The employers' Oscar is not just another award

It is easy to view the family friendly Employer of the Year Award 1998 as just another award. There are, after all, plenty of annual awards - the Businessman and Businesswoman of the Year, Business of the Year, the Best Dressed Businessman of the Year. They are a bit like Mother's, Father's and Valentine's Day - too many and too often you might say.

But the 11-year-old Employer of the Year Award - sponsored by Lloyds Bank TSB, organised by Parents at Work and won last week by the retailer and catalogue company Littlewoods - is different because it highlights what is claimed to be fundamental to a happy workforce, high productivity and the good of the economy as a whole. The winner has to be an outstandingly sympathetic employer who is prepared to go to considerable lengths devising policies that will accommodate the needs of the staff and their families from luncheon vouchers to a half day off a week so that an elderly mother can be accompanied to the doctor's.

The charity Parents at Work said: "The Award raises the awareness of industry and the public, and shows what can be achieved in the way of family friendly policies, given the right mind set." Previous winners include Asda, Lilly Industries, Time Out, DVLA and American Express.

This time, the 30,000-employee, multiple-store group beat short listed private sector employers Nationwide Building Society and McDonald's as well as several public sector organisations, including Addenbrookes NHS Trust, South Lanarkshire Council and the Contributions Agency.

Equal Opportunities and Employment Minister, Margaret Hodge, who was present at the award ceremony, said that she was all for celebrating companies which promoted family friendly policies: "It's one more lever, and it all helps, in effecting a culture change at work." Her department is involved in the National Childcare Strategy which, among other things, seeks to increase the number of school and childcare places for under fives.

Mrs Hodge said she recently attended, along with many executives from across industry, a consultation on the Home Office's Supporting Families paper. "What I found really interesting was how many of them were saying that family friendly policies helped their profitability," she said. "For example, one leading supermarket said that all its staff always left in droves at the start of the summer holidays. But now the company offers six-weeks, unpaid leave and the problem is solved."

"Normally, family friendly policies reside with human resources," said Sirinda Sharma, Littlewoods' equal opportunities manager. "But Littlewoods is different in that they are integrated with the actual managers so that manager and employee, who already have an important relationship, can work out the employees' needs together. This approach means that 62 per cent of our workforce work flexibly and 98 per cent of the women who go on maternity leave return."

Littlewoods, said Mr Sharma, has been ahead of the game for years. It offers all the now obvious things like job sharing, term time contracts, home working, career breaks, subsidised play schemes, flexi time, and enhanced maternity leave. "It never offered a minimum on anything." For example, a new employee who walks in the door pregnant can take 18-weeks' paid leave and she gets 20-weeks' if she's been at the job six months. It offers the same deal to someone who is adopting or fostering.

It started granting paid paternity leave as early as 1970 when it gave a father three days, now he gets two weeks. In 1994, it introduced a Dignity at Work Policy so that anyone being victimised can resort to a trained "supporter".

Jean Balcombe, who manages the Employment Law Helpline for members of the Industrial Society, said that, despite the glowing CVs of winning and short-listed companies in the competition, "lean companies, whether big or small, find implementing family friendly policies difficult. It's organising the cover for absences that is hard. They have to be very proactive to make it work," she said.

"Having said that, even these companies can gain from promoting an open and honest culture. Where one of their badly needed staff, instead of ringing in sick the day he needs to collect a child early from school as he would if he suspected a `no', is going to say to his boss he needs just two hours off to collect the child and the boss is likely to agree."

Mrs Hodge pointed out that half the workforce still had no access to family friendly policies. What would Littlewoods like to see change in other businesses? "The long hours culture," said Mr Sharma. " We don't have trouble sticking within the 48-hours Working Time Directive. We think it's bad for staff and bad for business if they work a 12 hour day regularly. How can they be refreshed for the next day?"

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