Bonobos Is Driving Employee Engagement with People Teams

Chief executives across the globe consistently identify human capital as one of their biggest challenges. However, despite this acknowledgment, those same leaders are only ranking HR as the eighth or ninth most important company function.

In the midst of this, the “race for talent” in the fashion industry continues. Here is a sector that depends most critically upon creative and design talent. Putting the right people in the right roles will give any fashion retailer a powerful advantage in a fiercely competitive marketplace. And yet, Human Resources – i.e. the very department responsible for recruiting, nurturing, and retaining that talent and directly associated competitive advantages – far too often fails to be prioritized by fashion business leaders.

A report from The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in association with The Business of Fashion (BoF) identifies that, over the next decade, the greatest challenge fashion and luxury businesses will face will be plugging talent gaps at the enterprise. Some 50% of the global luxury and fashion companies surveyed believed that they lacked access to the best creative talent, with 67% saying that finding first-rate creative directors was “very difficult” if not “impossible”.

Sarah Willersdorf, co-author of the BoF/BCG report, comments: “Traditionally, a number of fashion companies have not given as much thought to succession planning and training as some other companies. In some cases, it’s maybe the talent and HR team hasn’t been built up strongly enough, but in others, it’s about focusing resources. Sometimes when I speak to chief human resources officers or chief talent officers, they know these things, but they just don’t get the same attention as some of the other areas from the rest of the leadership.”

Bonobos Wins Loyalty with “Aggressive” Recruitment

The lack of due attention that many fashion retailers give to their HR departments has led to the persistent following of many now-outdated HR methods, and they are suffering as a result. Critical functions of HR, such as leadership development and talent management, are crucial to improving employee engagement and output. And yet, 60% of those surveyed in the BoF/BCG report admitted that their performance levels in these areas were “substandard”.

Andy Dunn, chief executive and co-founder of menswear ecommerce company Bonobos, has tackled this problem head-on through actively seeking inspiration from the technology sector in order to improve working culture and employee engagement.

This is an approach that goes right to the foundational roots of Bonobos. The Bonobos business model, as Dunn explains, was established right from the get-go “with the mindset of a Silicon Valley company” that involved the setting up of stock option plans for company personnel, meaning that a significant proportion of Bonobos is owned by its employees. This, says Dunn, is an “effective way of managing employee engagement, as it creates a sensibility that, no matter who you are, you’re tremendously invested in it.”

He continues: “What we try to do is a build a Netflix-like culture on recruitment, and what I mean by that is being really aggressive about the recruitment.”

The Bonobos HR team meet a far greater number of candidates than is usual for businesses, and there is a heavy emphasis placed on feedback generated from larger swathes of the Bonobos community. Through the use of specially designed technology, existing employees are encouraged to provide detailed feedback and make comments on their potential new colleagues – data, Dunn says, that is crucial to ensuring that only the most engaged employees join the team.

“I think it’s comical how little time is invested traditionally in the mutual evaluation of a job… getting it wrong for both the employee and the company is a major problem, because it tends to take you at least half a year to figure out that it’s not going well.” With a recruitment strategy that is decidedly more rigorous, Bonobos has built a team that Dunn believes is better qualified, more engaged and more loyal, precisely because employees have worked harder to get there.

People Teams

The whole of focus of Bonobos HR has undergone a momentous shift in recent times, not least in the retailer’s embrace of its People Team initiative – or “POps” (People Operations) as Bonobos calls it.

In an interview with Greenhouse, Bonobos’ Recruitment & People Relations Manager Kelsey Garske explains how Bonobos is growing its people function, and what it has achieved so far.

“The people strategy formed after we hired Sara Patterson, our Chief People Officer. Prior to Sara joining, we were all working on separate projects/initiatives that were great, but they weren’t necessarily unified towards a common goal. Sara helped streamline our processes. She also gave the POps team a voice and really helped propel a lot of the initiatives we wanted but didn’t have the bandwidth to execute prior to her arrival.”

Amongst these initiatives is the WTF (Wellness Thoughtfulness Fitness) Program, where employees are offered “in-office massages, free SoulCycle classes and delicious smoothies.” Monthly initiatives that are focused on health and wellness are now also built into the WTF Program, and include things like fitness challenges, trips to see NY Yankees games, and free handouts of sunscreen during the UV Protection Month.

Learning and development programs have also been rolled out, including Managing for Success, Fit For Success, How to Manage Up Well, and Learn.Know.Bos. These programs help employees grow their skills in everything from managing themselves and their teams to navigating relationships with senior managers, and from improving their public speaking and retail math to increasing cross-functional awareness.

The result is that Bonobos enjoys a workforce that is passionate about the company and has respect for everyone in it. “We work hard but we also have fun together,” Garske explains, “which has built unbelievable trust throughout the organization because you know that the person sitting next to you cares just as much as you do and there is tremendous camaraderie in that.”

As the “race for talent” in the fashion industry gathers pace, Bonobos has a people strategy that ensures people actually want to work for the company, and ongoing programs that build a healthy, happy, and above all loyal community within the workforce.

The last word goes once more to Kelsey Garske:

“One of our company-wide goals is to implement a best-in-class HR organization and deliver programs, initiatives, and experiences that employees of all levels will respond to and be able to take with them in any role. We play a huge part in the business and are a business function that is treated as such by all levels of the company. That said, most decisions at Bonobos are typically made with the input of someone from the POps team. We’re lucky to have a CEO and executive team that cares about people, as this type of support can be hard to come by at other companies. They see the value that the POps team can add and how happy employees means higher performing employees. So, we’ve been lucky to have their support as we pursue our goals!”

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About John Waldron: John Waldron is a technology and business writer for markITwrite digital content agency, based in Cornwall, UK. He writes regularly across all aspects of marketing and tech, including SEO, social media, FinTech, IoT, apps and software development.