Signed, sealed and delivered: Global HR at DHL

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DHL Express’ global strategy is applied at country level, but despite the company’s breadth HR is at the heart of everything

You could be forgiven for assuming this time of year, post-Christmas, is when the circa 100,000 employees worldwide at logistics firm DHL Express breathe a collective sigh of relief. The number of deliveries the business makes during the ‘peak’ season of November and December is, after all, 30% higher than standard.

But there’s no rest for the wicked. Online sales during January climb ever higher year on year, meaning both “shipping volumes and customer service queries stay high through to the new year”, reports Caroline Andrews, vice president of HR UK and IE.

And it’s not just December and January. Black Friday… Cyber Monday… Singles’ Day in China… all now drive dramatic short-term peaks (particularly the latter which, beginning as an antithesis to Valentine’s Day on 11 November, has now surpassed even Black Friday and Cyber Monday to become the world’s biggest online shopping event).

So there’s much keeping the firm busy throughout the year – and much for the global HR team to support. HR magazine caught up with Andrews, and her global counterpart EVP HR global and Europe Regine Büettner, to find out how the business manages the logistical feat of 909,000 shipments every day globally (DHL operates in 220 countries). And to discover the secret behind its sixth-place Great Place to Work UK 2018 ranking, and its Top Employer certification globally.War for talent

Many young people don’t necessarily immediately think ‘logistics’ when deciding where to start their careers, a situation evident in DHL figures showing that 25% to 33% of the supply chain workforce is approaching retirement age.

Which means much focus at DHL goes into attracting fresh talent. First off that’s about ensuring people actually realise the range of opportunities available, says Büettner. “People don’t necessarily see we need pilots, crews for the aeroplanes, engineers and logistics experts,” she says, crediting a big recent push on social media, programmes where people can recommend friends, and the fact that in most countries you can now apply for jobs at DHL on a mobile phone, as critical to the business having “changed how [it’s] positioned in the market”. “Employer branding is always a hot topic for us,” she adds.

Onboarding

“Something that came out of the Top Employer ranking was that we could do more on onboarding,” says Büettner. “Every candidate could be a customer so they need to have a unique experience, whether they get the job or not.” Now all successful candidates receive a box delivered to their house, including various information packs and goodies, and a welcome video from DHL’s CEO. “Every country can add what’s important for them,” says Büettner.

“Then onboarding starts with a dedicated buddy contact,” she reports. “In some areas we were losing too many people in the first six months. Then we realised we’re a very complex company. So sometimes you go to a big hub to work and you need someone to introduce you to the simple things – like showing you where the canteen is.”

Employee experience

This strong recruitment and onboarding first impression must extend right through to someone’s day-to-day experience, agree Büettner and Andrews. The focus is very much on going above and beyond for the customer, and there’s no way people will do that if they’re not treated well, they point out.

Büettner cites the example of staff battling flooding to deliver parcels in Europe, and forging on in conflict areas in Africa and the Middle East, even when DHL had advised them not to. “It’s often something as simple as calling back at a later time, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds when the courier has a lot of deliveries to make,” adds Andrews.

In reference to headlines over recent years regarding exploitation of delivery couriers as part of the ‘bad’ face of the gig economy, they point out that the majority of DHL couriers are full time. “The fact we have so many long-serving employees shows they absolutely still value [traditional full-time] contracts,” comments Andrews, adding: “You’re not going to go the extra mile if you’re treated poorly.”

DHL celebrates those living and breathing customer-centricity with an annual Employee of the Year event, which all countries nominate staff for. “Last year they got to go to Monte Carlo for three days and be treated like superstars,” says Büettner.

The technology staff use day to day is also critical to the employee experience – particularly in attracting and retaining Millennials. All couriers worldwide are given a scanner with a GPS function that helps staff navigate traffic, but that also acts as a communication tool connecting them to the company and allowing them to feed back suggestions for improving operations. “We want to digitalise not for the sake of it but to give employees a different experience,” says Büettner. “I’m always saying ‘in future what you can’t do on a mobile device, forget it’.”

Employee voice

Andrews reports that feeding back to the company via such mobile technology, and the issue of employee voice more generally, is becoming increasingly important for staff. “We are seeing much more focus on voice, and employees wanting to know their voice will be heard,” she says. “For me it’s not so much about the formal mechanism but the kind of culture we need; so open dialogue.

“The key piece is feeding back to employees. It’s not just them having a voice but shared responsibility too. So it’s fine coming up with ideas but they need to also be thinking about the challenges we need to overcome. It really depends on the topic, but it could be quite empowering for us to say to someone ‘if it’s got legs by all means explore it and understand what it will take to make it happen’.”

Andrews adds that the business has “upskilled all line managers to hold performance dialogues on a regular basis – hopefully weekly in most cases”, so that workers can continually feed back their ideas and suggestions in person too.

Global mobility

Upskilling managers is crucial to another key prong of DHL’s employee experience strategy: global and functional mobility. “Someone could come in as a courier and move into field sales or telesales or customer service,” says Andrews. “And it’s not just different areas of the business but different markets and territories. I think that’s what makes us special; when people join they find it exciting to work for a truly global company.”

She adds: “Most of the UK leadership team have worked in at least two countries. It’s through us sharing those stories that inspires people to want to do something similar. Having HR support mobilisation of talent has been a really key thing.”

Local versus global HR

A key benefit to this global approach is the sharing of ideas – and this certainly applies within HR. Regarding how communication and idea-sharing works between HR teams in different countries, Büettner reports that every month global HR holds a call with all European countries. Two countries will then share examples of their best practice each time. “A great example from the UK was Caroline talking about Box Clever [the company’s online benefits portal], which is now rolled out globally,” she says. “The strategy gets set from a global perspective. When it comes to HR priorities we enlist all the countries to see what they should be… You talk the same language with the same branding but every country can be flexible about what’s best for their local market.”

Keeping in touch across countries is a tall order, but for Büettner creating “a trusting relationship” is key. “In Europe we meet at least twice a year and have calls at least once a month. Whenever we’re in the same country and it’s possible we meet. But I do wish I saw [Caroline] more often!” she adds.

The benefits far outweigh the challenge, feels Andrews. “How many companies can you work for where the HR network covers 220 countries? If you’re working on an idea and wondering if there’s someone doing something similar, usually there is. That’s a whole HR community you can connect with.”

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