job descriptions

Nick Shanagher on the ever-growing importance of evolving employees’ job descriptions.

Philip Hesketh, one of the UK’s top experts on the power of persuasion, likes to tell a story of his son’s first day of work at the renowned Bettys Tea Room in Harrogate.

His son was sent home first thing – he was told that he needed to scrub his fingernails if he wanted to work at Bettys. He did, went back, and eventually went on to greater things.

Hesketh uses this story to explain how setting high expectations leads to above-average results. But it is also a story with resonance for wholesalers as they consider the impact of regulation on their independent foodservice and retailer customer base in general.

One of the things that makes the Bettys story remarkable is that so few local businesses set high standards for their employees on day one or day 1,001, for that matter. For more than 10 years, Newtrade’s Independent Achievers Academy (IAA) has been promoting staff development. The latest benchmark asks: ‘Do all staff have up-to-date job descriptions which they buy into?’ The answer to this question, in my experience, is almost universally ‘no’.

Why this must matter to wholesalers is that without the building block of a written job description, it is very hard to agree what a job role is, and then very hard to agree whether it is done well, let alone identify productivity improvements.

But productivity improvements are what operators in foodservice and retail are going to need to gain from their staff. The government has been clear – wages at the bottom end of the market will rise.

If these operators are not able to improve the productivity of their staff, then they are going to lose their competitive edge to the chain operators. This, in turn, will hit wholesalers.

Analysis shows that the bottom 15% of workers in the UK have seen a real term wage rise in the past decade worth around £180 a year, adjusted for inflation. However, that tops up to a massive £440m in extra salary cost for their employers.

Retailer Dee Sedani, who operates One Stop stores, has said he is pushing the price of products up and cutting hours.

Another retailer I spoke to summed up the pressures well. He has two small shops near to one another, and two sets of staff. The logical thing to do would be to expand one and combine the two. But he has long-serving staff, and one, aged 70, is delighted to be getting an extra 30p an hour. She has never had a job description, and shows no sign of wanting to retire.

What to do? I suggest that he needs to write down the tasks that he expects all his staff to perform, and win their agreement to be responsible for these. From this base, he can then ask them to make improvements. This would be a big cultural change, but he should use the impact of the National Living Wage costs on the future success of the business as a reason for change.

Discussing this with a leading wholesaler, I noted that the disciplines promoted by the IAA felt like selling gym memberships to people who didn’t exercise but who would benefit from it. His reply was to say that many of his customers had not finished school, or if they had, they never liked being bound by rules. This did not mean they were not good businesspeople – it just meant they had found a different way of becoming successful. However, like many of his competitors, this same wholesaler offers a wealth of advice on how to run a successful business that is freely available to independent customers. What wholesalers can no longer afford to do, though, is to believe that providing the advice means that it is actually being applied.

Nick Fraser, retailer director of a six-store independent, has identified that his staff need to be better trained, to have departments to order on, and be responsible for stock and price checking as part of their roles, rather than making this the responsibility of a manager.

Wholesalers need to encourage all of their customers to think like this. A lot of money rides on doing so. 

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As managing director of Newtrade Publishing Nick has over 20 years’ experience of covering retail markets, Nick helps shopkeepers and wholesalers of all sizes to think about what questions are important for themselves and their businesses, and to find answers that work in their shops.


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