Trust is the key for retail giant

Working at supermarket giant Tesco is like holding a general election every day, according to its chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy.

As bizarre as that sounds, it could be the right analogy to make when your success as a business can be judged by how many shopping trolleys fill the aisles every day.

Under the stewardship of Leahy, Tesco has built its share of the UK market to more than 28 per cent, with one in every £8 now spent with a retailer ending up with Tesco. The company’s international expansion has given it a global presence, including in Eastern Europe and South East Asia.

Clare Chapman, group HR director, agrees the company has had good success, but said that the reality “is that we’re only as good as yesterday’s election”.

Chapman and her team have played a crucial role in the company’s continuing success. Recognised for its innovative people policies, Chapman said that HR was continuing to try and push the envelope.

“I see my role largely as the champion of our people promises,” she said. “If we deliver those fantastically well we will provide a great place to work and deliver great service to customers.”

The key to that, is injecting some simplicity into what matters, Chapman explained. Extensive staff research at Tesco identified four key areas – being treated with trust and respect, having a ‘manager who helps me’, being given the opportunity to get on, and job interest. As a result, HR now concentrates on improving and innovating around these issues.

It’s about being focused on the core things you are trying to do, said Chapman, rather than getting distracted by things that might look good on paper but have not got a viable chance of being achieved.

In its annual list of industry power players, Personnel Today ranked Chapman at number two – “a great vote of confidence,” admitted Chapman. But she is also quick to share the credit with her team. “I’m smart enough to know that I’m only as good as the team I work with. There’s no doubt that winning recognition makes you feel great. If you believe in what you’re doing, then you tend to be better at doing it,” she added.

For the UK’s largest private sector employer – with 237,000 employees – having a strong relationship with its union is vital, and Chapman has worked hard at building partnerships with Usdaw, the shopworkers‘ union.

“Anybody that says partnerships are a soft option does not understand what a partnership really is,” said Chapman. “It has involved a lot of hard work and building skills on the part of personnel managers and the union representatives.”

According to Chapman, this hard work paid off when the company started work on the recent sickness and absence trials. It recently announced that staff will not get sick pay for the first three days they are off, and now they are offered incentives for good attendance.

“When you’re dealing with tough issues, you need trust,” she said. “So if you’ve previously worked closely on areas where the ultimate beneficiaries are the staff, it means that when the tough stuff comes along you’ve got that relationship.

“It meant that we were coming to the table much more trusting of each other’s motives and didn’t get distracted.”

Unplanned absence is the one thing Chapman admits she worries most about. “We are making progress, but it’s very difficult to put number on it. The measure I look to is staff turnover and customer satisfaction,” she said.

“If staff and customers are leaving you, that tells you that either the customer or people promises are not being delivered. What I am pleased about is that we are gaining more customers and staff turnover is improving. I don’t see that happening across the industry.”

By Mike Berry

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