Case Study: Awareness raising – Mercator, Slovenia
Company / organisation name
Family-friendly Enterprise Certificate
About the company / organisation
Mercator is the biggest Slovenian retail company, employing 10,866 people. It is primarily engaged in the retail and wholesale sectors. Founded in 1949 under the name of Živila, the company was renamed Mercator in 1953. Headquarters are located in Ljubljana, with branch units located all over Slovenia. The company’s vision is to become the leading retail chain for foods and products for daily household consumption in Southeast Europe. It is expanding in the markets of countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. In these foreign subsidiaries, Mercator employs 23,000 staff in total. Besides foods and products for everyday consumption, the Mercator group also includes retailers specialising in the sale of technological products, clothing and sportswear. Mercator workplaces vary greatly in size, and it incorporates a wide range of job descriptions and working conditions.
Demographic analysis of the company shows that women made up 72% of employees. In total, 23% of all workers are over 50 years, and the average age of employees is 42 years.
In 2007, Mercator applied for the Family-friendly Enterprise Certificate, and received the basic certificate (Osnovni Certifikat Družini prijazno podjetje). The reason behind applying for the certificate was to enable the company to address the issue of work–family reconciliation on a more systematic basis. In this context, Mercator has a broad understanding of the concept of family.’ It includes couples without children, couples whose children have moved out, and families that include members who are elderly or have a disability and who need to be cared for. For this reason, the planned measures target all employees caring for a family member, be it for a child, an elderly person or a person with disability.
Mercator has identified seven measures that make up the certification process, all of which are of some relevance to working carers. These are outlined below.
Information platform: this involves informing employees about issues of work and life balance through a company newspaper and an intranet platform. In the internal newspaper, which is published every two months, a special section is dedicated to issues surrounding the family-friendly enterprise certification process. The intranet, launched in December 2010, features a special section on reconciliation.
Information brochures: in 2008, two new brochures were published and circulated to staff. The first of these presents the company, its values and visions, and contains practical information on measures of relevance to work–family balance. The second brochure deals exclusively with Mercator as a ‘family-friendly enterprise’, and describes all measures on offer to employees who care for family members.
Internal surveys: their purpose is to assess staff satisfaction with existing measures. Receiving feedback from employees is considered an essential precondition for gradually improving the ability of employees to reconcile work and family. The 2010 survey included questions on all seven measures listed here. Results were presented in the internal newspaper and on the intranet.
External communication / public relations: the certificate is being used as part of the company’s public relations (PR) strategy. For example, the certificate logo is included in job advertisements to distinguish Mercator from the competition.
Working time flexibility: employees can swap shifts with co-workers; working carers can use this to tailor their working hours to family responsibilities. The company does not give priority to any group of employees in allowing atypical working hours. Instead, line managers are asked to facilitate family-friendly arrangements wherever possible, without discriminating against co-workers with no family responsibilities. The company is also prepared to offer workers the possibility of moving to a new position, perhaps at a different site. For example, an employee could change their position to one that allows them to work mornings only. This option can have significant relevance for working carers.
Health protection and preventive measures: since 2008, Mercator has run a project called ‘Promoting Health’. This strives to raise awareness among employees about each worker’s responsibility for their own health and about what the company can do in terms of health promotion. A free helpline was set up, which employees can use to ask questions related to health, preventive healthcare and favourable working conditions. Seminars about particular diseases and preventive health checks complement these activities.
System of reintegration after long-term absence: this measure is targeted at (mainly) female workers who are returning to work following maternity and parental leave. It comprises information provision and counselling, either face-to-face or by phone. One issue addressed here is that of statutory rights, such as that of working part-time until the child is three years old.
Four additional measures were agreed upon in 2010 and will be implemented in the next three years (until 2013). Two of these are of relevance to working carers:
- Mercator Sport and Culture Club: this club will offer recreational, sport and cultural activities at reduced prices for employees and their family members (partner/spouse, children);
- Management training and skills: this refers to training and sensitisation measures targeted at line managers to equip them with social skills for dealing with employees seeking to reconcile work and family responsibilities.
Rationale and background of the initiative
Mercator is part of the first generation of Slovenian employers who hold the Family-friendly Enterprise Certificate. The certification methodology is based on the European work and family audit developed by the German organisation Berufundfamilie in the 1990s. The original methodology was adapted to the specific context of the Slovenian economic and legislative framework. The certification process requires companies to agree to adopt at least three measures from a catalogue of work-family reconciliation measures. These include flexible working times, company childcare services, job sharing, adoption leave, part-time work and assistance for caring for a family member with a disability. Moreover, participating companies must agree to undergo an assessment of their current status regarding conditions for the reconciliation of work and family.
The main motive for taking part in the certification process was to promote the company as one that takes its social responsibility seriously. The company wanted to show employees that it cares for their specific needs and to demonstrate that (even) a retail company can become a family-friendly enterprise. The latter point is significant due to the fact that working conditions in the retail business are typically poor, with more and more shops being open to business every day of the week, from morning to evening.
Before Mercator received the certificate, certain measures were already in place that allowed employees to better reconcile work and family responsibilities. For example, Mercator owns holiday facilities in Slovenia and Croatia, which can be used by employees when possible. Employees with new born babies receive a ‘Lumpi package’, containing gifts of a practical nature. In addition, every employee with a child under 15 years of age is entitled to one day of additional paid leave.
Mercator has also been engaged in providing employment to people with disabilities. For this purpose, a separate company was established in 2007 that employs people with disabilities. Currently, 295 persons work in this company, with production focusing on cosmetics and bakery.
Against this background, a project team was set up in 2006 to prepare for the certification process and to develop new measures; these were to be chosen from the catalogue of possible measures provided by the auditor. The results were presented to management, and subsequently approved. The project team includes women and men, and older and young employees, as well as trade union and works council representatives. The human resource department has been responsible for planning and implementing the measures.
Regarding needs that aren’t addressed by national legislation and or agreed measures for the certification process, Mercator tends towards individual, informal agreements between worker, line manager and co-workers. These are agreed upon on a case-by-case basis and often involve flexible working hours which allow employees to work in a certain shift over a certain period of time. Such informal arrangements can be of great help to workers who need or want to engage in informal care-giving within their family.
According to an applicable collective agreement, employees who take care of a family member with a disability are entitled to an additional three days of paid leave per year.
Some employees, for example those working in the HR department, also have the option of working from home. This can be a possible solution for workers with care responsibilities in the family, such as those caring for elderly relatives. This option is not available to the majority of employees who are not working in an office environment, for example cashiers, drivers and those working in warehouses.
Results and assessment
The main outcome of implementing the measures defined in the certification process is, according to management, a much greater awareness of the issue of work–care reconciliation.
According to the internal survey of employees, the existing measures are perceived as positive and are well accepted. Another finding was that between 60-70% of all employees stated that they can avail of the kind of flexibility they need to reconcile working and family responsibilities.
The survey also showed that the system of reintegration, following a long period of leave, is widely used by the 90% of women workers who have taken such leave.
A cost-benefit analysis has not been undertaken yet, as the company considers it difficult to measure the benefits of many of the initiatives in financial terms. There is, however, evidence that rates of absenteeism have decreased as a result of the measures for promoting health.
Issues, challenges and lessons learned
Working carers clearly benefit from some of the measure introduced in the context of the certification process. However, the measures do not explicitly address the needs of workers caring for relatives who are elderly or who have a disability. Workers with preschool and school-going children make up its main target group. Nevertheless, providing employees with the possibility to change shifts with co-workers, for example, has obvious relevance to other working carers.
When preparing for certification, the project group at Mercator considered the idea of granting parents with preschool children the right to request working morning shifts only. The internal discussion, which also took account of the results of the employee survey, came to the conclusion that such ‘positive discrimination’ should be avoided. This was because of (a) operational barriers resulting from the work processes and organisation of work in the retail business, and (b) the risk that co-workers will feel considerably disadvantaged, leading to lack of acceptance of the measure. The trade union representatives, in particular, voiced the fear that other employees would consider such a formalised policy as unjust. In this regard, it was noted that other employees may also have specific needs arising from non-work responsibilities, including employees who are engaged in care-giving to elderly or dependents with a disability. Consequently, no formal measures were introduced. Instead, line managers are asked to agree informal arrangements with their staff that meet the needs of employees with family responsibilities. This experience shows that the company prefers solutions that are open to any employee, rather than to single out certain groups of beneficiaries for certain rights.
The company representative points out that the reconciliation of work and care has not yet been identified as an issue demanding immediate action. However, there is awareness that the issue will become of increasing relevance in the near future. Employees’ average age is already 42 years, and is estimated to increase to 43.5 by the year 2015. Moreover, Mercator’s staff is predominantly comprised of women. So far, the specific needs of working carers are solved on a case-by-case basis and at operational level, taking due account of the existing legislation. With regard to the latter, statutory rights as defined in national legislation appear to be well-developed in the case of employees with childcare responsibilities. However, improvements are needed in terms of supports for working carers who are providing care for elderly dependents is addressed.
Case study author:
- Dr. Ziva Humer, The Peace Institute, Ljubljana
- Nataša Jelovčan, Head of Department, Human Resources, Personnel Administration, conducted on 7 December 2010.
- http:// www.mercator.si