In this interview with Michele van Eeden, Antoinette Irvine (HR Vice President: Unilever) gives us a glimpse into the HR strategies and successes that support Unilever, including their biggest challenges, their retention strategies, and how they stay on the cutting edge of HR expertise.
by Michele van Eeden
Antoinette Irvine, HR Vice President: Unilever
1. What does it mean to Unilever to be ranked as one of South Africa’s top 10 best employers to work for?
At Unilever we aim to attract, develop and retain the very best talent the market has to offer, and it is therefore extremely important for us to be able to position ourselves across a number of platforms as an employer of choice. One of these is the CRF Best Employer ranking, where we achieved number 1 in the FMCG and Large-Sized Employer sectors, and fourth overall. Another platform we use is the annual South African Graduate Recruiters Association (SAGRA) survey, which measures the employer most aspired to, as rated by 1 500 graduates across South Africa. Again, Unilever South Africa achieved first in the FMCG sector, and fourth place overall.
We use the feedback from these external benchmarking surveys to define our HR recruitment and retention strategies more clearly, and we are extremely proud that we are reaping the benefits. In 2011 we halved our management attrition rates across the business, and we aim to achieve improvements across all dimensions.
2. What are the three biggest challenges for your organisation?
Building a Talent Pipeline: Unilever South Africa is committed to building leadership capability for both the local organisation as well as the African region.
Reaching the Bottom of the Pyramid: With a third of our consumers living below the poverty line, facing high unemployment and rising inflation, our challenge is to be able to continue to meet the consumer’s needs and to be able to help people to feel good, look good, and get more out of life with brands and services which are good for them and good for others. Our aim is to enter into new markets which are our biggest opportunity for growth, and we cannot do this without the right level of skills and the right people in place.
Reducing our Environmental Footprint: Our global ambition is to double the size of Unilever while reducing our environmental footprint. This is an audacious goal which has energised our people and builds on our heritage of combining social mission with commercial success. We are one of the first consumer goods companies which has set itself the objective of decoupling growth from environmental impact. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan sets out specific commitments to reducing our environmental footprint while increasing the social benefit arising from our activities.
3. How will the HR department respond to those challenges?
Building a Talent Pipeline: The HR team is critical in attracting, developing and retaining talent, and we have responded in a number of ways. In 2012 we have appointed 60 graduates across all areas of the business, and we have step-changed our graduate development programme in order to accelerate the development of talent into management at a faster pace than in the past. We have introduced accelerated development programmes across the levels in order to be able to supply the right level of talent throughout the business. Our focus has also been on the retention of talent, and we are extremely proud that in 2011 we were able to halve management attrition across the business.
Reaching the Bottom of the Pyramid: Our focus is on building skills within Unilever and in setting up partnerships in the trade in order to reach more consumers in South Africa. The HR department has been critical in sourcing the right talent with the right skills, and then in developing capability-building programmes in order to build market-development capability.
Reducing our Environmental Footprint: In 2012 all our employees have a sustainability target in order for Unilever in SA to create momentum behind the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. The HR team specifically are developing a number of initiatives which will link in with the “enhancing livelihoods” pillar of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. These include schools programmes, learnerships, internships, campus activities at previously disadvantaged Universities, and job creation through various initiatives. »