Any other business

John Lewis: The reputable retail business that's dominated by female partners

6 min read

07 May 2015

Former deputy editor

British retail giant John Lewis is regularly praised by customers, jobseekers and fellow businesses for the “best corporate reputation”. As the saying goes, there is no I in team, so could the key to John Lewis' success be a workforce that's dominated by women?

The annual Real Business First Women Awards ceremony will take place in London on 11 June, and you, the readers, are encouraged to cast your votes to help decide which firm will be crowned the Business of the Year.

A shortlist of five businesses, Arup, EY, John Lewis, MITIE and Procter & Gamble, are in the running to take home the title. We’ve spoken to senior team members from each firm to make it easier for you to decide which one goes above and beyond to support female talent, and it’s John Lewis’ turn in the spotlight.

In 2015 alone, John Lewis has been recognised as the retailer with the best corporate reputation in EMEA, while a recruitment study found the company is considered the most desirable employment brand in the UK, as chosen by 41 per cent of jobseekers.

With recognition from the corporate and consumer landscape, it seems the company can do no wrong. This is, in part, due to staff members being viewed as partners – and that’s not just a marketing term either.

“John Lewis is set apart because it is a co-owned, whereby every member of staff is a partner within the business and is entitled to share all of the benefits that this brings. Most notable is the profit share via the John Lewis Partnership bonus, which this year amounted to six weeks pay for every partner,” explained personnel director Harriet Hounsell, who is responsible for all diversity across the company.

She also pointed Real Business to other benefits that include leisure schemes, discounts across Waitrose and John Lewis, pension plans and access to holiday homes.

“On top of all of the material benefits, John Lewis is a friendly and rewarding place to work that offers excellent progression opportunities to talented partners,” she added.

With progression in mind, research this year has shown that women have the skills to make it to the top but aren’t making the most of them to climb up the corporate ladder. While Hounsell diplomatically told Real Business that all staff members receive equal opportunities to progress, almost half of senior managers in the company are female.

“Across the partnership in its entirety, 58 per cent of partners are female. Women fill 45 per cent of senior management roles, and 29 per cent of the John Lewis Management Board are women. 40 per cent of partnership board members are female,” she detailed.

Have a look at the full First Women Awards 2015 shortlist

So what’s attracting women to the business? Well, the majority of female entrepreneurs have declared they’ve taken that direction in order to follow their passion, but also to secure a better work-life balance, whether that be for more personal freedom or time for family.

As such, John Lewis adopts a somewhat entrepreneurial approach when viewing staff members, according to Hounsell.

“We do everything that we can do to be a supportive employer and create a working environment that encourages diversity and inclusivity,” she revealed. “John Lewis embraces flexible working arrangements, and offers coaching which supports career transitions and individual development journeys. We value all partners for the individual strengths and unique talent they bring to our business.”

Read our other four Business of the Year profiles:

Other than the ability to do the job, the company’s recruitment constitution takes no account of age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, ethnicity or other factors when hiring new staff. 

However, Hounsell recognised the importance of a diverse workforce and said: “Diversity and inclusion is integral to our culture and we take it seriously in the broadest sense. We have ethnicity goals, not gender goals, as women are well represented at every level.

“Recognising and valuing all types of diversity in our partners helps us to make better decisions, spark innovation and crucially, develop talent. We always want to employ the best person for the job, and gender bias could compromise this. Gender diversity enables us to always place the right partner in the right role that will suit the partner as well as the needs of the business.”

Beyond her own high-level role as personnel director of a company that employs 30,000 people, Hounsell explained there are other success stories too. “We have a female finance director and women occupy senior roles in our IT and distribution departments too.

“Women are attracted to John Lewis because of our flexible approach and willingness to listen and adapt to their needs, and as a business we help all of our partners find the role that is best suited to their specific skill set.”