· Features

Interview with Imelda Walsh, HRD of Sainsbury's

Imelda Walsh, Sainsbury's HR director, speaks exclusively to Sian Harrington about flexible working, lack of skills in HR and why she believes yes, employees can do anything.

America has Obama, in UK HR we have Imelda. Whether it is championing flexible working rights for parents of older children or advancing the case for nationally recognised qualifications for all her staff, Sainsbury's HR director Imelda Walsh has spent the past 12 months saying yes, we can.

Like Obama, Walsh has plenty to celebrate. It was she the Government turned to when considering whether to extend the right of parents with older children to request flexible working. Partly thanks to her comprehensive review recommending this extension Walsh was one of 30 business and academic leaders honoured by Working Families last month.

Then there's You Can - a series of programmes to inspire potential and existing colleagues, including job-related qualifications and apprenticeships. The target to have 300 staff on You Can by the end of this month has been surpassed, with nearly 400 on the scheme. In the next three years the company plans a You Can placement in every main store.

In November 2008 the supermarket chain became the largest employer, and first retailer, to offer its entire 150,000-strong workforce the opportunity to gain national recognised qualifications equivalent to GSCE standard.

Meanwhile, back in June 2007 it also became the first supermarket to sign the Skills Pledge. "We are focusing significantly on the pledge," says Walsh. "We felt it had moved on from Lord Leitch's suggestions. So many people have English and maths challenges and retail over-indexes in this."

Clearly, firms get great PR from committing to national skills initiatives but Walsh stresses Sainsbury's does not commit to such programmes lightly. "We have high expectations," she says. "We need our colleagues to be skilled because they have to undertake various tasks that are vital to the business and which require understanding of numeracy and literacy, such as properly replenishing shelves, checking stock and ensuring planograms (the way shelves are arranged) are adhered to."

Walsh is bullish about Sainsbury's ability to meet its skills targets, believing the company can exceed its ambition of 25% of colleagues with Level 1 qualifications within five years (equivalent to one GCSE). Sainsbury's has also mapped an NVQ Level 2 framework, equivalent to five GCSEs at A-C grade, and is the first retailer to offer every colleague the opportunity to achieve this through training in the workplace. Unlike some employers it has chosen not to be an awarding body. Instead specialist EDI accredits its training programmes.

With impressive Christmas results, the number three food retailer is obviously reaping the benefit of its investment in skills. But it is not just having a financial impact. "The biggest challenge we have is the prejudice people have about working in retail," explains Walsh. "There are two beneficial sides to You Can: getting the quality of people we recruit better and also improving retention. We have gone from peak turnover to colleagues feeling confident about the company and industry."

This is all a far cry from five years ago when the Sainsbury's suffered the double ignominy of its first ever loss in 135 years and upstart Tesco purloining its position as the nation's favourite supermarket. Despite a £3 billion investment, the refurbishment of 80% of its stores, the re-engineering of its supply chain and a focus on non-food ranges, some £140 million in IT had been written off and sales and profits were plunging. Enter new chief executive Justin King and the 'Making Sainsbury's Great Again' recovery plan.

Walsh was already working at the company, having joined in 2001 under former CEO Sir Peter Davis. But King's arrival from Marks & Spencer marked a sea change for the business.

"It was a very different plan by 2005 and HR was aligned to the goals of the business. There were different relationships between those at the top table," Walsh explains.

Making Sainsbury's Great Again meant making it a great place to work and understanding that this is crucial to achieving business objectives. Following years of poor communication, a Tell Justin scheme was implemented, enabling staff to suggest ways of improving the business. Last year 84% of colleagues also completed the com- pany's Talkback engagement survey, with a 74% positive result.

Engagement is vital in a customer service business and this is one reason Walsh is such a prominent supporter of flexible working. Sainsbury's was already a leader in this area when she was appointed to undertake the review by the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Its policy is open to all and every request is reviewed fully. Even in areas many regard as unworkable, such as customer service, the situation is discussed to try to find a practical solution.

Walsh believes adoption of the practice is being hindered by the language used to justify it. "It needs to be broader than the business case. Clearly the relationship is about better rapport and engaged employees. There are pound, shilling and pence benefits but also social and retention benefits. We need to rebrand flexible working and move away from its over-association with women and part-time work."

Given Sainsbury's position on flexible working, her recommendations to extend the right to request to workers with children aged up to 16 were based on detailed thought and practice. No wonder then that when business secretary Peter Mandelson indicated he was reviewing the plan as a result of deteriorating economic circumstances last year, Walsh told HR magazine she was sticking with the recommendations. "The reasons for extending the right to request are the same today as they were seven months ago. It is the correct approach, the protection for business to say no is robust and there is no reason to lower the age range," she said.

Not that she doesn't have sympathy for the view that legislation will damage small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in recessionary times. "Many small and mid-sized business representatives feel there has been a significant amount of government legislation over the past 10 years. And there has been some criticism from the HR world over the timing of the report given the economy. But timing was not part of the consultation. When I undertook the report my personal goal was to produce it in sufficient time so it could be implemented in April 2009 if desired. And while it is a formal employment change, there is a lot of flexible working out there already. Business has ample protection to say no."

One feels Walsh is a bit weary of the need to defend her recommendations as she confesses that she herself wrote a long note to a Sainsbury's director while "tucked up in bed". "Obviously some jobs are time and location dependent, such as till operators. But the Government wants as many people in work as possible and people want to work, have a family and a life. I hope the debate moves forward now."

The need to keep staff engaged and informed has been vital to Walsh's role in recent years. Sainsbury's move into recovery was quickly followed by potential bids by a private-equity consortium and Qatar government investment vehicle Delta Two. With bid rumours regularly circling the retailer, such uncertainty is never far away.

The current financial turmoil has created yet more anxiety, marked in January by the news that Sainsbury's is losing some 200 jobs in its 3,000-strong London Holborn head office (from which it is relocating in 2011 to Kings Cross). This follows the completion of the recovery plan last year and move into what it calls its growth phase.

HR emerges from this latest cull unscathed, thanks to a restructuring last year when it reduced the number of store-based HR roles from 850 to 300 to allow HR managers to have more hands-on roles in stores. That reorganisation came a year after it established a £12 million HR shared services function in Manchester.

Walsh is pleased with the centre's performance. It provides centralised HR administration support to store colleagues and has created 250 jobs. It has freed up management time and allowed both store managers and store-based HR managers to focus more on customer service, leadership and training. All store-based recruitment runs out of the centre.

"It has changed the magnitude of the business," says Welsh. "The centre performed hard as it reached full capacity and dealt with Christmas at the same time. The result was stores with better manpower thanks to improved forecasting and recruiting. We will continue to look at ways of using the centre."

Sainsbury's recent performance appears to bear this out but, while food is still delivering strong transactional growth, the depressed economy and trend for consumers to trade down make this a challenging year, even for the generally recession-proof food retailers. And Walsh warns that the recession will only increase scrutiny of HR.

"There is no room now for teams that lack skill in HR. Great HR people are a precious commodity for business but one of our biggest challenges is still visibility. We need to be confident as the demand for evidence to prove what we have done grows stronger. Generally HR still doesn't do enough shouting."

As for Walsh, she clearly doesn't need to shout too loud to be heard.

1982: Educated at University of Manchester - BA (Hons) in Politics and
Modern History; 1985 London School of Economics - MSc in Industrial
Relations 1986 Joined Grand Metropolitan Foods Europe (Diageo)
1991: Moved to Cola and Schweppes Beverages
1998: Joined Barclays
2001: Moved to J Sainsbury