR initiatives above.)

This openness is carried through beyond advertising. Customer service
adviser (CSA) recruitment takes place at an assessment centre and assessors deliberately
leave the room so that candidates have carte blanche to ask an existing CSA
whatever they wish.

The company does not run a conventional management trainee scheme and relies
on word-of-mouth and work experience people for its intake – last year it took
on four graduates and it plans to take on another four this year.

"We avoid the run-of-the-mill ‘milk round’, with express training, at
the end of which people may not be interested," explains Lu. In the first
year, graduate recruits do three or four months in different business areas,
making a final choice at the end of the year.

"This works well and gives individuals a say on how their career path
develops," she says. And the company is always on the lookout for new talent
and is not averse to creating a job to fit a particular person and the company
uses local recruitment agencies, holding regular meetings to ensure a
consistent corporate branding.

Retention

While Virgin Mobile refuses to disclose staff turnover rate, Lu claims it is
low – although higher than she’d like in the customer centres. "But it is
coming down thanks to our culture and the flexibility in working style,"
she says.

Employee communications is an integral part of Virgin Mobile’s operations.
At least twice a year, all staff gather at Trowbridge’s arts theatre for a
business update. Again, innovation and fun are prominent, with the last
gathering themed on Graham Norton’s irreverent Channel 4 TV show. Lu is working
on a cafeteria menu-style benefits scheme, which should be in place in about 18
months and may include on-site massage.

At present, benefits include four times base salary on death in service,
private medical cover, pensions, 25 days holiday, enhanced maternity benefits,
five days paid paternity leave, and paid sick leave up to a maximum of 12 weeks
full pay. The company also offers a bonus scheme, subsidised staff restaurant
and the popular Virgin ‘tribe’ discount scheme.

The maternity package consists of the first six weeks of leave at full basic
pay, regardless of length of service. For staff who have been with the company
for at least two years, maternity pay is enhanced in 20 per cent steps to a
maximum of 100 per cent base pay for the full 18 weeks. The company is also
investigating non-creche child-friendly work options.

Flexible working is offered informally to non-customer service staff and the
company tries to be as accommodating as possible with shift patterns.

Training and development

One of Virgin Mobile’s most innovative initiatives in the training arena is
its Trowbridge-based ‘learning zone’ for which it sets aside £10,000 a year.

The learning zone is rather like a library, with a quiet reading area, fish
tank and a variety of training and development resources, including an on-site
manager.

The company has more than 20 trainers dedicated to its CSAs’ requirements.
It has a separate team of 10 for its non-Virgin store staff. Training delivery
is a mixture of classroom, on-the-job, online and in the learning zone. New recruits
receive an average 23 days training. Last year, staff completed about three
days training each on average, aside from that for new recruits.

Performance management

Virgin Mobile’s appraisal and development system, the Employee Development
Programme (EDP), is Lily Lu’s brainchild.

Originally a platform for assessing the staff bonus scheme, the EDP links HR
strategy to the bottom line and takes into account skills and personal
qualities. In the melting pot are customer base, customer satisfaction, personal
performance and company financial performance. Each individual has a formal
annual assessment with line managers.

"We’re a young company moving at a tremendous rate. Everyone is running
about trying to meet objectives so we need to make time to sit down with
employees," says Lu.

At the beginning of the year, the HR team began to tackle one of its key
objectives for the year – succession planning. Although Virgin Mobile is not a
highly structured company, its management team are placed in broad employee
bands to better identify gaps. Where gaps emerge, for example in IT, it is
making sure training is in place to prepare existing staff to progress
internally.

HR factfile

Lily Lu
Director of HR

Lu has legal qualifications and has been with Virgin Group for
20 years. She started at head office as an HR manager with free rein to set up
all things HR from scratch, looking after about 200 staff. She recalls when
Virgin Atlantic did not even have a personnel department and she worked
off-site.

"I have offered consultancy-based HR to the smaller
companies and guided others until they were toddlers, letting go so they can
set up on their own with me just in the background owning the guidelines,"
she explains.

Over the years, her job has changed from being very much
hands-on in a small department, using PAs and secretaries as personnel
assistants to a more strategic role. Her move three years ago to Virgin Mobile
offered excitement and new challenges. The last company she set up was Virgin
Direct at a distance. Now she is back in the driving seat again. "It is
touch and go and I like that."

The sector itself represents a challenge to Lu: "This
sector is new to me. I knew not one iota about telecoms. But it is exciting,
fast-moving and I have absorbed like a sponge." Lu does not sit on the
board and describes her salary as ‘competitive’.

Size of HR team

Lu has an HR team of 16

HR department structure

HR is structured with two levels: one team dedicated to the
customer centre, including recruitment and training, and another for corporate
staff. There is only one payroll and there is a crossover in terms of daily
tasks. Lu is responsible for the strategic side of the HR function.

Ratio of HR to employees

About 1:91.

Key HR initiatives

Recruitment campaign in and around Trowbridge starring three
Smart Cars painted in Virgin Mobile colours and logo. Building up the
library-style training area, the Learning Zone Setting succession planning in
motion.

HR priorities for the year

Succession planning, recruitment, training and development.

How she spends her time

– operations

– change management:

– strategic planning

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