Wal-Mart SVP Outlines Company's HR Initiatives

NEW YORK -- One of Wal-Mart's key objectives in 2005 is to create an "even better place to work," said the retailer's s.v.p. of human resources, Susan Oliver, yesterday in a keynote speech at the New York HR Week 2005 event here.

Oliver spoke of Wal-Mart's four "key deliverables" in the HR arena: strategy execution, administrative efficiency, increasing associate engagement and commitment, and change management.

"Our work starts at the local level," Oliver said of the global retailer, which now employs 1.3 million in the United States, accounting for about 1 percent of the country's population. "Despite our size, we focus on keeping the company feeling like a small company." To stay focused on the local level, the retailer is adding staff to its store-level human resources. Meanwhile, as Wal-Mart enhances its field operations, it will make available a special team of employment advisers 24/7 to help managers address problems quickly and efficiently.

Also new to Wal-Mart is what Oliver called the "Mentor 3" program, in which a salaried manager can mentor three associates to encourage greater personal success and greater success for the company.

Wal-Mart continues looking at ways to better leverage technology to make its HR processes more efficient, Oliver said. Examples include cash registers that shut down when workers are on breaks, and a system that can detect if edits have been made to time sheets, to ensure that employees are paid for every hour they work.

Wal-Mart is also piloting a career preference tool in which employees can indicate their preferences for specific jobs in specific geographical areas. They will be notified if such job become available.

"We're completely revamping our orientation and onboarding process," Oliver added. The retailer will use classroom and on-the-floor training to teach employees what its business model is all about. "This initiative will let us gain improvements in job retention, particularly for those jobs that are most subject to turnover at retail."

Oliver, who joined Wal-Mart a year ago after a stint as HR s.v.p. with American Airlines, debunked some of the popular criticism against Wal-Mart's labor practices, noting, "I believe the culture is truly remarkable."

She observed that the retailer attracted 3,000 candidates for 300 jobs at a new supercenter in Los Angeles last year. "Why are these jobs in demand?" Oliver asked. Among the reasons she cited: Wal-Mart always pays above minimum wage. "Our average hourly wage is just under $10, and more in urban areas." Additionally, most employees at Wal-Mart are full-time, compared with 10 percent to 30 percent of most employers in the retail sector, she said. The company also offers contributions to a 401(k). "For some of our employees, this may be the first time they've had the opportunity to participate in a 401(k)."

Oliver acknowledged several of the challenges that exist for Wal-Mart and other retailers in the 21st century. "Ten or 20 years ago we may have focused more on merchants. Today we're also looking for specialists," she said, noting areas such as international law, Web design, and engineering.

"The worst enemy of any large organization is complacency," Oliver said. "We must remain vigilant, not only in prices we offer and products we sell, but also in the war for talent."

Over the next year Wal-Mart plans to add about 500 locations and create 1,000 new jobs, while promoting thousands of associates from hourly jobs to management, Oliver added.
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