At H&M, before office employees get to their desks, they need to learn about the company from behind the cash register.

In fact, some new employees actually train to be able to work in five distinct positions within the retail stores.

“We really wanted to ensure all employees that we hire, especially for our support office, area office and warehouse positions, are immersed in the H&M values culture prior to joining their team. So the best that we know how to do this is for them to actually go and work in the stores,” says Miles Lucas, country human resources manager at H&M Canada.

Read: Employees favouring company culture, career progression over pay: survey

Depending on their position at the company, new employees train for either four or 13 weeks. Those who complete the full 13 weeks learn the roles of a sales advisor, department manager, visual manager, store manager and cash office manager. The program includes executives hired externally by H&M. Toni Galli, president of H&M Canada, never needed to go through the program, but that’s because she started her career with the company as a store manager at the flagship location at Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

Breaking it down

For the first two weeks, the trainee will be “doing fitting rooms, working on the cash, working on the sales floor, saying hello to customers,” says Lucas.

After that, employees receive training on more specific operational matters, such as “opening up registers, back-of-house routines, damages, all those technical pieces,” says Lucas.

“Also, learning how to read out profit-and-loss statements.”

Next, trainees learn about the managerial side, including tasks such as creating schedules and ensuring the store maintains an ideal amount of stock, says Lucas.

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After that, trainees learn about the visual aspects that go into building an attractive store environment, such as “floor sets, garment rotations, sample picking and also being able to build props to build a window,” says Lucas.

Finally, the trainee spends a week working with a manager to learn about handling the human element of the organization, “such as how to recruit people. What does development look like? What does performance management look like? What does leadership look like, and how we can train that within different roles?” says Lucas.

In the end, the trainee is “basically ready to become a department manager or a store manager after the 13 weeks,” says Lucas.

Building a culture

The in-store training is a fundamental part of the company culture, says Lucas. “In Canada, we opened up our first store in 2004 and we’ve always done it this way.”

One of the employees who have gone through the program is Henry Guerreiro, an employee relations co-ordinator at H&M.

“I realized it was not just that H&M wanted to give me a full onboarding, but they really wanted me to understand the work culture,” says Guerreiro, who completed the condensed four-week training program.

Guerreiro says the training helped make the different opportunities available at the company more apparent to him. Understanding the various functions throughout the company helps people to see other areas where they may like to use their talents, he notes.

Read: 90% of employers not integrating millennials into the workplace: survey

“In my role, building on relationships with different functions, building on trust and being able to influence and inspire others was a key insight for me,” says Guerreiro.

“If each of them don’t know the impact of their work on the preceding and the subsequent process, it becomes a bit of a lost cause,” he says.

“Then there’s no accountability process and you throw up your hands and say, ‘Hey, we did our part. It’s not our problem if they didn’t do it right. They’re the ones who screwed up.’ So then there’s no team ownership, it becomes this us-against-them concept, and that’s the beginning of organization downfall.”

Employees who don’t work on the front line won’t understand what their colleagues have to deal with if they’ve never experienced it before, says Janet Salopek, president of Salopek & Associates Ltd.

The strategy is also helpful for recruitment and retention of millennial employees who, Salopek says, “like to understand. They like to be involved; they like to be engaged.”

Read: Younger employees prioritize ‘purpose’ of work before pay, benefits: report

While it’s more common in retail businesses, the approach is by no means ubiquitous, according to Shelley Brown, president of Bromelin HR Consulting.

“I would say five to seven per cent of retail organizations are doing this kind of thing, so I applaud H&M for taking the lead on this,” she says.

“While the administrative aspects aren’t always easy, because when you hire someone, you want them to do that job, the long-term gains for the organization are phenomenal. The employee gets a much broader skill set,” she adds.

Career rotation programs, through which employees spend a solid period of time in different roles, are another way of applying the concept, says Brown. She estimates 20 per cent of companies in the pharmaceutical and information technology industries practise the concept on some level.

Experience in the field

Celine Kaufmann is a controller at H&M who completed the 13-week program. “I think it was really great to see all the aspects of working in the store and being part of the dynamic and the energy of the store teams,” says Kaufmann.

In bringing the experience to her role at the corporate office, Kaufmann says getting to meet the store teams during her training in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton was an invaluable part of the program. “Now, in my role, I’m constantly in contact with all the store teams and speaking with them and visiting the stores,” she says.

Read:  Employee engagement in Canada rises to 70%: survey

Kaufmann says she was surprised at how exhausted she was at the end of an eight-hour shift with a one-hour break.

“In my previous job, I was often working 12- or 14-hour days and I still wasn’t as exhausted when I came home,” she says.

“So I got myself a pedometer that counts my steps and, after a few days, I realized I was walking, on average, about 20 kilometres per shift,” she says. “That really brought so much more of my admiration for the teams working in the stores. It is a very physical job.”

Knowing what happens at the ground level makes her better able to do her job, she says. “When I have ideas for processes, I can imagine what it actually means in the store, what the people actually have to do to get there, and I think that’s the most essential part of the in-store training that you would never get by just sitting in the office and doing your part of the job,” she says.

“I know what they’re doing. I’ve done it myself,” she adds.

Martha Porado is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

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Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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