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Interview: Kathy Allison, Head of HR at boohoo.com

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12th Aug 2013
Editor HRZone
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Kathy Allison is Head of HR at fashion retailer boohoo.com.

1. Tell us something we don’t know about employee engagement and how it works?

There shouldn’t really be anything the profession doesn’t know about employee engagement, as it isn’t rocket science. My simple rules would be that employee engagement has to be bought into from the very top for it to work, and has to be linked to the culture and values of the organisation. If people aren’t truly valued at a simple human level, no fancy employee engagement strategy will ever be truly successful.

2. Boohoo has achieved rapid growth. What HR challenges has this created and how have you overcome them?

Our biggest HR challenge has been finding the right people who ‘get it’. Because of this, our focus has been on defining what ‘it’ is. When we were smaller, everybody got it just by experiencing it, but as we’ve grown we’ve really had to define our mission statement, our values and making sure everyone understands our DNA. There are lots of amazing aspects of our boohoo culture, but it isn’t for everyone. Because of this we have a very honest recruitment process which is as much about us explaining the reality of working at boohoo and testing behaviours and personality as it is about technical ability. Guiding people through the constant growth and change can also be exciting but challenging – taking time to stop and regroup as well as remembering to celebrate success has been very important. We’re an open door HR team and so when times are tough we’re always there to support all levels of the team.

3. You’ve talked before about HR having to act ‘entrepreneurially’ – can you elaborate on this and explain why it’s important?

Our whole business has to be entrepreneurial and agility is one of our core values. When it comes to HR, this is really about having a strategy, but maintaining the flex and capacity to be able to seize opportunities and run with it. There is always the academic or technically correct way of doing things, and you absolutely have to have a plan, but sometimes what really works for our people and our business can be something different.

4. A lot of Gen Y seems attracted to fashion careers and you must have come into contact with a diverse group of Gen Yers. What insights can you reveal about their thoughts towards employment, careers, loyalty etc?

Yes, a significant number of our team are Generation Y, and it’s something we regularly talk about at a senior level as it is important we understand how this needs to influence our approach. Our experience has been that the passion and enthusiasm this demographic brings is unrivalled, provided we deliver an environment of variety, challenge, empowerment and development. If that ever drops off, you know about it pretty quickly. Our team are confident and comfortable enough to be vocal about ‘wish lists’ and needs, and so a central theme of our performance review process is to identify and maximise the overlap between ‘boohoo’s’ needs and ‘individual’ needs. It’s certainly true that for Generation Y, and particularly a Generation Y within ecommerce, if needs aren’t met, people will vote with their feet.

5. Where does HR need to be in five years’ time?

These questions always interest me as I don’t believe there is a one size fits all answer. It’s got to be dependent on the organisation in which the HR function operates and what that business is aiming to achieve. In general terms I would say that HR functions who focus on doing stuff because ‘that’s the technically right approach’ and are too rigid will face increasing challenges and that being able to demonstrate business impact, ROI and commercial thinking will be ever more important. For me, the future should be about combining a common sense business approach with recognition of the needs of your specific employee demographic and a good sprinkling of fearlessness and tenacity!

6. Online brands typically have strong organisational cultures surrounding the values of the firm. How does the on boarding process work at Boohoo to get new hires involved in this new culture and operating at 100% with their colleagues as quickly as possible?

Looking at our careers page gives our potential candidates a good flavour of our culture and values from the outset – it’s where we set out our stall. Our induction and onboarding process is continually reviewed and improved in line with the growth and change we experience and is about to move into a new iteration as we speak to make it even more interactive. New starters experience our company induction, values video and then have a timetable across the first 7-10 days where they spend time in every area of our business, including our distribution centre and customer services team. When new recruits meet with HR at the end of the first week we receive great feedback regarding their experiences and it’s a process that really works for us.

Our values are integrated throughout the onboarding process, and we describe the culture of the business in detail with candidates at every stage – we don’t believe in surprises and our culture is often very different to the previous organisations people have come from. We work with a number of recruitment partners who know us very well and support this approach too. Our collateral that people receive at offer stage includes details around our values and culture too, and we have recently revamped our handbook to make sure that yes, it delivers information about our policies and processes but it also gives a true flavour of boohoo in a style and a language that is reflective of our brand – it’s a process we are pretty proud of.

So, new starters meet everyone across the business very early on, and then once a month we have an early Friday finish, pizza and a quick drink at our fabulous meeting space near head office which is a great way to see everyone in a more relaxed and informal environment. We’re currently looking in more detail at how we onboard our most senior appointments in a way that protects the DNA of our business as we grow, and gets them up to speed, empowered and delivering results in the most efficient way.

7.The industry keeps talking about HR ‘strategically partnering’ with other parts of the business. What exactly does this mean?

First and foremost this means understanding what each part of the business needs to deliver, and essentially how this links to the overarching business strategy. It’s something everyone at boohoo really understands and HR is no different. If we can’t explain how something we do supports business strategy then we really need to question why we are doing it. In order to achieve strategic partnership, understanding and being fully integrated into the business is essential. The old approach of HR being a remote function shut away behind closed doors just doesn’t work.  Boohoo strongly believes that people are the heart of our business, and it follows that HR and people management needs to be positioned in that way too.

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