People Matters: Justin Johnson

Continuing our People Matters series into 2024, Sabrina Stubbs spoke with Justin Johnson, HR director at contract caterer Elior. Justin discussed his background in chef work, Elior’s internal initiatives that support employees and their wellbeing, and how being purpose-driven allows firms to outperform competitors

Walk us through your background, Justin, and what most excites you about your role in HR?

I was born and bred in Cornwall. I went to catering college in my teens and trained as a chef – although I am no proclaimed chef! Then, I moved to London and worked in hospitality in the hotel sector. I completed a management training programme and fell into HR which I really enjoyed. I’ve been in HR ever since. At first it was within the hotel industry, then I spent 12 months in working in the public sector for South Yorkshire Police. I joined Elior 18 years ago and have been the HR Director for five years. Prior to that I held senior HR roles.

What I enjoy about HR the most is that every day is different, it keeps me motivated and challenged. HR is a diverse, complicated area of any business because of varying colleague dynamics. Notable challenges of late have been recruitment and retention. This has been particularly prevalent post-pandemic. The initiatives we have put in place at Elior have worked well, and we have fared better than others in the industry. Staff turnover for others in the hospitality industry can range from 75-150% but for us it sits below 30, lower now than pre-pandemic.

What’s the business case for being a ‘good business’? Do purpose-driven firms outperform others when it comes to talent attraction and retention?

An observation in our industry is how transient the workforce is. In hospitality, a large proportion of workers are on the National Minimum Wage, or above, and that’s why there can be a lot of churn. For some people, pay is top priority – it’s why we work. But ‘What’s our purpose?’, and ‘Why are we operating?’ is becoming a higher priority. What we’re giving back to the environment, social value and what we stand for is increasing on the people’s priority lists. People enquire about things like volunteering days and employee support programmes. They want to know what an employer can give to them and the wider community that it operates in. So yes, being a good business is important.

It’s much more of a competitive landscape now. The number of people unemployed in the UK is now at its lowest so every company in hospitality is now having to work harder when it comes to attracting people to the sector, and keeping them there.

What about examples of financial products, programmes, or services that help to improve financial health & wellbeing?

We have implemented a number of schemes over the last 12 months or so that have a large focus on retirement planning as we have a large demographic over age of 50. Auto-enrolment has changed the landscape of retirement planning, but generally peoples’ funds are still fairly small so  we’ve done work with our colleagues over the age of 50 to help them think about their options.

We run an initiative called ‘Everyone Counts’ which focuses on three areas: mental health, physical health and financial health. Within that we have varying campaigns to cater for varying needs. We provide lots of resources and signpost people to undertake self-learning or access material to help. Our suite of support packages include lifestyle benefits like restaurant vouchers and things to help with day to day expenses.

What does “family friendly” actually mean? Examples of best in class primary and secondary parental leave policies? How do employers support working parents and help remedy the childcare conundrum?

Last year we did work on our Employee Value Proposition. Firstly, we simplified things and defined our people promise – our first commitment as a business is that there is a job for everyone. We mean that sincerely. We have a really diverse business; core B&I , education, stadia, healthcare… there is a job here for people and one that can provide that level of flexibility. Gone are the days when we go to market saying we’re looking at someone ‘full time’. We can provide huge flexibility.

People’s attitudes are changing and some of that is due to the reality check that the pandemic provided. People want to consider part-time, three- or four-day working weeks now where they wouldn’t have before.

We’ve done a lot to evolve our family friendly policies, but this is ongoing and there’s of course still more to do. We’ve done a lot of work around fertility and menopause support, and we want to expand enhanced maternity pay across the whole business. For Menopause awareness, we redefined a brand-new policy. We ensured everyone’s commitments down the line, from management to colleagues, and did an audit to identify issues and see how we could help and support best. Menopause is still quite a taboo subject, but we want to change that and make it more of a conversation and address the issues, not hide from them.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of good communication. Education is often part of the problem. That, in turn, helps you change people’s attitudes. We do a lot of work on that front.

On health & wellbeing, should free or subsidised access to mental and behavioural health counselling services be an essential offering in light of the mental health crisis? 

Employers have a huge responsibility towards supporting mental health. Businesses that don’t take steps to support this will be significantly impacted by absenteeism, productivity and customer service. We’ve rolled out training for 20 mental health first aiders within our company. Their role here is to listen and signpost help, not necessarily resolve matters as they are not experts.

We have a Colleague Support Programme which provides financial health, legal advice, mental or physical health and wellbeing support. To support this, we’ve done some very impactful work with Able Futures, a mental health support service that helps people remain at work, or return to the workplace quickly. We can signpost people to Able Futures where they can embark on a 6-8 months programme and have counselling to work through any issues. This has really helped people stay in employment.

Finally, how do you engage and empower workers? Best employee listening tactics? And effective approaches to develop from within when working in a hybrid way?

During the pandemic we increased our level of communication with our workforce. It was critical that we did that. Internal comms is ever more important in the way we operate with decentralised teams. Technology can be limited so we make sure we communicate in a number of ways so we know one of them will stick. What we’ve noticed is that direct communication via email remains the preferred method of comms.

Our annual colleague surveys provide us with real tangible information on what we could be doing better what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. Our ‘One Team Talks’ – employee forums, are run by our divisional directors supported by a member of our HR team. Colleagues from all levels within their area come together, exchange and share ideas and express concerns. That’s fed back to board level so we’re constantly got a view on what’s happening on the ground.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty. Walk me through the importance (and challenge) of offering the Real Living Wage to HQ and frontline staff? Can you offer any examples of leadership initiatives to increase wages or benefits?

The basis of the Living Wage speaks for itself. We actively support a fair wage to be able to give people a fair quality of living – everyone should do this. The Chancellor has announced the Living Wage is at the right level. I’m not entirely convinced but I think we’re going in the right direction, at least.

As a business, we ourselves aspire to pay the Living Wage and it is not a problem for us in our head office or support function roles. However, at site level, the majority of costs are passed back to clients so its them who have the final say. It makes good business sense and is vital to the S in the ESG commitment, so this is something we encourage. Many employers, especially in London, want to pay Real Living Wage now.

The Apprenticeship Levy: an honest appraisal.

The apprenticeship levy is quite difficult to spend. Over recent years, through better communications and better engagement with the business, we’ve been able to spend more of our levy, but we need to be better still. Organisations need more flexibility to spend the levy money – it should be more creative or entrepreneurial in terms of how employers spend it. It is currently quite restrictive as it stands. Funding could be used to help recruit or resource apprenticeships – we could bring in more apprentices this way.

We’ve focused attentions on apprenticeship levy gifting as we do have a challenge in spending our levy. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been working with an apprenticeship provider in Manchester to help people within the care, education or hospitality sectors find apprenticeships. They come to us with a story of who’s requested the money and why. It’s quite nice to know you can help.

I believe that removing the term ‘apprenticeship’ could also help as it still has a stigma attached to it with it being only applicable to a school leaver, but it is not. Like an MBA, a learning and development programme that enriches your career in some way, shape or form should be praised and respected, while embedding a sense of pride into the person that is taking their professional development seriously.

More from our People Matters series

Read more from our current People Matters series:

Rebekah Randall

Gemma Rigby

Lucy Eden

You can also read more from our previous People Matters series:

Mark Sutcliffe

Jasmine Hudson

Grace Lewis

Sabrina Stubbs