04 November 2010

The Group 'Interview'

Well, first off, it was not an interview.  The waiting room already contained 15 or so young people.  A couple of them nervously chatted, between uncomfortable silences - I work for Tescos, I work for Sainsburys, I just graduated…

We then file up to a large meeting/ lecture room; there are about 50 seats. After a further wait of 10 minutes 30 are occupied. Mostly young people; 2 of Indian extraction - male & female, 2 black guys (1 of whom shortly reveals he has 3 years exp at Sainsbury’s and an MBA from Napier), 80% are 20 – 25 years old, I’m probably the oldest there (cough41). Gent’s dress varies from suited and booted to black jeans, brown shoes and a jumper. The ladies similarly vary from sloppy coats, boots and scarves to power suits and stilettos.

A very tall guy, shirt and tie, sans jacket, strides confidently to the front of the room, he is followed by a younger man, shorter and wearing spectacles.  The tall man has a stripy tie, the shorter fellow sports a pale lilac one, and after introductions the tall chap outlines the nature of the presentation. Both are in their mid thirties.

There will be no assessments today, no questions or tests, numerical, keyboard or psychometric, this lecture is for information purposes, to let you see, and hopefully understand that we do things differently, I’m not saying my colleague or my self are better people than anyone who doesn’t fit with our organisation, just that we are different. We think that you must be a certain sort of person to work for us, but also that we can teach anyone to be that sort of person.

First we are all asked to say our names, where we have come from and what our current jobs are.   Everyone has supermarket/retail experience from 6 months part time as a student to 3- 5 years managerial. Many are recent graduates, business management, IT, information’s systems, retail management, BA’s and masters.

Tallman asks us what we know about the org. Many facts and figures are proffered.  All out off date we are assured, many more stores, a whole extra country, growth is our strength. A, b, c keep it simple, x, y, z, “..and something we call Productivity…” said with loving capital letter and the air of an intimated sexual suggestion by the seated shorter man. In fact,  Tallman moves along, we have a short film that explains many of the unique facets of our glorious firms modus operandi. 

It was about here my eyes started to glaze over.  A film with budget advert production values and a cast of ‘volunteered’ employees explaining the basics of bulk discounting and centralised decision making/planning/systems follows. I miss a lot of this as I’m boggling that they are blatantly using the theme tune from a major TV series as the inspirational music, the sample is less than 20 seconds, perhaps this is how they get away with it?

So, different, efficient, flexible (you need to be, we aren’t at all) lets get down to a typical day.  Starting at 7am, you, perhaps with up to two teammates, but mostly you will stock the shop.  Two pallets of veg, freezer cabinets, ambient, food, drink, household and special promotional lines, all must be transferred from their cages in the warehouse to the store.  In less than an hour you must charge the tills, and have the doors open to receive your first customers, where other operations have a cash manager, a produce supervisor, a personnel officer, here you take on each of those roles as necessary, in the same way that within half an hour you may take on the mantle of complaints tsar, till jockey, shelf stacker and toilet cleaner. The seated, lilac tie one tells how he regularly cleaned the toilet at his store, a fact, he assures us, that rocks other supermarket managers, wide eyed, in their seats.

After providing cover for lunches, monitoring stock levels on the floor and compiling orders it’s time to replenish the shelves and begin checking for short dated produce, of which there will be very little, thanks to our automated stock system, this wonder of the 1980s achieves such a level of refinement in a Europe wide offering, the same baked beans or smoked squid from Portugal to Greece, the same store layout, and themed week, from  Italy to Norway.

Tallman admits that sometimes his words tumble over themselves, such is the speed with which he seizes each second as an opportunity to serve the organisation that took him under it’s wing a mere decade and a half ago, although the time passes so quickly it barely seems like six months.

Has anyone heard negative reports of working with us? The seated one manages to interject, Tallman echoes the question.  Someone mentions a story they have seen in Wikipedia. Tallman smirks and acknowledges the story and others, ‘Plenty to read on the Internet.’ is accompanied by what in a mortal could almost be interpreted as a genuine smile, and it lasts perhaps 0.02 seconds.

All long in the past. Tallman admits that it used to be about the most willing to work 100 hour weeks becoming the shining stars, with many falling along the way, that staff turnover was way over 100%, but that has been addressed by head office and now everyone works a set 47 hour week, although the vaunted flexibility expected from all members of the team, means that you might have to cover sickness and holidays, hours over 53 a week will be offset with time in lieu. I think that was the deal, Tallman’s spiel was now tumbling from his lips with the starry eyed zeal of a true fanatic, and accelerating towards unintelligibility.

The questions peter out, it seems the bases have been covered, the 47 hour week is implemented in five 11 hour shifts, with unpaid breaks (subject to availability and team cohesion, and productivity).  Potentially plus six hours unpaid overtime - flexibility, productivity. It is hard physical labour, less manager, more gang master, running a cash rich business for a German trust fund, all the profits are reinvested, mostly to fuel the organisation’s expansion.  There were hints that the company makes considerable profits from interest on cash holdings.  And it was blatantly underlined that the speed of the distribution system and the muscle of the massive buying power meant that a cabbage, say, that was in a field yesterday could be sold tomorrow, money in the bank, but the farmer won’t be paid for 90 days…

Tallman’s final words return to his first statements, this is a hard physical job, it is five 11 hour days, days off are 2 out of seven, could be Mon & Wed more likely than Sat & Sun, it is not for everyone, and 25% he predicts will not take up the offer of a second interview.  I’ll be in that quarter.