Woolworths: Grooming Brands Carriers


Woolies seeks innovative ways to attract the right people for the job

Woolies employs almost 16 000 people and that number is expected to double by 2014, says people director Zyda Rylands. “We’ll need to take on 2 000-2 500 new employees in the current year just to accommodate the new stores being built,” she says.

Getting the right people and retaining them is a big challenge for any retailer.

But Woolies does have a definite competitive advantage when it comes to attracting people to the organisation – its brand.

“People align with Woolies’ values,” says Rylands. “They know we offer learning and development opportunities, which is good, because it’s difficult to differentiate on pay alone. Having said that, we always review our pay relative to the market.”

The company conducts “career weeks” at universities and the Cida City Campus. “We’re always looking for innovative ways of attracting people,” says Rylands. The “MySchool” programme also helps, as it promotes an understanding among school pupils about Woolies’ values. “We’re also considering a bursary programme,” she says.

Security and staff transport are the two big issues facing the company and its employees. Smaller stores tend to recruit locally but larger stores often need to organise transport for their staff. “We need a collaborative approach between retailers when it comes to transport – it would cut down time and costs,” says Rylands.

The new Woolies stores and more stores with longer opening hours will inevitably mean more staff. Longer store opening hours are dictated by customer needs, giving people who work full time the opportunity to shop and working mothers time to shop in the early mornings and evenings.

The company doesn’t have a recognition agreement with any unions but it respects the right of any employee to associate with a union.

“We prefer one-on-one direct relationships with people but we’re not anti-union,” says Rylands. Seven years ago, the representation of the SA Commercial, Catering & Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) at the company dropped below the level sufficient to maintain a recognition agreement.

However, UPN, the logistics joint venture between Woolies and Imperial, has about 600 Saccawu members with whom an agreement is in place.

Woolies is the only major retailer without a union relationship. Staff seemed to lose interest in being part of the union after a big strike nine years ago.

“Engaging with people directly is the most important way to facilitate discussion and a younger workforce prefers to have its own voice,” she says. “People need to feel valued and involved – they don’t necessarily need a union.”

Of the workforce in stores, 87% are flexible staff and 92% of them are on Flexi 28, which means they’re guaranteed at least 28 hours per week with most of the normal benefits that go with being full-time staff, including a full HIV/Aids support package, more paid leave and compassionate leave than other flexi employees and discounts on Woolworths purchases.

One of the biggest challenges facing Rylands and her department is leadership capacity.

“We’re fast-tracking people into management,” she says. The original accelerated management programme used to last 18 months, was reduced to 12 months and is now eight months.

“We always try to link trainees to managers who enjoy training. Wherever possible we want to bring people into the programme with a designated future and career – a designated job at the end of the programme.

In line with the Woolies ethos of “divine dissatisfaction”, Rylands believes there’s more to be done. “We don’t think we’re doing a good enough job yet on turning staff into brand ambassadors for Woolworths.”