John has been leading the Bellrock journey on becoming a family-friendly organisation, through work which includes the Real Living Wage, maternity and paternity policies, sick pay – all in the name of looking after people and being a good business.
Walk us through your background, John, and what most excites you about your role?
I’m an engineer originally. I moved into property management, which moved me into health and safety, which moved me into wellbeing. I’ve got a PhD in organisational psychology, so psychological safety and wellbeing has been a close and fascinating area for me for quite some time. And then I ended up moving into HR. I’m a dual qualified CIPD HR and IOSH H&S professional, and I straddle these two areas.
I became Bellrock’s people director a couple of years ago, and in October I was promoted to CPO. My journey has been about making a positive difference to people’s lives, either through behavioural change and safety, or simply by putting people first. We’re a fast-growing organisation. That means there was a greenfield site for me to implement an approach to managing people that smaller organisations don’t necessarily have because they don’t have the resources to do so. We’ve experienced some growing pains, of course, but we know what good looks like from an organisational level in terms of how we look after our people, and the people agenda and strategy has been built around that.
What’s the business case for being a ‘good business’? Do purpose-driven firms outperform others when it comes to talent attraction and retention?
If we take the business case in the traditional sense, then there’s a clear financial benefit to having an engaged and motivated workforce that don’t want to work anywhere else. HR professionals often feel compelled to prove that to the board. They don’t always get an easy ride. Throughout my career, however, I’ve been consistently impressed with boards that are as concerned about the moral duty of care they have to their people as they are about the money. So, whether it’s about the level of maternity, paternity, adoption, or sick pay, or whether it’s about the hourly rate – it shouldn’t just be for the business case. It’s the right thing to do. Our decision to move to Real Living Wage, for example, shaved several hundreds of thousands right off our bottom line. But we did it because it was the right thing to do for our employees. That came first. But there’s a business case, too. That decision’s impact on our net promoter score, turnover, and productivity, for example, speaks for itself.
You’ve touched on the Real Living Wage (RLW), so let’s talk more about that. Walk me through the importance (and challenge) of offering the RLW to HQ and frontline staff?
First, you must ask what sort of business do we want to be? Do we want to be a race-to-the-bottom business? Or do we want to work for clients that know the difference between cost and value, and want to do the right thing? For us, it’s the latter. We pay the RLW and provide life assurance and we know full well that our competitors don’t all do that. That prices us out of certain types of jobs. But we don’t want those jobs. That’s not saying we’re a premium employer – we just treat front line staff the same as operations and engineering staff when it comes to wages. On average, our front-line colleagues got a £1,200 annual rise because of us implementing RLW.
How did this decision come about?
It was remarkably straight forward. I started looking into it, pretty much as soon as I joined, and our new CEO was also instrumental in this decision. The cost-of-living crisis helped justify and expedite our commitment to RLW. We got the board onside, then it was time to have conversations with clients. We considered how much we could pass onto clients through schedule of rates and renegotiated terms, and we worked on our pitch as part of the moral business case debate. Most of our clients agreed to support our decision, particularly in the public sector. Others have been trickier. Irrespective of the client’s view, we’re paying RLW anyway.
What needs to change so that other companies make the same decision?
Well, there needs to be a systematic overhaul, but let’s face it, that doesn’t work with capitalism, does it? The Safe Sick Pay campaign is a great example of why we really do need government to lead on certain areas, because as much as we might say that it’s the right thing to do morally, unless everybody in our sector does it – and they won’t because it comes with a risk of losing work – then it won’t happen en masse. It’s a real challenge, particularly with frontline colleagues that traditionally don’t get decent pay, let alone sick pay.
Earlier you mentioned maternity and paternity pay, which brings me onto my next question – what does “family friendly” mean?
We’re not the best in class with this but we’re moving in that direction, albeit from a low starting point. We paid the statutory minimum on parental leave a year ago, which we recognise was a poor effort. Now we pay 12 weeks at full pay and two weeks for paternity, which is in line or slightly ahead of the industry benchmark. It’s not just about pay, though. It’s about the level of adjustment we can make to accommodate working parents.
I’ll give you a real Bellrock example. Someone who worked for me went off on maternity leave. I wanted to ensure she had the support she needed to enjoy her time as a new mother, but also to flourish in the business when the time came to return. We split her responsibilities while she was on maternity leave and the approach, along with the open conversations we had along the way, persuaded her to go for a promotion, which she got. I promoted her while she was on maternity and redesigned the organisation of that department around her needs. That wasn’t a hard policy decision, just an open conversation with a talented individual.
How else can employers in FM support working parents, especially given the childcare cost conundrum?
The additional hours in 2025 are going to help. But even so, there is a bandwidth issue with good quality childcare. It’s not always easy to find a nursery or minder you trust, that’s convenient, and that has places. It’s a bottleneck. We are a male dominated business – we need to be better; we know that. And that starts by having much more family friendly policies. I know of an instance where a female colleague left a business because her friend was pregnant, and she was disappointed by the maternity policy on her behalf. She left, not because she was pregnant and affected by that, but because she didn’t want to work for a company that didn’t value her peers. It says a lot about the type of employer you want to be.
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