BOISE, Idaho -- Albertsons here is trying to energize its human resources.
Rather than establish and mandate programs, the chain's HR department is seeking to guide and partner with its associates and to empower them in new ways, Kathy Herbert, executive vice president, human resources, told SN.
Among the programs it has initiated are better methods for performance measurement; use of technology to recruit and train employees; development of peer-group mentoring initiatives; increased mobility of associates between operating units; and the ability to match demographic diversity to the communities its stores serve.
"The new attitude at Albertsons is, HR is a strategic business partner in everything the company does, and the message we want to give our associates is, they are a critical key to our business success," Herbert explained.
"Customers will go where their needs are best met, and we need a workforce that will be ready and willing to serve those customers so we can be the company that does the best job of meeting those needs."
According to Herbert, the expanded emphasis on human resources emanates from Larry Johnston, Albertsons chairman and chief executive officer, who joined the company in April 2001 with a different attitude about HR. "Larry came from General Electric, which is a very HR-centric company, and he had high expectations about what HR could deliver at Albertsons," she explained.
Accordingly, when Johnston listed five strategic imperatives for Albertsons to follow, "energizing associates" was one of them. (The others are controlling costs, maximizing return-on-invested capital, focusing on customers and focusing on technology.)
"Energizing associates is among the company's business priorities," Johnston explained, "but we believe we are taking the importance of our associates' roles to a higher level. We want the most talented people available, but we also want associates who are enthused about coming to work every day.
"We are striving for total dedication by all our associates, from the corporate offices to the aisles of every store. We want them to believe their jobs at Albertsons are the best in the industry."
To implement Johnston's imperative, the Albertsons HR department created a list of 11 areas in which to develop deliverable plans of action, Herbert said. Those areas encompassed recruiting, training, communications, diversity, mentoring, benefits, technology, compensation, performance measurement, succession planning and job mobility.
"These are initiatives that people want," Herbert said. "It's not like we're shoving these programs down anyone's throat -- they're asking for these things."
Herbert spent 16 years with Jewel-Osco, Albertsons' Melrose Park, Ill.-based division, starting as a bagger and working at various store-level positions before moving into human resources, "so I think I understand what it takes to energize people in the stores," she told SN.
To get the initiatives going, Albertsons organized work teams -- composed of senior leaders from each of Albertsons' 11 divisions -- to set goals "and to drive the initiatives forward," Herbert said.
That process began last February, with the programs that were developed being implemented in each division on a staggered basis. Herbert said she expects the first set of programs to be in place companywide by the middle of next year.
"We've staggered the rollouts through the year to make sure we have the appropriate resources dedicated to each one in each division and to make sure each initiative has traction," Herbert explained.
"So we're simultaneously rolling out performance management or diversity training in different divisions at different times, although everyone is aware we will have all the initiatives in place in all divisions within a few months," she said.
"Going forward, the HR team will identify specific priorities and program elements and will continually sharpen the competencies it requires to meet those priorities," she added.
The initiatives being put in place, many of which encompass the use of technology, include the following:
Recruitment. "We're testing electronic job applications to determine if that reduces employee turnover," Herbert explained. "And once a potential employee is being interviewed, the electronic application helps generate questions for the manager to ask and helps pinpoint potential associates who have a customer focus. When in doubt, we will hire for attitude and values and then train for skills."
Training. "We're using computer-guided training to make sure everyone gets the same message, which takes costs out of the system, results in better-trained, entry-level associates and uplifts the entire organization," Herbert said.
Mentoring. "We've identified mentors and mentees and paired them up to improve performance and retention, with an emphasis on women and minorities. I was one of the company's first female store directors at a time when it was a white- and male-dominated position, and I know how much associates need people to go to to get support," Herbert explained.
Mentoring programs are aimed at executives and middle-management personnel as well as at store-level positions, she noted. "We've developed support groups to help peers help each other, because we recognize it's hard to go to one's boss with a problem but easier to get support at an associate's own level."
Diversity. "If we intend to serve our customers better than our competition does, we must have energized associates who speak their language, share their food heritage, understand their culture, celebrate their holidays and understand their needs," Herbert explained -- issues that have become more vital for Albertsons as it has moved, through acquisition, into more urban store locations.
Job mobility. To make it easier for associates to move among different operating units, Albertsons is aligning key processes, policies and procedures -- using common platforms -- so that job skills are readily transferable, Herbert said.
Communications. Albertsons is attempting to increase the visibility of all messages throughout the company "so people at the top and the very bottom understand their mission and their value in the same way," Herbert explained.
Succession planning. Albertsons is putting more formal emphasis on letting associates know that it hopes to identify talent and make sure people get the right opportunities for advancement at all management levels -- a process that ultimately rolls up to the HR department "so we have a picture of our bench strength for the entire company," she explained.
Performance management and measurement. Albertsons is attempting to establish a stronger evaluation process that sets clear, measurable goals and objectives for all associates and that provides regular feedback to them, Herbert explained.
Benefits, compensation and reward. The company intends to differentiate pay based on performance and reward associates for achieving business goals by linking their work with the profits they help generate, she said.