The multiples are wising up to the business benefits of pursuing family friendly policies. And they have to. Karen Dempsey reports Being family friendly these days isn't just about keeping a pregnant woman's job open for her when she returns from maternity leave. Companies have come under increasing pressure from lobby and consumer groups, not to mention their own staff, to offer more flexible and family friendly employment conditions. And now a new raft of legislation will force businesses to develop employment policies that allow their employees to better balance their home and work life. These laws will have a major effect on the multiples, for which women make up 60%, and part-timers around 70%, of the workforce. But just how family friendly are they already and how big a difference will the new legislation make? According to the Office of National Statistics New Earnings Survey, the average hourly rate of pay in retail grocery is £4.71 for an adult working at the cashdesk or as a checkout operator, compared with a national UK average of £10.03 an hour. But at the IGD's last count the top seven major retailers employed 593,000 people. So, if it's not the money, what does attract them to the business? A former human resources manager at one multiple says: "Well, it's certainly not the uniform. But there are more options for flexible working, and more opportunities to work on a part-time basis. And being close to work is an important factor that other sectors wouldn't be able to offer." Parents at Work ­ a charity that gives information and support to working parents and works with employers to promote family friendly policies ­ has several supermarkets among its corporate members. Chief executive Sue Monk singles out Asda as being particularly innovative in its flexible working practices and family friendly policies. Asda won the charity's Employer of the Year award in 1998. Before the new legislation was introduced, Asda already provided maternity benefits beyond the statutory provision, whatever the employee's age, service or contracted hours. It gives paternity leave to all male staff irrespective of length of service at the birth of a child ­ and it introduced unpaid parental leave for up to three months in May 1999. It also operates flexible hours and shift swap ­ for example, during the Christmas period when parents need time off to see their kids' nativity play. And the over-50s can take three months' unpaid leave if they don't feel like working a full year. Asda says this is to tie in with one of its key values which is "we are all colleagues, one team", and says it takes great pains "to weave our values into the fabric of our business". But often the presence of family friendly values depends on how big the union presence is and how far it has fought for workers' rights. A spokeswoman for think tank The Institute for Employment Rights says: "In most circumstances they [the multiples] will be as friendly as union managers persuade them to be. And employers are increasingly being persuaded of the benefits to their business." These business benefits, according to another think tank, the Institute for Employment Studies, are: to reduce casual sickness absence, to improve retention of staff, to improve their productivity, improve morale and commitment, and to improve recruitment. Let's face it, anything that improves staff retention in supermarkets has to be a good thing as turnover can be as high as 30%-40% in the first year of employment. The IER spokeswoman agrees: "Employers have to recognise the benefits for both sides. People who have a high morale work better, but employers don't do it out of charity, so there's always something in it for them. "It costs £5,000 to recruit a deputy store manager and £10,000 to recruit a store manager so there are a number of benefits to wanting a good working environment. "But it depends if they take a carrot or stick approach, and long-term it has to be the carrot," she adds. But how do supermarkets see it? Asda is the first to admit its change of culture over the last decade has made a difference to staff morale and where it was on its knees a decade ago it is now strolling along nicely. An Asda spokeswoman says: "If we have a colleague with a particular situation, rather than shoehorn them into a current scheme, we will come up with one that suits them. It makes good business sense." The figures tell the story: 70% of Asda's workforce have been with the company for over 12 months, while the average length of service is four years. Tesco ­ which has a close relationship with shopworkers' union Usdaw ­ is recognised as one of the best employers in the sector. Tesco group HR manager Keith Luxon says: "We are the UK's largest private sector employer. We wouldn't have 175,000 people if we didn't have good employment practices. "That's why we welcome the general thrust of the new legislation as it ties in with what we've been doing over a number of years. For example we've offered the policy of emergency time off for a number of years so all the legislation is doing is bringing other people up to where we are. The challenge for us is to see where we need to move up and onwards." Because they've had to evolve as family friendly employers, the multiples are generally well prepared to implement the new legislation, and say it gives them a chance to update their own working practices. Sainsbury says it will develop a new worklife policy in conjunction with the new legislation. Safeway says it is "committed to developing people policies and processes which support caring for our people" and it is developing policies on parental leave and time off for dependents, job sharing and career breaks, and school term time working. Supermarkets' main gripes are to do with the timing and the extra costs involved in implementing the legislation. Tesco's Luxon says: "Our bugbear is to do with the timing. The amount of notice the government gives people to implement this in detail is less than satisfactory. "In retailing terms to bring in two or three major pieces of legislation on December 15 isn't desperately helpful. There will also be some differences for part-time workers which could be an extra cost for the business." He adds: "So far we're ahead of the legislation, but we're taking this opportunity to review our position and see if we need to move the next step ahead. But we're not perfect and there will be lessons to learn. That's what's challenging us to look at our worklife balance issues and make sure we have them right for the next five years." n {{COVER FEATURE }}