· 2 min read · Features

Staff representation on the remuneration committee? Take a trip to John Lewis...


After graduating as a journalist in the late 1980s, I took a Christmas job at John Lewis in High Wycombe, while seeking my first media role.

It was all very formal: we had to address everyone as 'Mr' or 'Mrs' and there was an old-fashioned, 'Grace Brothers' feel to it. But I loved it. And I still do.

Even then, it was clear this was a retailer with a difference. Not only were the products great and the customer service second to none, but the employees were motivated and felt a sense of ownership. More than two decades later, this staff owner model is still successful, with business strong despite a weak picture on the high street.

As John Lewis personnel director Tracey Killen tells HR, the fact there are 80 'partners' in a council holding the chairman to account strengthens the organisation. The council also elects five directors to the partnership board, which is responsible for commercial activities. And, of course, all staff share the fruits of the firm's performance with an annual bonus that, unlike those given out to bankers in the City, is regarded as egalitarian and 'a good thing'.

The council has the power to dismiss the chairman if he fails to fulfill his responsibilities. It also influences pay and pensions. This latter point interests me in light of the furore over excessive boardroom pay. This month the Government will announce its response to the High Pay Commission's report, with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg saying it will "get tough" and may legislate. One area being considered is a staff representative on remuneration committees - something that makes most company directors quake in their boots. Can I suggest they take a trip to John Lewis to see the benefits a more transparent approach can bring?

Pay has always engendered division but, as we enter a challenging year, the issue will be brought into even sharper focus. Public anger is heightened by the belief the Government is in the pockets of big business and the City - illustrated most recently by prime minister David Cameron's European veto to protect City interests. How ironic that on that very same day the FSA's report into the collapse of RBS highlighted 'light regulation' as one of the causes.

The argument that banks will relocate from London if regulation is toughened sounds like a stuck record. While we must not play down the importance of the City, we need to stop being beholden to these blackmailing tactics. Last month's acceptance of the Vickers report into banking is at least one positive move.

As Jürgen Maier, of Siemens Industry Sector UK, points out, manufacturing represents 11% of UK GDP (equal to the financial sector) and employs three million people (against one million in the financial sector).

Will 2012 be the year the Government looks at UK plc in the round? I hope so.