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Case study: Introducing an HR function at Lexington Catering

How to best formalise HR in an already people-centred business

Locations: Lexington head office in London, Elior head office in Macclesfield, with offices also in Staines and the City of London

Employees: 750 at Lexington, approximately 11,000 at Elior

Number in HR team: Circa 15 at catering company Elior, one at recently acquiredLexington

Case study: Formalising HR in an already people-centred business

The company

Lexington was established in 2002 to provide catering services to in-house canteens at a variety of workplaces such as law firms, creative agencies and government bodies. Elior, an organisation providing catering services within a range of sectors, including care homes, defence, stadiums, education establishments and at visitor attractions, acquired the company in October last year.

The challenge

Taking on the position of people manager at a company that has operated without any kind of formal HR function since being founded may sound like a daunting challenge. Yet any reservations Emma Langford may have had about the scale of the challenge were allayed by how people-focused her new employer Lexington Catering already was when she joined in June 2013.

However, she had to be careful not to assume that a company with such positive strategies around training, development, and company value creation for instance, didn’t need much in the way of new, more formal initiatives. Where no HR function has existed before HR professionals must in most cases still be conscious of making what the company stands for – and the way it manages people – really concrete, she says.

“In my interview with Mike [the co-founder of the company] he was just so passionate about people and I got really excited about it,” says Langford, adding though that harnessing this passion more formally was crucial.

The strategy

This has involved a range of initiatives. Empowering managers themselves to get involved with a lot of HR-related activity has been key, with factsheets on codes of conduct and legal issues for example, followed by bite-sized training. “It felt like I was doing nothing but that for a month!” quips Langford, adding though that it was well worthwhile.

“It’s important not to introduce lots of lovely things like reward and recognition without getting people up to speed on basic HR processes first. Managers know I’m there for support but they know how to own the processes too.”

Really reiterating Lexington’s company values – of individuality, nurturing talent and fun to name three – has also been a key focus. Initiatives like conferences for managers and head chefs and Lex Respect (a diversity and inclusion piece involving a simple booklet that employees fill out with their managers) are obvious examples. But schemes such as job swaps, which encourage people to be loyal to the Lexington brand rather than their specific sites, and a cheque book recognition system, where managers reward behaviours with a slip of paper that enters the recipient into a prize draw, all contribute.

Langford’s approach has been very much to keep things explicitly stated, and keep them simple. “I think the simplest way is often the best way; that gets the message across,” she says.

The future

Elior's acquisition of Lexington in October last year has brought even more opportunities for people management best practice, reports Langford, with this opening up employee progression and therefore retention. Elior and Lexington vacancies and promotions are advertised as one, she says, with Langford and the senior team personally ensuring staff from one side of the business have heard about opportunities that might suit them on the other.

Langford is also keen the two sides of the business learn from each other so that programmes working well in one are rolled out to the other. “We’re not just keeping Elior as Elior and Lexington as Lexington, we are introducing the best people initiatives from both organisations. If we have got people-related schemes that work for both why not share them?"