RETAILERS WORK ON HUMAN EQUATION

The supermarket industry is striving to make its employees more satisfied.With its heavy reliance on part-time employees, the food industry faces an ongoing challenge to keep workers, especially entry-level personnel, interested in their jobs, according to an SN survey of human resources executives.In addition, the downsizing that has become a way of business life affects the morale, and often productivity,

The supermarket industry is striving to make its employees more satisfied.

With its heavy reliance on part-time employees, the food industry faces an ongoing challenge to keep workers, especially entry-level personnel, interested in their jobs, according to an SN survey of human resources executives.

In addition, the downsizing that has become a way of business life affects the morale, and often productivity, of employees at all levels, they said. As a result, there's a constant struggle to handle high turnover rates and increasingly higher investments in training while striving to keep employees interested and involved in their tasks, the executives pointed out. Retail and wholesale executives interviewed by SN offered a variety of solutions to these human resources challenges, including the following:

Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, is improving supervisor training programs and educating all employees about the skills necessary to succeed in the future in the food industry.

Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., is making a special effort to explain company strategies to employees and has brought together employees to develop their own mission statement.

Gooding's Supermarkets, Altamonte Springs, Fla., in an effort to fight turnover rates in wage-competitive tourist areas, pays slightly higher wages at a handful of stores.

Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., strives to arrange employees' work schedules to accommodate their personal needs.

Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., personalizes job training by using a trainer-mentor program at its distribution centers and retail stores. According to Don Grose, Certified's senior vice president of human resources and labor relations, employee loyalty to an employer -- and employer loyalty to its workers -- are things of the past, "and the challenge to human resources is not to ignore that reality or be a cheerleader for the company but to help people learn to survive in the new environment -- to make them understand that no one will take care of them but themselves and that they must become a contributor that the company needs to retain on its payroll." To operate more efficiently, Grose said Certified is organizing its employees into work teams -- either groups of individuals who get together before and after each shift to discuss ways to do their jobs better or combinations of personnel from different areas of the company collaborating on various projects. Part of that process of encouraging work teams to function, Grose said, "is for managers to become coaches and facilitators rather than the old bull of the woods who demands workers do as he says without question. "Supervisors have to know how to use the whole person and realize that the IQ of the work force is higher than any individual IQ, and they have to know how to bring out the best in their team and take advantage of its strengths -- and only people with coaching and facilitating skills can do that." Accordingly, Certified introduced a new training program for all supervisors and managers in July, which Grose said will be completed by the end of 1996, in which each manager will go through 40 hours of in-depth training to enable him to train others and facilitate the goals of each work team. Certified also began offering classes last month to employees at all levels, dealing with opportunities for advancement throughout the food industry. The classes present an overview of the economics and dynamics of the industry and discuss the kind of jobs that will disappear and those that will expand, "to enable employees to understand and take advantage of opportunities that are there," Grose explained. "It's a means of letting them take more control of their own lives, to anticipate change and exert more control over their own destinies. The rest is up to them." Like Certified, Save Mart attempts to give employees a broad overview of industry economics and the reasons restructuring may become necessary, Wendy Kennedy, Save Mart director of training and development, told SN. "We talk about competition and the role each person plays in our organization. And we tell them how critical each one is to the whole business because what they say to customers and how they perform service can affect the whole organization. "When we anticipate personnel changes, such as layoffs, we go to employees in advance to tell them what's going to happen and why, so they have a better appreciation about the business and the reasons for change," she said.

To emphasize the employees' critical role, Save Mart invited a cross-section of 70 associates who work in its Food Max warehouse-store division to gather for two days at an off-site location to draft a mission statement for those stores and to develop support strategies and programs, Kennedy said. "Senior management stayed quietly at the back of the room while employees came up with the mission statement, which is now on bags and on the walls of the stores. "As a result, employees have really bought into it, and it has helped them stay focused," Kennedy said. In general, though, employees today have a different attitude about the work ethic, Kennedy told SN. "They want to know what's in it for them, and our challenge is to provide answers that satisfy that question. "What's in it for them, we tell them, is an interesting job with decent pay, the chance to work with the public and room for advancement and career opportunities. And, on a short-term basis, we tell them it's a means of earning money to make their car payments or to buy an $80 pair of tennis shoes." Wanting to know what's in it for them is not a radical questioning of authority, Kennedy said. Rather, it's "simply the approach these folks learned while growing up. So we explain why we do things the way we do and involve employees more in our rationale. They tend to accept rules better if we explain them than if we don't." Nevertheless, turnover remains a significant problem, Kennedy and others acknowledged. According to Michael Gantt, Gooding's vice president of human resources, the industry's heavy reliance on part-time help makes changing jobs for a higher salary very tempting -- especially in central Florida, where major tourist attractions appear to offer more glamour and perquisites, he pointed out. "Pay scales loom very large in central Florida, and people are willing to change jobs for 25 cents an hour without blinking an eye," Gantt said. "When we hire someone, that person is usually considering two or three other offers, so even when they pick us as their employer, if they don't feel the job appeals to them in the first few weeks, they simply jump to another job." Gantt said entry-level wages are pretty similar from employer to employer, but they are slightly higher at Disney World, Universal Studios, local hotels and other tourist-oriented businesses. Gooding's solution, he said, is to pay slightly higher wages at its four stores closest to the major theme parks. The industry's reliance on part-time help creates some problems among new hires, Patricia Storm, director of recruitment and training at Pay Less, said. "As with any group of part-time associates, many won't think twice about leaving one day and not coming back at all, without even telling you," she noted. Pay Less also has problems finding enough people interested in part-time work, Storm said. "We pay above the minimum wage but still at the low end of the pay scale, which makes it difficult to find entry-level people nowadays," she said. "People value their private time and are less willing to give up that time. "But we try to accommodate their schedules to the best of our abilities to make the job more attractive." To help new employees feel less lost in a new job, Roundy's introduced a trainer-mentor program at its warehouses and its corporate stores, Dave Busch, corporate vice president of administration, noted. "For a period of 90 to 120 days, mentors 'hand-carry' new employees through the job process, giving them information and training in all aspects of the company, approving their work methods and building up their productivity and strength of endurance," he explained. "The mentor attempts to enrich each job by explaining how it fits into and influences the entire company so people don't leave to get 25 cents more down the street." Roundy's assigns up to two mentors to each distribution facility and one per store. "We find we get warehouse employees up to our productivity standards more quickly and we've reduced the accident and injury rate, though we still suffer from turnover rates at levels that are higher than acceptable. "But you're always going to have turnover at a high level unless you go to an all full-time work force, which is not feasible." According to Busch, human resources departments must take a higher-profile role in determining corporate direction. "Companies always say their biggest asset is the quality of people, and that's also their biggest cost. So the question is, does the company consider people an asset or a cost? "We're a labor-driven industry, and human resources must sit at the table when decisions are made, and we must be willing to say we may need to consider outsourcing or third-party assistance and relinquish some traditional controls to serve the needs of the company more efficiently," Busch said.