Cruising at altitude: Interview with Sophia Panayiotou, senior vice president of HR at Emirates

Written by
Changeboard Team

27 Feb 2014

27 Feb 2014 • by Changeboard Team

What does your role involve?

I am responsible for recruitment, corporate psychology, and employee retention for Emirates Group – including Emirates Airline and data – which employs more than 55,000 people.

How many people do you recruit per year?

Over the past two years, we’ve hired 9,200 people annually, on average. This number is largely as a result of the construction of Dubai International airport’s Concourse A, and the new flight destinations added recently.

What percentage of your overall workforce is made up of nationals and has this grown year-on-year?

Overall, 11% of the Emirates Group workforce are UAE nationals. Of these, 24% are in management positions. The national workforce has grown year-on-year and since 2009 it has increased by 40%.

How do you attract & recruit top talent?

We hire, engage and retain talented employees from around the world who match the ‘people’ capabilities we need. However, equally important is that these talented employees have their own priorities and career aspirations met as individuals. Our strength is in making this alignment.

Aside from advertising and recruiting via our website, we also use existing networks, contacts, employment agencies, social media, and alumni to seek out talented people. Our competitive salary, excellent benefits, and opportunity for personal growth make Emirates Group an extremely attractive employer.

What challenges do you face when trying to recruit nationals & why?

As only 20% of the UAE’s population is Emirati, one of the main challenges is the high level of competition within a small community. All organizations are competing for the same scarce resource, which results in inflated salaries. This makes attraction and retention difficult. The other challenge facing us is that many positions within the organization require shift-work and company provided uniforms.

What talent management programs do you have for attracting nationals and why did you introduce these?

Emirates Group has a wide range of specialized programs that are designed to meet the growing needs of the business, as well as the aviation industry. Key examples are the National Cadet Pilot Program, which takes high school graduates and develops them into first officers in five years. Our engineering training develops high school graduates into aircraft engineers, and our Commercial Outstation program gives UAE nationals the opportunity to work abroad.

How do you develop your people to address employees’ personal growth & business objectives?

From date their first day with us, employees are guided through a performance management program. This includes self-development training through online learning, videos, tutor-based education and seminars.

In conjunction with Emirates Aviation College training department, Emirates Group also operates a system that provides staff with various opportunities for progression via developing planning sessions and courses.

Executive leadership development programs are available to staff identified as potential leaders in middle and higher management groups.

What success rate have you had with these and what have you learnt along the way?

We have had considerable success with these programs. Two of the key lessons we have learned over the years are the importance of SMART objectives and the value of a clear SWOT analysis to assist with career progression.

For several years we have set SMART objectives through our approach to performance management. We believe that clarity – in what needs to be done, when, and how – is key to enable employees to function at their best and provide the discretionary effort that drives us forward. It provides a basis to measure what is achieved at every level of the organization.

How do you take the temperature of Emirates as an organization and measure how satisfied people are in their roles?

Every 18-24 months, we run employment engagement surveys across the departments. In addition, HR conducts focus group research with employees, and ‘clinics’ in the business so employees have an opportunity to meet the HR specialist for advice, support and clarifications.

What feedback have you had from employees?

Our attrition rate at corporate level is less than 5%. Engagement surveys have high response rates, which suggests employees enjoy working with the Group and would recommend it to friends and family.

What succession plans do you have in place to ensure your talent pipeline is fit for the future?

Though we don’t yet have a formal approach to succession planning, we encourage employee growth through heavy internal recruitment.

What are your future plans?

We will continue to promote the strategic value of HR and show how it builds the company’s reputation as a leader. Our agility, respect for our employees and the career opportunities available are reasons for talent to want to work and stay with us. HR has played a key role to create this culture and image for the company.

What is your advice to other HR directors and heads of recruitment in attracting, retaining & developing a productive workforce?

Be agile, honest, and communicate all the way. We communicate key business decisions/strategic direction aspects to our employees through our intranet sites and daily group world releases, as well as through our in-house magazine. Also, leadership teams hold regular town hall meetings within their individual business areas.