Ermes Group, Cyprus: Training and development
The Ermes Group, the largest and most diverse retail organisation in Cyprus, invests in the training and qualification of its staff. It considers its older staff members to be valuable assets in creating good quality retail service. Older staff have many opportunities for promotion and they also act as mentors to the younger staff.
This large retail organisation is a member of the Shacolas Group, employing over 9,000 people. Starting in 1971 with the purchase of the Woolworth’s stores, renamed Debenhams, Ermes currently employs 1,500 staff in its various retail outlets throughout the island, with an average in each department store of 100-120 persons, 3-4 of whom are part of the management team. Approximately 70% of store employees are women and the majority have completed upper secondary education. The average age of employees in the Debenhams stores is over 40 years of age (these are the oldest stores). The Ermes Group headquarters employs 130-140 people, of whom approximately 100 are graduates and overall the age is much younger.
Age is not an issue in recruitment or staff retention. Budgetary considerations (wages) are important, but the company is particularly concerned with the individual qualities of staff and their abilities to provide good customer service. This is enhanced through systematic training of all employees, both in-store and in the framework of the new professional qualification for sales staff. Training is seen as a critical means of retaining staff, offering them opportunities for personal and career development, and making the company an employer of preference.
Good practice today
There is great respect for older workers in the company since they tend to know more than the central staff about the operation of the individual stores. They know, for example, the customers and their preferences, and have developed personal relations with many of them. This is considered a valuable asset to the company in creating retail loyalty.
Because older workers can get tired in retail work (e.g. having to stand for many hours), the company ensures that staff have plenty of breaks. There are also some possibilities for redeployment and part-time work. The company finds older workers profitable and promotion is possible, depending on their demonstrated abilities. They are asked to act as trainers and mentors with younger staff and there are no negative attitudes towards them. Training takes place primarily in-store and this is where the older workers are particularly good at explaining issues such as stock, brand training and customer relations. Store and staff incentives (such as free holidays) are available when employees reach or exceed sales targets and these promote positive reactions and commitment among staff.
By law, retirement occurs at the age of 63. Generally, the company prefers them to leave at this age, although a few older workers are still employed in departments like Storage and Distribution after this age (maximum age of 65), mainly because they requested to stay and for personal reasons were retained. In this sense, the company is able to show some flexibility to older workers. Hiring part-time workers for the retail stores is common and applies to all age groups. There are opportunities for flexible hours.
The Ermes Group is expanding, with its focus on retail. There have been some closures of small non-profitable units (e.g. ice cream) and these employees were relocated to other departments and jobs within the company. The majority of new recruits are young, approximately 30 years of age, but recruitment is on the basis of the company’s budget (i.e. an agreement to be paid at a specific level). Thus, older workers (50+) may be employed if they are willing to accept the wages. Those recruited are given extensive training and many opportunities for career development and internal promotion, which can be very rapid (e.g. to Team Leader level). There is a lower turnover in the Ermes Group than in most retail units, reflecting the fact that staff understand that the company is investing in them and that they have a career future. There is equal pay practice throughout the company. There are also good staff schemes, such as welfare and health insurance packages, discount cards and extra benefits — all of which act as incentives for staff to remain with the company. The company follows the law with respect to overtime.
The Ermes Group provides systematic training of staff (e.g. on brands and customer service) on a monthly and yearly basis. It is one of the first private retail companies to work with the Human Development Organisation, a public body, in the development of a Professional Qualification for Sales Staff. This involves study, examination and certification. The company was the first to send six women for such training and certification, a process that involved the whole central management team. The company considers this particularly important and, in line with EU policy, encourages those with low skills and education to avail of opportunities for vocational training and certification.
Each store has a different tradition with regard to trade unions, works councils or social dialogue. The Larnaca store, for example, has a works council and no trade unions, while other stores are much more unionised. Overall, about 10% of stores in the Ermes Group are unionised. Generally, workers in the retail sector are poorly organised, in marked contrast to other sectors of the economy.
There are health and safety committees and the legal rest periods for staff are adhered to. Store managers usually meet the staff once a week, inform them of the sales and budget targets, and listen to their comments. Problems are discussed directly with managers, but employees can also come to the HR department, which can help with certain issues. HR personnel also pay regular visits to the stores, to meet and talk with all the staff. At the annual staff meeting, the HR Manager provides employees with her direct number so they can contact her personally. The staff cafeteria also provides further opportunities for discussions.
Contact: Toula Theodisiou Jirka, Human Resources Manager