Coop Adriatica Scrl, Italy Recruitment and flexible work practices
Coop Adriatica is one of the largest Italian business cooperatives in the retail trade. Established in 1995, by a merger between Coop Emilia-Veneto and Coop Romagna-Marche, it has a vast network of supermarkets and hypermarkets in four Italian regions: Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Marche and Abruzzo.
The company has 8,275 permanent employees, including around 500 managers and office workers and around 7,800 sales staff. Almost 6,200 (75%) of its sales staff are women. Only 303 (around 4%) of permanent employees are aged over 45 years, but the proportion of workers on short-term contracts, aged over 45 years, is much higher.
Coop Adriatica has experienced some difficulties in recruiting staff for specialised tasks, especially butchers. In July 2003, there was a partial restructuring at top management level, but despite this, the company places its trust in older employees, whose professionalism and dedication are appreciated.
The relationship with the labour unions is generally good, though contentious at times. For example, worker representatives recently threatened to protest against a gradual reduction of their involvement in the company’s decision-making processes. In 2003, the Area Emilia 2003–2005 contract was signed, although by only one trade union, i.e. CGIL. This contract includes a ‘Protocol for the development of positive actions in the field of equal opportunities, of solidarity and for the conciliation of time for work and life.’ It proposes several positive initiatives, some directed at all employees and others at specific categories of workers, including older workers.
The original initiative
Coop Adriatica’s initiative involved the recruitment of employees, particularly women, over 45 years of age. It began in 1995 with a training initiative called ‘retravailler’, funded by the European Social Fund, which involved women who were made redundant from the job market before retirement age. Fifteen women took part in the programme, some of them over 45 years, and at the end of the course the company hired eight of the participants.
The main reason for the initiative was the fact that the company wanted to recruit more staff and that the training course was not a burden on the budget. Coop Adriatica discussed the initiative with labour unions and they did not raise any objections.
The initiative was so successful that it completely changed the company’s attitude towards hiring people aged over 45 years. In the years that followed, it hired many workers over 45 years of age, especially women, through other initiatives. These involved collaborations with training institutes financed through the European Social Fund or regional funds. However, the company also hired older workers directly.
From 1996 to 2004, Coop Adriatica hired a total of 124 people aged over 45 years (including 27 in 2001, 27 in 2002, 21 in 2003 and 19 in 2004) on permanent or short-term contracts. All of these older workers repaid the company’s trust in them through their demonstrated enthusiasm and above-average dedication to their jobs, in addition to their flexibility in relation to work schedules and assignments.
Good practice today
The success of the original initiative – particularly in terms of increased efficiency and motivation of older workers – has persuaded Coop Adriatica to continue with the programme.
Greater awareness of the value of older workers has also led the company to review its career development policies, which previously favoured younger employees. In 1999, Coop Adriatica completely changed its policy by opening up promotion to employees of all ages through a self-nomination process. Accordingly, self-nominated candidates are judged by a team of psychologists specialising in work relations and by managers. Each group’s judgement carries equal weight in deciding whether or not to promote the candidate. In 2001, for example, a 50-year old employee nominated himself for work as a butcher. Subsequently, he was promoted to shop supervisor and the company now considers him to be a very efficient employee.
Another initiative – job flexibility – is open to cashiers of all ages, of whom approximately 20% are aged over 45 years. It began as a pilot project in 2001 in Bologna and aims to reconcile employees’ personal time demands with the organisational demands of the company. Previously, a manager set up cashiers’ timetables and they adapted to it accordingly. However, under the new initiative – called the ‘island timetable’ – the cashier is allowed to manage their own schedules.
Since 2002, around 600 employees in nine hypermarkets have managed their own timetables. The initiative is voluntary and has been agreed upon with the labour unions. Accordingly, employees are organised in groups (‘islands’) of 20–25 people, each of whom specifies their preferred work days, five weeks in advance. The company confirms that the timetable is feasible and, with some fine-tuning if necessary, it implements the agreed schedule.
This initiative has proven very successful and workers report that it has improved their lives. Older workers, in particular, appreciate the flexibility it offers and its advantages in terms of personal and family activities, such as caring for parents and in-laws or spending time with their grandchildren. Benefits to the company include a decrease in overtime work, which in turn allows it to employ more workers on a permanent, long-term basis. It has also resulted in a decline in the rate of cashier absenteeism.
Another initiative, which specifically focuses on older employees, allows grandparents to take unpaid sabbaticals of up to six months during a grandchild’s first year, in order to help the parents with childrearing. Although it has been available since 2003, no employee has yet taken advantage of this leave arrangement.
Despite the success of these initiatives, the labour unions have been somewhat critical. Although they acknowledge and appreciate the value of the company’s business measures, they argue that it has a sort of dual effect: on the one hand, the company pursues positive or progressive initiatives, on the other, it has trouble putting them into practice. The unions say that there is a need for greater involvement by workers in these initiatives.
Looking to the future, the company is trying to find ways to deal with decreased motivation among some employees over 45 years of age, identified in a recent company report. It is considering implementing a training programme aimed at motivating older workers and increasing their job satisfaction.
Dr. Nicoletta Bencivenni, Human resources manager,
Dr. Antonella Utili, HR development assistant,
Ann Maria Spoto (CISL labour union representative)
Ottavia Gallerani (CGIL labour union representative)
Publications for employees:
Noi Coop (monthly)
Che tempo fa? (triennial review of employees’ environment)
DVD of Coop Adriatic Project, ‘Orario a isole’ (Island timetable)