While all the focus is currently on the sugar tax, don’t be surprised if another piece of legislation relevant to food businesses gains significant press attention this spring.
For April 4 2018 is the deadline for employers with 250 or more full and part-time staff to disclose how much they pay male and female staff.
Under the mandatory gender pay gap reporting rules, companies will have to publish a ‘snapshot’ of the pay difference, both with and without bonuses (see box).
And given that the 9.1% UK-wide median average gap in favour of men recorded by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in April 2017 (the median average being ONS’s preferred measurement) is thought to be even wider in the manufacturing sector, it’s probably not surprising that many firms will hold out until the last day to reveal their results.
One leading UK food manufacturer, however, recently felt confident enough to publish its data early. In October, Weetabix disclosed that its gap in median pay for 2016/17 was just 4.9% in favour of men – a 3.9 percentage point improvement on the year before.
The driving force behind the strong performance is group HR and IT director Stuart Branch, who claims the company has been on a four-year journey to narrow the disparity in pay.
For Branch, it’s been part of a wider mission to make Weetabix the kind of forward-thinking company people would be proud to work for.
Reward Framework (back to top)
JOB TITLE: Group HR and IT director, Weetabix Food Company
DOMESTICS: Married, with two daughters.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Branch cut his teeth at hospitality business Whitbread – where he started as an operator, running restaurants and hotels, before moving into HR. Stints in the tourism, retail and financial services sectors followed, and in November 2012 Branch joined Weetabix as group HR director. In June, he was also tasked with running the IT division at the Burton Latimer-headquartered company. Branch claims his operational experience helps him put consumers and customers “at the heart of everything” he strives to achieve at Weetabix.
AWAY FROM WORK: Branch enjoys swimming, biking and running – which results in him competing in the occasional triathlon. “As the years have passed, I’ve moved from sprint distance to middle distance running, and I have suffered the endurance of a couple of Ironman Triathlons as well,” he says. “Long training hours are a great way to de-stress from work, and it motivates me to keep fit and healthy.”
With facilities in the Northamptonshire towns of Burton Latimer and Corby, Weetabix employs 1,100 people – 650 male, and 450 female.
Branch says success in closing the gender pay gap has been down to establishing a “reward framework” around pay and benefits, and then carefully monitoring the data that is generated from it.
Using that data, he claims the secret is to remove any “unconscious bias” when making future decisions concerning salary.
“My personal view is that very few businesses, if any, are deliberately biased when it comes to gender pay,” he explains. “But closing the gap is about more than that. It’s also about having procedures in place to address things businesses might be doing unconsciously.”
Branch says it is necessary to “put a lens over the data” when performance or salary reviews are conducted, and checking for anomalies.
“If such anomalies exist, then what does that data tell us? How do we feel about it? And what are we going to do to address it?” he asks.
This is what Weetabix has been doing for the past four years, Branch claims.
“Don’t get me wrong – we would never want to employ anyone other than the best person for any job, but it’s about making sure that with our recruitment processes, our talent development, and our training, there isn’t any unconscious bias.”
Given that Weetabix’s gender pay gap has narrowed so considerably in just 12 months, Branch “absolutely” envisages a time when it will close completely.
“It certainly is possible. In fact, I had a look on the government website the other day, and I noticed that there is more than one organisation with a ‘negative’ gap. Some companies are on average paying women more than men,” he says.
“Every time you recruit different people at different levels within the organisation, every time you pay more or less for a certain rarity of skills that you are looking for, it will influence the pay gap. But I dream that one day we’ll be close to zero as possible.”
Closing the pay gap might be one thing, but attracting more women into the food industry – and then enabling their progression – poses a whole different set of challenges.
Mature Approach (back to top)
Branch believes a “mature approach” to both formal working practices and flexible working requests is an important way to encourage career development in women.
“We’ve conducted training to ensure managers understand that if their staff – female or male – need to, for example, have to leave work to pick up their children from school, then it’s not something they feel they should be hiding,” he explains.
“It’s about judging our people on the contribution they make to Weetabix, rather than on the hours they work.”
Branch concedes that it can be difficult to allow workers to walk away from busy production lines, but it’s about “trying to bring as many of those flexible and more modern principles of work into the factories and plants”, rather than leaving them the sole preserve of those who work in the company’s offices.
Another measure undertaken by Weetabix to make itself more female-friendly has been to make the staff changing and washing areas “as attractive as they can be”, he adds.
Away from gender-specific concerns, Branch says the company has made efforts to ensure staff get to hear about the positive as well as the negative feedback from customers and consumers – whether made directly to the company or through social media.
“It’s about trying to make sure our colleagues everywhere in the business really understand and associate with the product and the consumer that we are serving,” he suggests.
Branch remains acutely aware of the importance of attracting good staff, and admits Weetabix isn’t immune to the industry-wide problem of the availability of skilled labour in certain roles.
He picks out engineering and manufacturing management as two areas that it has needed to address.
Apprenticeship Scheme (back to top)
Under his guidance, the company re-established its apprenticeship scheme in early 2015, and now runs two apprenticeship programmes in conjunction with Tresham College in Corby.
“Weetabix had a brilliant apprenticeship programme for many years, but that stopped around a decade ago,” he explains. “So far, and including the ones going through now, we’ve had eight apprentices – four each in engineering and manufacturing leadership.”
Despite bringing apprentices back into the fold, Branch is honest enough to admit that the company would have to recruit “a considerable number” to get anywhere near the equivalent returns it pays out under the Apprenticeship Levy, which came into force last April.
“The levy is a hefty price tag for an organisation like Weetabix, so the jury is still out on it for us at the moment. However, we are absolutely committed to the programmes that we have got running, and we will take on new apprentices every year.”
While the levy remains a challenge, more positively Branch says Weetabix doesn’t employ a “significant” number of non-UK EU nationals, so he doesn’t fear being adversely affected by Brexit.
Meanwhile, union concerns over the job security of Weetabix’s workforce following its takeover by US firm Post Holdings for $1.76bn (£1.4bn) in April this year have subsided.
According to Branch, it has never been part of Post’s strategy to make “synergy savings” in the UK, and as a result Weetabix offers as good job security as any organisation can promise.
“Rob Vitale, the president and chief executive, has made it clear in meetings that Post’s role as a holdings company is to allow Weetabix the freedom to make decisions that best serve the UK market,” he says. “Post owns a variety of businesses, and Vitale has no plans to turn them all into one organisation.”
Overall, Branch believes the Weetabix’s workforce can take further heart in the measures the company is taking to be a responsible employer.
“Our gender pay gap figure illustrates that we are a good business that does the right thing, even when no one’s looking.”
What firms must publish
- Mean gender pay gap
- Median gender pay gap
- Mean bonus gender pay gap
- Median bonus gender pay gap
- Proportion of males and females receiving a bonus payment
- Proportion of males and females in each pay quartile