Consistency pays off

Antoinette Irvine, vice president human resources South & Southern Africa at Unilever

Antoinette Irvine, vice president human resources South & Southern Africa at Unilever

Unilever South Africa is a part of Unilever PLC, a global brand that’s over 100 years old and has a bevy of products easily recognised by the South African consumer: Sunlight, Omo, Domestos and Knorr to name just a few. In South Africa the company has over 3000 employees working across the two offices and five manufacturing plants.

“We are part of a global multinational and this influences our thinking heavily,” says Antoinette Irvine, vice president human resources South & Southern Africa at Unilever. “We believe that being competitive in the future will not be about machinery and technology as all of those factors will be common to all organisations. The strategic advantage will come down to the people in the organisation.”

Unilever is committed to attracting the best people to come and work for it and spends a significant amount of time in growing employees through courses that have been globally developed. The company has developed a number of programmes to allow employees exposure to a variety of different career and growth opportunities, regardless of their roles.  

“In South Africa our proposition is in finding ways in which we can create a brighter future for all, so many of our people will be working on products and brands that make a difference,” says Irvine. “On the one hand they are helping to create business opportunities and make a difference in their communities and on the other, their talent is nurtured so they are really motivated and want to work with Unilever.

“In HR, for example, you can take on a number of different roles, such as recruitment leadership or business partnering, and we not only offer this locally, but we can also offer this internationally. Many of our graduates that come into our three-year programme will have an overseas assignment for six to nine months that gives them the breadth of international experience. For those who show high potential and a willingness to travel, this is an ideal opportunity.”

Irvine adds that Unilever consistently improves its HR policies and practices and looks for ways in which the value-add can be extended to the employee. 

“We talk a lot about how people can work one day from home as we have recognised this shift in employee patterns,” she says. “We are also very pro-gender [equality] with over 50% of women at management level. This is our global promise and places us in the lead in South Africa. We provide maternity cover, job sharing and offer plenty of occupational health areas. Our Durban office has a fully equipped gym and we are looking at other ways to show we care and to add value to our employees.”

Unilever uses the metric of engagement to assess employee satisfaction; this is its global standard and it regularly measures engagement to ensure that it knows what people think and to find ways in which it can improve or overcome specific challenges.

“We ran a survey last year and we were looking at 80% engagement across the company, which is an impressive result. We are not scared to find out what people think,” says Irvine. “I believe that the biggest selling point for this high level of engagement is the purpose. People get an opportunity to work for a company that cares about what it is doing as a business in the country, and to work on products and brands that are making a difference to the community.”

A good example of this commitment is the Domestos campaign: Unilever is running a national campaign to upgrade government school toilets using the brand at the helm. Product positioning is perfect, but there is the added benefit of helping to change people’s lives.

“Our brand managers are driving the brand and making a real difference to the community at the same time,” says Irvine. “The value that our employees get from working with vendors and seeing the benefits to others is immense and is part of our commitment to helping to create a brighter future in South Africa.”

Unilever has implemented a sophisticated HR technology system that makes many of the HR processes, such as feedback and performance assessments, available online. The automation of many of these essential HR tools allows for staff to feel as if they have a high level of control over their working lives.

“We are looking at setting up fully fledged kiosks in our factories to enable higher levels of self-service for our blue-collar workers and we are constantly looking at ways in which we can upgrade our services to improve HR engagement,” says Irvine. “I think we are leading the way in terms of what we are doing. We also work hard to support a diverse organisation which is why we have such high gender levels and we are running cutting edge programmes to improve inclusivity in the workplace. We want to be the company that leads the way in embracing organisational diversity in the workplace.”

This article is part of a larger supplement which can be found here
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