EasyJet’s Ella Bennett talks to Jo Gallacher about how the airline has taken off after the Covid storm with a massive energy around recruitment as travel is predicted to reach near pre-pandemic levels.
Few industries can say they were quite literally grounded due to the pandemic, but for aviation, the worst case scenario became the everyday.
The bright orange airplane tails of EasyJet’s fleet were no longer a familiar sight in the sky, leaving one of Britain’s most popular airlines haemorrhaging money with no obvious plan B.
It’s enough to keep any HR professional up at night – and at times it probably did. But not every HR professional is Ella Bennett, who as EasyJet’s chief people director not only navigated the company through the unthinkable, but managed to salvage its reputation before it bled out.
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On top of the daily challenges the crisis created, Bennett managed to complete the EasyJet’s HR Evolution programme – a multi-year initiative to align systems, process and technology which saw the streamlining of its payroll system and has led to improved employee experience.
For her incredible efforts, she was rightly crowned HR Director of the Year at the HR Excellence Awards 2021 against some tough competition.
“Certainly for me, it was a team award,” she says, with bundles of humility befitting of any successful HR leader.
“In such a difficult two years for the whole of the people team, a period of which I was so proud of in terms of what we’ve managed to deliver for the whole organisation in what were really extreme circumstances, it felt like a really good recognition for the team and what we had achieved together.”
A HR Excellence Award is not easy to come by, and despite Bennett’s modest attempts, should not be played down. In the four years Bennett has been flying team EasyJet, the organisation has also won a string of awards including Employee Choice for Best Place to Work in 2020.
Bennett draws on the principles of fairness and equality as the reason behind the company’s success, which she argues are more important than ever. Under her guidance, the company has also created a You Matter programme which created an ever-changing set of tools for employees to look after their health and wellbeing.
She says: “I think some of the things that get us recognition in some of those awards are the focus that we’ve always had around diversity and inclusion (D&I), and particularly bringing more women into our pilot population.”
Bennett and her people team also refuse to shy away from sensitive conversations. As part of its diversity and inclusion strategy, it launched a Being Trans and Transitioning policy, in partnership with LGBT+ organisation Stonewall, plus hosts a pilot peer support programme where trained volunteer pilots support flight crew.
How does Bennett recommend HR appropriately and sensitively deal with delicate topics rather than tip toe around them?
She says: “You need to be in touch with your people and what they’re saying. EasyJet has a lot of data to show it’s [trans issues] important to them and how our employees feel. When making big decisions, we look at what we know people are saying, what evidence we have about what would work, and we also partner with advisors such as Stonewall to guide us.”
HR is a fulfilling and fascinating career, but it’s also a really challenging one. What led Bennett into the people profession in the first place?
“I think the joke is I still don’t know what I want to do. I’m fascinated by how people and culture impact an organisation’s success and the relationship between a successful organisation and its people.
“On an individual level, I like to think about how to get people to their best – what sort of jobs, what work people are best suited to and how they grow their careers. How they might move around an organisation is all fascinating to me.”
“I like to get people to their best – what work people are best suited to and how they grow their careers.”
Bennett’s curiosity is something that has remained throughout her career, which spans multiple roles at Fujitsu, mental health charity Mind, Home Retail Group (HRG) and Argos-Sainbury’s.
As group HR director at HRG, Bennett revamped the people agenda to underpin its transformation strategy and oversaw the disposal of Homebase, as well as negotiations surrounding Sainsbury’s acquisition of HRG and complex plc remuneration initiatives.
She says: “Once Homebase was sold, it meant we were very ripe for acquisition. And so I hadn’t been there less than a year when Sainsbury’s approached us. It was such a brilliant experience to be part of a big organisation that was acquired by an even bigger one.
“It’s so hard bringing two cultures together. That was the bit that I think took the most integration and work out how we can bind things.
“Making sure that we retained key talent was really important. So I think that as you go into that sort of merger and acquisition, you have to make sure you have some of that key talent around and I was really proud of how we managed that.”
Bennett managed to blend these two sometimes opposite cultures by setting a strict set of measures and targets for each team to achieve.
She adds: “One of the things that really worked for me was using that business partner population to really help with the organisational design, so you always have someone in the business who can understand how to bring those two bits together.
“Combining cultures takes a lot longer than you think it’s going to because it’s almost like two organisations speak different languages to begin with and you must work out how you bring that together. So thinking about how you communicate around that took time, and that’s a key lesson I learned.”
Yet culture is far from just HR’s responsibility, she argues. “To achieve people change at EasyJet, teams are not just made up of HR people. So with Argos, we had to have IT teams, finance people, communications and change expertise. You can’t deliver a change programme unless you have all those key components.”
There’s a temptation for HR professionals to try to put out all fires at once when they start a new role, yet Bennett says this can be more problematic further down the line. A good HR professional can focus their energy, she argues.
“Clarity of what the key things are you’re going to deliver that support the organisational goals and strategy is vital. It sounds simple to say, but it’s actually quite difficult to do.
“Policies and rules can get in the way, and so it’s about how can you best support the strategic objectives of the organisation. But how are you making sure that that’s meaningful and delivered?”
Five things I can’t live without:
My bike – for my wellbeing.
Champagne – I like English sparkling.
My step-dog – a German Shepherd.
Roundhouse performance venue – every single interaction I have is so meaningful and special.
Radio 4 – in the morning and evenings.
Now that the UK is (hopefully) through the worst of the pandemic, how are EasyJet’s people reacting to cloud surfing once more? The airline has bounced back with optimism as travel is predicted to reach near pre-Covid levels, equating to almost 300,000 passengers every day during peak season. Yet the airline joined British Airways in cancelling hundreds of flights amid workforce shortages, with some airports blaming a lack of airline staff for long queues.
Bennett says: “We had a whole pool of cabin crew who we re-approached and we’ve been rehiring. We kept in touch with those people throughout [the pandemic]. The ramp up this summer in my teams started way back.”
EasyJet has also announced plans to remove seats on some of its planes this summer so it can operate flights with fewer cabin crew. “We’re having to work harder at recruitment,” Bennett says.
“I think the whole of our industry has seen a tighter labour market, but we’ve been planning it for so long and we know who we need, so it’s really exciting to be hiring again and see the opportunities across the whole business.
“There’s a massive energy around our recruitment and for my talent acquisition team, it’s their bread and butter. We’re really looking forward to this summer.”
EasyJet is also looking beyond summer by offering new and existing cabin crew a £1,000 bonus at the end of the summer holiday season in a bid to retain talent. The airline said the payments would acknowledge crews’ contributions to what it expects to be a busy summer.
Bennett says job review sites such as Glassdoor are becoming increasingly important when hiring, mirroring consumer behaviour of researching a product before they purchase it.
She says: “People expect to and should be able to read their own reviews of a particular consumer item and I think that really transferred to the workplace and people expect to understand what it’s like before they arrive.
“We also employ people across generations and for those who are younger, especially in our cabin crew, some of that stuff is increasingly important when they’re thinking about where to go and work. For us, having a suite of ways people can understand what it’s like to work at EasyJet is really important.”
Beyond dealing with the obvious recruitment issues during the busy summer, where are Ella Bennett’s people team travelling to next?
Like most prominent HR professionals, her sights are firmly focused on the future.
“How we attract people into organisations and grow their careers meaningfully remains a priority. That’s always been part of what we’ve done in HR, but it’s become even more important. We’re currently filling upwards of 40% of our roles internally and I think that’s a great thing we’re being able to do.
“To see people be successful in an organisation, that’s what really important for me.”
Enter the HR Excellence Awards 2022 here.
The full piece of the above appears in the May/June 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.