Our people management principles have adapted over time to fit the current talent marketplace trends

Ever since its inception in 1992, Unilever Nepal has been one of the major FMCG companies in Nepal. In the last three decades of its presence, the multinational firm has earned a name not only known for its business practices but also for people management practices. In the Nepali corporate world, the company is credited for introducing many new practices that have set new standards in the domain of human resources management. Aniket Preetish is the Country HR Head of Unilever Nepal. In an interview with the HRM, he talked about various aspects of people management practices in Unilever Nepal, changes and challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and new trends in managing people, among other topics. Excerpts: 

How has people management played role in the success of Unilever Nepal? 
Unilever Nepal has been operating in Nepal for the last 30 years and through the company’s history, we can clearly see that people have been our biggest asset. As one of the first few multinational companies to set up operations in Nepal, right from the beginning, we have believed in developing talents internally and grooming them by providing the right exposure. This means we have been able to introduce flagship learning and development programs for our people which allows them to garner customized skills and expertise as required by the business. This also means that we have been able to consistently supply our business with a talent pipeline with the right skill set. We believe that a high-performing organization is one where people can develop and contribute to their fullest potential.

Our HR policies and practices are consciously ahead of the curve and a positive employee relations climate ensures a high-performance culture that turbo-charges our performance.

Many HR professionals say HR practices introduced in Unilever Nepal have also been followed by other corporate organizations over the years. What new practices and trends Unilever has brought to Nepal? 
Unilever Nepal is a pioneer in some of the HR practices that we see have now become the norm in many organizations in Nepal. We were one of the first organizations in the country to introduce a host of progressive policies such as provision for menstrual leaves, insurance coverage of IVF for up to two cycles, career break policy, flexible working policy, and most recently a gender-neutral policy to support survivors of abuse.

Similarly, we were also one of the first companies to conduct pre-placement interviews and offer management trainee roles to fresh college graduates, a practice that has now become the norm in many companies. We also pioneered the concept of having own virtual learning platform – Unilever Cornerstone & Degreed- to offer curated learned pathways as per role and skill need. Furthermore, we were also one of the first companies to offer learning courses through the mobile phone app Paathshaala to our sales field force across the nation.

Some of our HR practices for team engagement such as quarterly MD/CEO report back, Factory Manager and MD townhalls, and engagement sessions in the sales team were also pioneering steps. Even within the HR teams, segregation of roles into business partnering roles (for example, HRBP for sales or marketing) or as expertise roles (for example, reward, talent, etc.) was introduced in Unilever Nepal at a time when many other similar companies had yet to come up with such segregation.

In this way over the years, we have been able to bring forward some of the best practices from across other Unilever entities/countries which have trailblazed since the time they were introduced.

What changes have been there in people management in Unilever Nepal over these years? 
In our legacy of 30 years, we have evolved to fit the context of the time. Similarly, even our people management principles have adapted over time to fit the current talent marketplace trends. For instance, our approach towards learning, development and careers has evolved from a prescriptive approach where training and roles were assigned by HR or line manager to a much more collaborative approach where we encourage our people to take control over their own learning and development and raise their hands to explore roles across functional cross sections.

Unilever is also keen to not only ensure that our people have the right skills for the job, but also that they are ‘future-fit’ – equipped to remain relevant and take up challenges as the market progresses towards ‘future of work’. As a result, much of our people management agenda over the recent years has been geared towards automation, digital transformation, and a conscious pivot towards agile ways of working.

What challenges have emerged in the FMCG sector in people management, particularly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic? What impacts of the current economic slowdown do you observe in people management?
One of the key shifts we have seen in people management- particularly after the pandemic is the renewed focus on the holistic well-being of our people. The pandemic forced us to re-evaluate just how important the health and well-being of our people are and how it needs to be at the heart of everything we do. It also added focus on not only the importance of physical health and well-being but also on the importance of mental, emotional, and purposeful well-being and how each of these affects employee engagement and performance. While the importance of employee well-being has increasingly been recognized by organizations, the pandemic has truly brought it out to the spotlight.

Another key impact we have seen, particularly because of the recent economic slowdown, is how reward has come to the forefront in the minds of employees while evaluating their overall satisfaction or engagement with the organization. The reward has always been one of the top three attributes through which people assess job roles. But with the recent liquidity crisis compounded by the surge of inflation, cash-in-hand and other cashable benefits have come to become highly valued at the moment.

How is Unilever Nepal responding to these challenges?
At Unilever, we have long endorsed our holistic well-being framework which includes not just physical but also mental, emotional and purposeful well-being. As the pandemic renewed focus on health and wellbeing, Unilever Nepal has also ramped up its efforts to respond to the challenges that were presented by the pandemic, the lockdown, and subsequently the way in which these two changed the dynamics of the workplace forever.

For example, we were able to reinforce our focus on mental and emotional well-being through our partnership with Happy Minds, which has since 2020 been partnering with Unilever Nepal to provide counseling and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for not only the employees of Unilever Nepal but also to the friends and families of the employees. Employees and their families have access to counseling services in person or through telephonic calls with certified counselors and psychotherapists through Happy Minds and the cost for this is borne entirely by the company. In addition, we also regularly run other programs for targeted behavioral change to ensure that our workplace remains not only physically safe but also psychologically safe for all employees.

How is Unilever Nepal fulfilling its workforce needs?
At Unilever Nepal, we have long believed in creating a pipeline for key roles in the organization. Our talent philosophy has always been to groom young talent for key roles while offering them big roles early in their careers. We are also firm believers that diverse exposure – to different functional cross sections, geographic locations and in some cases even cross-laning between functions- helps create an all-rounded talent.

As a result, we disproportionately invest in identified key talent so that they have exposure to the larger Unilever South Asia ways of working through immersions, stints, participation in live projects and even permanent roles in other Unilever entities in South Asia. Similarly, we also actively encourage employees to explore cross-laning and moves in roles that lie on a different spectrum of the functional cross-sections. For example, just recently we have just appointed our former manufacturing manager to the corporate supply chain role as a customer service and logistics manager.

Because of this focus on building capability in-house, we have been able to manage our workforce needs primarily through the internal pipeline of talent. More than 98 percent of our roles are manned by local talent and more than 80 percent of our managerial roles have been filled by internal talent who have been promoted into the role.

Is Unilever Nepal collaborating with b-schools and other educational institutions to hire fresh graduates?
Yes. Unilever has long been collaborating with b-schools and other institutions to hire fresh graduates as management trainees. In fact, our management trainee program has been a flagship program in Nepal and so far, it has worked well for us. This has allowed us to groom much of our talent through the program.

Even today we regularly engage with B- schools for interaction sessions, pre-placement interviews and even opportunities to intern within different functions of Unilever Nepal. Except for the years disrupted by the pandemic – we offer at least 10 internship projects to b-school graduates each year and our conversion rate for interns to full-time employees in the company is also above the market average.

Our management trainee program is also designed in such a way that it provides maximum opportunity for a trainee to understand the culture and ways of working within the company and thus ensure that they are well equipped to perform once their role has been sub-charged. We have designed the program to ensure that the trainee gets adequate support to invest in his/her learning and maximize exposure to different verticals of the function during the training stint.

How much priority is given to training and development programs to enhance the capacity of the employees of the organization?
At Unilever, our focus is to ensure that our employees are future fit with relevant capabilities to tackle challenges not only today but also challenges that may come up in the future. With such an audacious goal in place, we lend considerable priority to the learning and development of our talents.

We believe in empowering our people to be in charge of their own learning and development and in line with this we have designed our learning agenda in a way that allows employees to sign up for training or learning pathways by themselves rather than rely on HR or anyone else to prescribe learning capsules for them. In fact, every Unilever Nepal employee has access to – at free of cost- thousands of learning pathways on degreed where much of the content is created by Unilever for Unilever. In addition, all employees also have free and unlimited access to LinkedIn learning courses, Udemy, and our very own Unilever learning services portal Cornerstone. With these combined, all our employees have access to thousands of relevant and curated learning courses worth millions of learning hours.

However, even these courses represent only 10 percent of our investment in learning as we follow a 70-20-10 principle where 70 percent focus is given on on-the-job learning, 20 percent on coaching/mentoring, and only 10 percent focus on instructor-led or self-paced learning courses. With this, I think it is safe to say that Unilever is one of those companies in Nepal with one of the highest per capita investments in learning hours for our talent.

How does Unilever Nepal ensure that its employees are happy and satisfied?
At Unilever Nepal, we regularly conduct employee sentiment checks across 15 dimensions of employee engagement. In addition, our yearly UniVoice survey also unequivocally measures employee sentiment ranging from overall engagement, satisfaction with senior leadership, satisfaction with career development and learning opportunities, well-being, and work-life balance, to satisfaction with the integrity principles adhered to by the company in course of work. These sentiment analysis surveys are administered through experts in our Global Unilever team and the fact that responses to these surveys are 100 percent anonymous means that we get quality feedback from our employees at regular intervals about their engagement and satisfaction with the company.

In addition, we ensure that our HR business partners remain close to the functions they partner and engage in social listening to bring forward issues that may require our intervention. Apart from this we also actively try to ensure that employees have the psychological safety to speak up any time they have any dissatisfaction or grievance with any aspect of how our organization is run.

In summary, we try to nourish a culture where employees feel free to voice their concerns whenever there is discontent, and we provide ample opportunity for them to raise these through our regular HR connects and sentiment surveys.

As a senior HR practitioner, how do you see the evolution of HR management in Nepal post-1990? Has the Nepali private sector started giving more priority to human resources management?
The fourth industrial revolution has been scary for many people because it is all about a lot of technologies coming in and it’s going to take away jobs. I think what we should remember is that there is unprecedented change. We must understand that our people and the way they behave and the way they think are what’s going to help us be ahead of the curve and handle and embrace these unprecedented changes to leverage these changes for the business and ourselves.

Technology has to be about amplifying and augmenting human potential. It is human beings whose ideas, creativity, talent, and energy make a difference to any institution. To me, business is about people. People are the only sustainable, competitive edge that a business has because everything else can be matched.

The Nepali private sector also has recognized the importance of people and everything they bring to the workplace even more centrally than ever before. Today, companies know that to create a business that’s ready for the 21st century, being human is absolutely necessary to succeed in the next few decades in this increasingly unpredictable and volatile world.

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