EVERY INTERVIEW, WE ASK WHAT MOTIVATED THE INTERVIEWEE TO PURSUE A CAREER IN HR. FOR JUDY PARFITT, IT WAS EXPERIENCES AS A JOURNALIST IN SOUTH AFRICA DURING APARTHEID, REPORTING ON THE OPPRESSION THAT WAS AN EVERYDAY WAY OF LIFE. LATER ON, AS A UNION REPRESENTATIVE, FIGHTING FOR PRESS FREEDOMS AND WORKERS’ RIGHTS IN SA AND, IN ANOTHER ROLE, MEETING NELSON MANDELA, JUST RELEASED FROM PRISON.
CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER , VITALITY
People that bring all of themselves to work are more likely to liberate the best in themselves
I have to confess that I’ve never had a career plan. Instead, I’ve grasped opportunities as they presented, so my career has taken a zigzag path. I started off studying journalism and worked on newspapers for seven years in the 80s. That was a formative experience for me. The anti-apartheid struggle was gaining momentum and South Africa was burning. I was young and naïve and witnessing first-hand and reporting on the protests was a real eye-opener. I had grown up in a small, conservative mining community and my experiences as a journalist showed me a completely different view of the world. They instilled in me an activism and a strong commitment to social justice, which have served me well as an HR professional and employee advocate. I learnt a lot about mobilising and galvanising people around a shared purpose. When I was appointed Assistant News Editor for a provincial newspaper, the Eastern Province Herald, a state of emergency had been declared. Stringent censorship regulations were promulgated. People would come regularly to the newspaper offices to report security force abuses. We would take statements from them and accompany them to the police station nearby. Had they gone on their own, they would have been arrested and accused of agitating and inciting violence. Then we’d spend hours on the phone to media lawyers, trying to work out what we could publish, which was often very little.
I became active in the South African Union of Journalists, campaigning for press freedom. Trade unions really were the vanguard of the struggle in South Africa and so I decided to study labour relations at the University of Port Elizabeth. After graduating, I stayed on to work in a unit funded by a German foundation committed to social democracy, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which gave us a degree of independence. I worked as a researcher and a lecturer on a postgraduate programme in employee relations, delivered training for managers and trade unionists and mediated workplace disputes. It was all incredibly rewarding. After seven years in that role, I was offered a scholarship, which took me to the University of Warwick in the UK. The zigzag pattern continued and I decided to change tack and study international relations. My dissertation focused on the role of multinationals in political economies and I used Volkswagen in South Africa as a case study, which led to a job offer from them.
This was in the early 1990s, before the first democratic elections in 1994 and strikes over political issues were frequent. I was taken hostage by some shop stewards for a few hours during a particularly difficult negotiation, which had reached an impasse. They weren’t aggressive and I didn’t feel threatened and we continued talking and the experience demonstrated that most issues can be resolved through dialogue. By focusing on our shared interests and compromising on both sides, the dispute was settled. VW pushed some boundaries – we admitted black people to apprenticeship programmes when it was against the law – and we canvased for the release of employee activists who had been detained and we negotiated some ground-breaking agreements in the auto industry and at plant level. We also de-recognised a union which would not admit black members. They sued us and lost. At the same time, we were running voter education programmes for shop floor workers who had never voted before. It was a tumultuous time.
It was and shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, we arranged for him to visit the factory and I’ll never forget that day. We closed the plant and it was an exuberant celebration – I still get goosebumps thinking about it. There was this overwhelming sense of hope and possibility. People who had been denied a vote for decades were meeting with this icon and legend – it was simply joyous. He was such a humble, self-effacing, servant leader. It made me think, how can we all be a bit more like him? While I was at Volkswagen, I was approached to help set up the equivalent of ACAS in South Africa, called the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which ushered in a new, progressive labour relations dispensation. Those were heady days too. I remember clearly settling the first dispute the day the new Labour Relations Act came into effect, it was a wage dispute on a citrus farm. A few years later, I was approached by the South African equivalent of HMCR, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), to head up their human resources division and to help transform the organisation. I’d never envisaged working for a tax collector, but SARS had an important mission, to improve revenue collection in order to fund social services for all South Africans. During the apartheid era, the government’s social spend on a white person far outstripped the social spend on a black person. For five exhilarating and exhausting years, I worked alongside Pravin Gordhan, who subsequently became the Minister of Finance. He was an activist of note! SARS had been granted administrative autonomy, which freed the organisation from the strait jacket of public sector policy constraints. We changed everything: the organisational structure, every single HR policy and procedure, job grades and pay bands, collective bargaining agreements, you name it! We introduced leadership competency assessments, increased the number of black people in management roles and worked tirelessly to change the organisational culture.
During the apartheid era, a jobs-forvotes practice was common and loyalty was rewarded over competence. We shifted the focus to finding the best person for the job. The assessments we used tested for generic competencies required in managerial roles, including emotional intelligence and the calibre of managers improved significantly. We also negotiated a far-reaching collective agreement which guaranteed employment security – not job security – for employees willing to be flexible about what work they did and where, how and when they did it. We had a powerful rallying cry, “build SARS, build the nation”. Revenue collection improved dramatically and so did the budgets for education, healthcare, infrastructure and so on. Once again, Nelson Mandela came to meet with employees at SARS, this time – to thank them for their contribution to creating a better life for all. Those were special times. I look back and I marvel at how ambitious our change agenda was. Some initiatives stumbled, but most succeeded and SARS’s achievements during that time were recognised globally. That’s why it was heart-breaking when, a few years after I’d left, SARS was infiltrated by corrupt officials who were at the beck and call of a new president, Jacob Zuma, who is now facing corruption charges. So much good work was undone before Cyril Ramaphosa became president and installed a new Commissioner to set things right. The current Commissioner also served on Pravin Gordhan’s leadership team and is committed to getting SARS back on track.
I joined a start-up HR consultancy in Johannesburg called Resolve and helped to grow that business. We worked with corporates and public sector institutions on a wide range of transformational projects. I loved the variety of the work. One of my favourite clients was USAID, the American International Development Agency and my work with them – mostly organisational development interventions – took me to Uganda, Ethiopia, Mali, Kenya, Angola and Myanmar. After ten years, we decided to sell the business to Ernst & Young and, as shareholders, we had to sign three-year lock-in agreements. We built EY’s HR capability in the South African business and I transferred to their London office to work on a similar project. That proved to be a tough time personally and an exercise in humility. In South Africa, I’d established a solid reputation and a wide network of contacts, but in London I was no one. As an Executive Director, I had challenging revenue and billing targets. I achieved them – only just – but my mental health took a knock. Then came the call about a Chief People Officer opening at Vitality and the timing and the fit were perfect. When I first walked into our offices, I immediately felt at home. I completely identified with the purpose and values and loved the culture. There’s this sense that anything is possible. Vitality has also completely changed the way I view my health – I’m far more focused on healthy behaviour. I admit I am bit of a reluctant exerciser, but I know how important it is to maintain my platinum member status and so I now make a conscious effort to keep active and put my daily steps in. What Vitality stands for chimes with the things I hold dear – the activism around making people healthier, the company’s social conscience, its strong commitment to living its values and its willingness to experiment and to do things differently – it’s been a game-changer.
It starts with our core purpose of making people healthier and enhancing and protecting their lives – and that applies to our employees too. This is underpinned by our shared value model, which delivers products and services in ways that benefit members, employees, the business and wider society. We incentivise our members to live healthier and longer lives and they could pay less for insurance if they do. The business benefits from increased profits and some of that revenue is ploughed into more generous rewards for healthy behaviours. Society benefits because healthier people require less healthcare and are more productive. The shared value model is compelling and finds expression in multiple ways – I think it’s incredibly important that we act out this core purpose in everything we do. Take diversity and inclusion, employees who bring all of themselves to work are more likely to liberate the best in themselves and the business benefits, because diversity fosters innovation and society benefits because diversity and inclusion promote social cohesion. Another example is the way our car insurance works; people are rewarded for safe driving and car free days, which in turn is better for the environment. Some of our life insurance products offer lower premiums to people who take steps to be healthier. All this gives great expression to one of our values – to be a force for good. It doesn’t stop there, we want to continue being a force for good and part of that is about making physical activity more inclusive. It’s why we partner with leading sports figures, teams and events, to help us share the message. We’re particularly committed to developing and maintaining the long-term growth of women’s sport and inspiring many more women and girls to become more active. We do this in a number of ways, including a partnership with the Vitality Women’s FA Cup, as well as a partnership with the charity, Women in Sport, whose purpose completely aligns with ours, which is to make physical activity more inclusive. We know that taking small steps to live a healthier life today can dramatically improve wellbeing over the long-term, which goes back to why our shared value model is so compelling.
It is undoubtedly changing – the pandemic has occasioned a seismic shift. People are reassessing their relationship with work and the talent shortage has shifted the balance of power. Managers have a crucial role to play in attracting, developing and retaining scarce skills. I believe the contribution middle managers can and should make in cementing culture and values is underrated. Yes, the tone is set at the top, but if middle managers don’t embrace the organisation’s purpose and values, the business loses credibility and trust. Organisational culture can be a key differentiator and it needs to be constantly nurtured. During the pandemic, we moved mountains to protect and support our employees and I’m immensely proud that our efforts were recognised with a UK CX gold award in the category Employees at the Heart of Everything. The biggest challenge now is the shape and form that hybrid working takes. We recently conducted research on this with the CBI, which found that although employers understand the importance of providing health and wellbeing support in a hybrid workplace, they’re grappling with how to go about it. Our employee wellbeing strategy is informed by what employees tell us in the UK’s largest workplace wellbeing survey, Britain’s Healthiest Workplace. The survey, which we have been running for over a decade, is offered at no cost to businesses. It aims to support companies by helping them to understand how the health and wellbeing of their employees is affecting business productivity. We use these insights in our own business to develop a targeted employee wellbeing strategy which comprises five pillars: mental, physical, financial, social and lifestyle. We focus on all these elements of employee wellbeing.
After the pandemic, we introduced a hybrid working model and we’re running a trial which asks employees to choose two days a week to be in the office in consultation with their teams. It’s been well received. Employees value the autonomy and productivity has not been compromised – in fact, we’ve had a record year. We need time together in the office to connect, collaborate, create and learn. Research we recently conducted proves this point – over half of UK employees (53 percent) believing the office is still best for building and maintaining relationships with colleagues (research by Vitality conducted by Censuswide, with 2,005 UK office workers, May 2022). The challenge for employers is to be more deliberate about choreographing and curating opportunities to connect, collaborate, create and learn when people are in the office together. More recently, as part of our commitment to employee wellbeing, we’ve turned our attention to re-imagining our office space so that it fosters opportunities to connect, collaborate, create and learn. Over the last few years our business has grown rapidly, which is great, but we’ve outgrown our London office. That, paired with the aftermath of the pandemic, yielded an opportunity to rethink what we want and need the workplace to be. After much searching, we’ve found a perfect new home for Vitality with plenty of room for collaboration areas and communal spaces, a gym located on site, gorgeous river views, a beautiful glasshouse garden and wonderful leafy, open spaces outside. I can’t wait for the move!
Yes, it’s all about voice and choice. At a recent executive meeting we were discussing the results of a risk culture survey in which employees were asked whether they thought it was safe to speak up. More than 90 percent said it was, which was a good result, but we aspire to 100 percent. We foster a non-hierarchical culture and we have really vibrant community hubs on our internal communications platform; we regularly canvas employee opinion on topical issues; employees engage with the CEO in quarterly townhall meetings and we have a number of D&I forums. All these and other platforms give employees voice and their feedback shapes decisions.
Indeed, we do our best to listen and act on many of the suggestions because they have merit and when we don’t, we need to be clear about our reasons. Voice and choice create a sense of belonging, which is so important, given the increasing fragmentation and polarisation society is experiencing.
Vitality and its parent company, Discovery, continue on a growth trajectory. Discovery now has a presence in 37 markets globally across Europe, the United States, Australia, South Africa, Canada and China, protecting more than 27 million members and we have bold ambitions. The People team needs to drive and support those ambitions. It won’t come as any surprise to you that a key challenge is attracting, developing and retaining talented employees. We’re focusing on building the skills pipeline with the introduction of an internal talent marketplace, which matches business opportunities with employee needs, interests and experiences and will facilitate non-linear career moves and promote gig opportunities. We’ve also signed up about 40 employees for digital and data qualifications and we’re using AI and a wider social media reach to target passive candidates who aren’t actively looking to change jobs, but who are likely to feel a strong affinity with Vitality and what it stands for. Our founder and Group CEO, Adrian Gore, asks me this question almost every time I speak with him: “How do we know we’re getting the best people?” Finding answers to that question is a constant focus of attention. We are also continuously looking at ways to enhance the employee experience. We recently benchmarked our employee benefits and confirmed that we typically exceed what the market offers and, as you would expect from Vitality, we have a relentless focus on employee health and wellbeing.
I think there’s a nice synergy between the People team and the business – we’ve piloted a couple of initiatives internally with employees which have since become part of our health insurance offering to members. Examples include our partnership with the smoking cessation service provider, Quit Genius and our menopause support with Peppy. When we introduced Peppy in 2020, we were the first health insurer in the UK to provide members with this level of menopause support. All employees are all enrolled on our private medical insurance scheme – have access to expert advice and support from others going through the menopause, all through Peppy’s app-based digital health platform. The menopause can be hugely challenging and isolating for women, but because it’s not widely understood it’s often ignored. More recently, we have supplemented this offering for employees with support on parenthood, fertility and men’s health. Employees really value these benefits.
We’ve carried out some great research internally which yielded valuable insights on the impact of employee engagement in the Vitality Programme, which rewards people for making better life choices and taking steps to be healthier. As part of the programmes, employees are encouraged to understand the state of their health (by completing a health review, for example) and advised on the steps they need to take to improve their health. We roll out a raft of internal wellbeing campaigns and initiatives throughout the year to help them along. The research we did internally found that higher levels of participation in the programme are associated with increased job and life satisfaction, higher productivity, lower absence and improved retention. We also provide each employee with a fitness tracker when they join Vitality and weekly HIIT, Pilates and mindfulness classes are hosted by our Vitality coaches. Our CEO, Neville Koopowitz and other members of the senior leadership team invite employees on lunchtime runs and walks. Every September, we run a step challenge and last year, Vitality employees clocked up 234 million steps collectively. It’s another example of how we live and breathe our core purpose.
Mental health has received a lot of attention and an increased focus since the pandemic started. Across the business, we have over 50 trained mental health champions and first aiders across our sites and managers have received mental health awareness training. Employees have free access to talking therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy. It’s particularly interesting to see the increase in the number of men using this service – between 2019 and 2021, we saw a 41 percent increase in the number of men under 40 accessing mental health services. We also introduced an online mental health offering for employees during the pandemic to supplement these services, which yielded some fascinating insights. Less than 30 employees used it. Instead, they turned to the mental health champions and accessed our internal mental health hub to share their stories and offer support. It was heart-warming to see people supporting each other, ‘holding’ each other and nurturing a sense of community. Ten years ago, mental health issues didn’t feature in absence records – they were disguised as flu or gastroenteritis. Vitality employees are far more forthcoming now about taking time off for anxiety or depression and are actively supported by their line managers in their recovery. Mental health is no longer a taboo topic and we regularly publish employee stories. We have a far better picture of the mental health of our workforce now than we’ve ever had.
I think that most people had good intentions, but were simply not equipped to deal with the complexities and nuances of people management. Command and control management styles tended to be devoid of empathy. We’ve developed our leadership formula: Ego < IQ < EQ, which is emotional intelligence trumps cognitive ability, which trumps ego. We assess applicants for management roles on nine competencies; has a clear vision and strategy, liberates the best in others, drives results, innovates, collaborates effectively, applies analytical rigour, leads change, has impact and influence and is resilient. Most of these competencies are contingent on EQ and that seems to be part of that new set of balances in this transitioning work era, between autonomy and the traditional paternal relationship between employers and employees. It does present some challenges in this time of increased transparency, just how far we can we encroach on people’s lives and intervene, before it becomes intrusive? To build trust, we must respect confidentiality and people’s privacy. We have employees who have shared their own personal battles with severe depression or bipolar disorder, for example. That level of candour takes great courage and the telling of these stories must lead to better understanding and outcomes.
I think it’s a rare opportunity to match business and employee needs in new ways and to give employees voice and choice – but there’s no simple answer. I also think there’s a real risk of creating a two-tier workforce, with one cohort enjoying a high degree of flexibility, which is withheld from the other and that’s a recipe for discontent. A test- and-learn approach is called for, which takes account of employee sentiment and business needs. A degree of personalisation is necessary and we’ve conducted in-depth research, which backs this point – one size does not fit all. When businesses find the right balance, they will unlock greater productivity and retention. We learnt an important lesson about the importance of autonomy. Off the back of the pandemic when we first moved to a hybrid working model, we required employees to be in the office on two specified days of the week. This was necessary to manage occupancy levels at a time when COVID safety measures were still in place. In the second iteration, which was introduced when safety measures were eased, employees could choose their days in the office in consultation with other members of their team. That change made all the difference.
If you were to encapsulate your career experiences in a sentence what would that be? I think I’m enormously lucky to have been in the right place at the right time on several occasions during my career. I’ve also seized left field opportunities. I’ve loved the variety and I’ve loved learning from others. I like to think that I’ve made a difference in the places where I’ve worked and I hope that continues. I want to keep learning – I’m eternally curious about the world – and I hope that I’ll be able to continue to add value in my role and help people flourish in this new world of work.
FOR FURTHER INFO VITALITY