As HR director for one of the UK’s most-loved brands, Amanda Underwood is helping to create a recipe for high employee engagement as the restaurant chain expands. Jo Faragher reports.
Often, if you are looking for a job in a restaurant, it’s a case of dropping your CV into a branch in the middle of a busy shift, perhaps hanging around for a restaurant manager who never materialises and ultimately realising that your application got buried under a sea of dirty plates.
At Pizza Express, however, if you walk in off the street seeking work, you will be presented with a card in the shape of a tomato and invited to register your interest online at pizzaexpressyourself.com. All of these details are stored in an applicant tracking system and appropriate candidates will then be asked to interview. The whole experience is designed to ensure that potential employees do not come away with a bad taste of the Pizza Express brand.
This is important because Pizza Express, despite its focus on Italian food, is something of a British institution. According to YouGov’s Brand Index for the eating and drinking sector, it has retained the top spot for the past two years, and has also been named the favourite restaurant brand among 18-to-24-year-olds in its Youth 100 poll. For Amanda Underwood, the chain’s HR director, ensuring that employees (and prospective employees) feel as positively about Pizza Express as customers do is a core part of what her team does.
“When I tell people I work for Pizza Express, they instantly recognise it and tell me how much they love it or the name of their favourite pizza,” she says. “You’ve got to remember that anyone who approaches us about a role is also likely to be a customer, so you want people to go away with respect for the brand.”
Anyone who applies for a management role completes a psychometric test to gauge whether or not they exhibit the right behaviours, and if they do not not make it to the next stage of the recruitment process they can receive a development report showing areas they could work on if they decided to apply for a role again.
Amanda Underwood CV
August 2012 – present: HR Director, Pizza Express
January 2010 – September 2012: head of HR, Pizza Express
January 2008 – January 2010: head of HR, Gordon Ramsay Holdings
March 2007 – January 2008: HR business partner, International Power
January 2005 – April 2007: HR manager, Williams Lea
October 1999 – January 2005: HR manager, Baxter Storey
Underwood manages a team of 22 in the HR department – a small team when you consider that the company employs around 10,000 staff across more than 400 restaurants in the UK and an additional 55 internationally. The team consists of regional HR business partners, central admin and the talent team (recruitment and learning and development).
“I think any HR role should have an operational element. After all, we’re not a huge company and this means we can stay close to the business, support them and understand their issues,” says Underwood.
The day-to-day staffing issues tend to be devolved to restaurant managers, who receive training and tools to support them in the issues they are likely to encounter. So while the recruitment process and recruitment of management might be managed centrally, team member recruitment tends to take place at a particular restaurant and be handled by the relevant manager.
Cascading responsibility down through the organisation seems to be a recurring theme at Pizza Express, and it is looking to mirror this in the way it communicates with staff. The company has already replaced a clunky intranet “with something much more functional”, improving visitor numbers by 30%, and plans to introduce an employee forum with elected regional ambassadors. In turn, these ambassadors will communicate with local staff through their own intranet page and/or blog.
The casual dining sector is not known for high staff retention figures, but Underwood reels off a string of stories about managers or regional directors who joined the company as waiters or chefs as a stopgap role and ended up staying for years.
“It gets under people’s skin,” she says, defending the sector’s poor reputation for retention. “By its very nature we have seasonal workers, people who work while they’re studying or are home for the holidays, so when you do the sums the retention figures don’t look great. I think we get a bad rap.”
For those who do decide they want a long-term career at Pizza Express, there are a number of routes available. Team members can follow the classic, operational route through the organisation, working their way up to “manager on duty” (a supervisory level role) and then attend an assessment centre before they progress up to management. Successful applicants complete a six-week training programme where they’re paired up with another restaurant manager as a “buddy”. This includes a London-based residential course called “Il Viaggio”, where delegates learn management basics such as managing people, recruitment, presentation and financial skills and must put together a Dragon’s Den-style presentation at the end of the week based on their learning.
Alternatively, staff can choose to specialise – for example, a chef could develop their skills as a trainer and restaurant staff who apply for head office roles will generally be viewed favourably because they have already proven they know the business and are engaged with it.
Plans for expansion
Over the next five years, Pizza Express has ambitious expansion plans, aiming to open 200 more restaurants internationally – particularly in China and India. Many of these openings will be joint ventures or franchises, so central HR will have limited involvement. That said, Underwood accepts that sustaining engagement will be a challenge as the company gets bigger at home and abroad. New CEO Richard Hodgson, who joined in April, “really wants to understand and measure engagement”, and this is something HR is looking to do more of.
“[Richard] has huge support for HR; he really believes that people are the most important aspect of the business, which is brilliant for me,” says Underwood.
“We have recently introduced metrics but, because things change so quickly in this sector, a lot of information ends up going to waste, so we need to be careful and sensible with our key performance indicators. And it is what you do with the data – rather than the reports themselves – that is the most important thing.”
However, so much of what makes Pizza Express a much-loved brand for customers and employees is, arguably, immeasurable, and that’s why Underwood was excited to be approached about a job there in 2010: “The best thing about my job right now is the fact I work for a business that – even if I didn’t work there – I’d still adore it. That, and the reaction I get when I say I work here, and as much pizza as you can eat. But the best thing of all is it gives me everything I need from a role – to be challenged, to be learning, to make a difference.”