Recruitment tips from Pret a Manger

UK employers could learn a lot from the Pret A Manger, reckons 'HR Headmistress' Kate Russell (pictured). Here's how the sandwich chain perfected the idea of 'organisational fit'.

by Kate Russell
Last Updated: 22 Apr 2013

As a vegetarian of many years standing, I had resigned myself to predicable, limited and crushingly dull lunches for the rest of forever. Cheese or egg mayo sandwiches – yawn, yawn. That was until Pret a Manger came along. Here at last was some reasonable choice for veggies, including some healthy options. It became my lunch shop of choice and for some time I’d biff along, hoover up lunch and depart without thinking much about the service standards.

The other day, however, I got to thinking about Pret's customer offering. What was it doing right? Why did I keep coming back? It wasn't just the food. A good quality service is far more difficult to sustain than a good quality product. In an industry where service is usually badly done, Pret are a consistent beacon of good quality work. What lessons can we learn from them?
It all starts with getting the right people in. Recruitment is so much more than just recruiting someone with the right skill set or experience. I am forever saying 'Don’t recruit a problem'. That’s quite right, up to a point. An employee who has no underlying medical problem yet still rings in sick every other Monday will go through this process with every employer he works for, until he jumps because they writing’s on the wall or is dismissed.

I am frequently amazed by how long employers put up with such behaviour and even more amazed how, when an exploration is started into their health and helpful suggestions made, such employees take umbrage and accuse everyone in sight of bullying them. Leopards don’t change their spots and if someone has chronic Monday-itis in one job, they will try it on again – and again, and again. You don’t have to suffer it; so don’t.

But there’s more to good recruitment that simply avoiding problem people. We (along with Pret and companies like them) look for the right raw materials. I wouldn't recruit a staff member who doesn't share our ethics. It would destroy what we’ve laboured for and succeeded in building.

It is important to identify the behaviours you are looking for (and interestingly the ones you are not looking for). Being a bit creative with your recruitment process can also help to attract the right kind of people. You may have seen Pret's 'Good jobs for good people' posters around. The message is clear, and Pret also includes expected salaries on its advertising, which confirms its honest image.

To recruit accurately, you need a fair amount of data, so make sure your recruitment process involves a number of different elements and people. Make it clear to prospective applicants what’s required and ask them to do a number of tests before they even come in for an interview. It’s incredibly revealing and means that the only people you will see are reasonable candidates. Judicious weeding out at this stage saves time (and employer sanity) later on.

Take my rejection of a recent applicant for a sales position. I had specifically asked those applying to prepare a presentation setting out how they would approach selling a product (they could choose the product). This chap tried to sell a service. I referred him back to the brief. He was seeing a colleague the following day, so he had a chance to redeem himself, but he didn’t bother to address the question, so – unsurprisingly we felt he hadn’t acquitted himself all that well.

When the agency gave him the news that he was unsuccessful, he apparently commented that he felt the selection process was a sham and we were going through the motions. Nothing to do with him not following the brief then… I have saved myself a lot of pain with that guy. We still haven’t found the right person, so the hunt continues, but I can honestly say that the team I do have currently is magnificent.
It’s not always easy to get the right people. It does take time, but never settle for the least worst. You do them and you a big disservice. You may have to buy yourself some time and take temporary measures to bridge the gap. But the benefits of having the right people outweigh the costs and inconvenience.
The right people create great companies. Businesses which are doing well have staff who buy into their brands and then get customers to do the same. If you have the right people, they manage and motivate themselves. The right people are an asset at every level. They are great to work with, make a real contribution and leave you free to focus on other aspects of the business.

Kate Russell is MD of Russell HR Consulting

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Books for the weekend: Daniel Goleman, Jack Welch, Nelson Mandela

Beaverbrooks CEO Anna Blackburn shares her reading list.

What happens next: COVID-19 lessons from Italian CEOs

Part I: Marco Alvera, chief executive of €15bn Lombardy-based energy firm Snam, on living with...

Coronavirus communications: Dos and don'ts

Uncertainty and isolation make it more important than ever to be seen, to be heard...

Leadership lessons: Mervyn Davies, former CEO of Standard Chartered and trade minister

"People talk about pressure – I worked 24 hours a day. There is more pressure...

How to reinvent your career through motherhood and midlife

Pay it Forward podcast: Former Marie Claire editor-in-chief Trish Halpin and BITE managing editor Nicky...