Glamorising job titles is an easy way for employers to make roles sound more appealing, especially to new recruits, but do they serve their purpose of motivating staff, asks Liz Morrell

We’ve all heard the extreme examples: a cleaner referred to as a domestic engineer, a removal man as a relocation executive, a refuse collector as a waste removal engineer. There is even an education centre nourishment production assistant – a dinner lady. But what about those retailers that choose to rebrand their store roles?

While retailers’ rebranded job titles are not as long-winded as the examples listed above, the days when retailers referred to staff as checkout operators or sales assistants are fast disappearing. At Disney Stores, for example, staff are known collectively as cast members.

The question is, though, does this approach aid the recruitment, retention and general motivation of a retailer’s workforce or is it just a stunt?

Rita Clifton, chief executive of branding consultancy Interbrand, says that referring to employees as colleagues, co-workers or sales advisers can be a great motivator, because staff then feel they need to play a more active role in helping customers. However, she adds: “The problem is when some of these terms become over-engineered – it can lead to a level of cynicism.”

At Ikea, UK HR manager Ruth George insists that calling staff co-workers is not a gimmick. “That’s not something we have done to make the role sexy or make us more attractive as an employer. It’s integral to our core identity. They are running the business alongside us,” she says. “We class all of us as co-workers – even Peter Høgsted. He just happens to also have the responsibility of being country manager.”

George believes that sexing up in-store job titles is unnecessary. “Internally, we use quite basic titles, such as store manager or assistant store manager. It comes back to our honesty as a brand – we don’t do fancy long titles,” she says. “We don’t see people coming for a job at Ikea, but for a career. We look at branding more long term.”

Asda people director David Smith agrees that a no-nonsense approach works best. “We have tried to build the suggestion that a role in retail is not just a job, it’s a career,” he says.

“We don’t use the word staff; we are all colleagues together. It’s an upside-down approach. The most important people aren’t the executives, it’s the people on the shopfloor. That set of language is becoming really important.”

Like Ikea, Asda keeps it simple – as is illustrated by Smith’s own role as people director. “We tend to be quite no-nonsense, so we are not particularly title-driven. We try to call positions what they are and don’t use euphemisms like HR – we hate all that,” says Smith.

Retailers are hoping to achieve a number of things through rebranding titles. It can help give prospective employees the impression that the role has added status or is, in some way, more exciting than what they might find at rival retailers. It can also aid recruitment by creating a perception that the company values its employees more than other companies do.

Retail Performance Specialists learning and development manager Craig Ramsay says: “Rebranding may be effective in gaining interest from prospective employees and, by adopting this approach, job seekers may give the retailer a second glance because of the perceived status of the title.” However, he warns that it’s meaningless unless it’s backed up. “The trouble with adopting this approach in isolation is that it can be superficial. At the end of the day, retail is retail and the measure as to whether the job role is truly superior to the rest is down to what happens after the new recruit accepts the position.”

John Lewis manager of personnel policy Carole Donaldson agrees. “It’s easy to just give people titles, but it’s more about what’s contained within the role.”

Ramsay says such rebranding should be only the first move in a wider process to build engagement (see box). “Steps that retailers can take – in addition to the short-term measure of rebranding the role titles – are to embed longer-term employee engagement and career-development strategies to emotionally engage employees and build loyalty to the company,” he explains.

“If the line manager can instil all of those points, then the retailer will have demonstrated that the role is truly sexy long after the new starter has looked beyond the eye-catching job title.”

Smith agrees. “Anything you do can’t just be about the words you use – it has to be related to the behaviour on the ground,” he says.

A Boots spokeswoman argues it is vital to recognise the importance of every role within retail. “It’s not so much about making the roles sound interesting, but about empowering individuals to make a difference at the level they operate,” she says. “Appropriate uniform, name badges and job titles are important, but not as important as the communication they receive and the opportunity they have to communicate ideas, which makes individuals feel valued as part of the wider team. All internal and external communications should reflect this and, at Boots, we would refer to employees as our colleagues or team.”

Boots HR director for healthcare Simon Hulme maintains that it is existing colleagues who help to sell the roles, rather than the titles used. “When recruiting new people, we have had great success in asking present employees to share their experiences – the power of this being that potential candidates can imagine themselves fulfilling these roles and achieving great success in the company,” he says.

Ramsay applauds retailers such as Fat Face, which refers to staff as crew and their head office as fat base. “It gives off a very trendy and engaging image and profile,” he says.

Smith says rebranding roles plays an important part in promoting the image of retail as a career rather than just a job, but the challenge is getting that message across. “The sector is extraordinarily fast-moving, energetic and exciting, but a lot of the public perception of retail roles is still that they’re very basic. It doesn’t seem to have passed into the consciousness of parents and that’s the tragedy,” he says.

He adds that those who question the importance of a shopfloor role should be mindful of the following analogy: “A store manager in an average Asda store has the same turnover in that one store as the entire turnover of Pickfords, the removal company. That’s when people sit up and realise how rewarding it can be.”

So, while it may go some way to helping store staff feel motivated, making retail sexy is about far more than just a name change.

10 steps to engage store staff

1. Help staff see where they fit in
2. Set clear targets
3. Train and develop
4. Discuss career paths
5. Review performance
6. Give constructive feedback
7. Recognise people’s strengths
8. Communicate honestly
9. Let them have fun
10. Say thank you

Source: Retail Performance Specialists

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