Michael Page's Proudly Filipino campaign feature, Elisa Abalajon of Universal Robina Corporation

Proudly Filipino is a series of stories that spotlight Filipino companies that have established a strong footprint in their respective industries. These business leaders, who have worked with us for their recruitment needs, speak with us about the business and hiring outlook of the domestic market in the Philippines.

In this feature, Elisa Abalajon, Chief HR Officer at Universal Robina Corporation, shares her insights on best hiring practices and how a people-first company culture contributes significantly to company success.

Success is built on many things. For Elisa Abalajon, Chief HR Officer at Universal Robina Corporation (URC), one of the largest consumer food and beverage companies in the Philippines, long-term success comes down to a combination of hard work, integrity, and a desire for continuous improvement.

“Luck, connections or charisma can bring some degree of success, but it is not sustainable if not fundamentally anchored in those three elements,” Abalajon explains.

Trained as a lawyer specializing in employment law, Abalajon went into human resources in her third year of law practice.

“A client had offered me an HR manager position in his company. He thought that I could be successful in the role as I was technically offering them advice on all people matters from hiring, discipline and exit of employees. Intrigued by the profession, I accepted the offer, gave it a try, and I am now in my 25th year as an HR professional,” says Abalajon who has been with URC for over five years.

“Human resources is an exciting profession, and it gets better with time as it is probably the first function that evolves and adapts to change brought about by internal business requirements or external stimulus, (such as the Covid-19 pandemic).”

Related: The future of work in Asia

Universal Robina Corporation: The Snack King of Asia

What started as a humble cornstarch manufacturing plant in Pasig City in 1954, Universal Robina Corporation has become a powerhouse in the consumer food and beverage industry in the Philippines, and recently celebrated its 65th year in the business in 2019.

Long-term success comes down to a combination of hard work, integrity, and desire for continuous improvement

Home to some of the Philippines’ most iconic snack brands, like Chippy, Piattos, Cloud 9, C2 and Great Taste Coffee, the homegrown organization has market-leading shares in snacks, chocolates, candies and ready-to-drink tea, and offers products like instant noodles and powdered coffee.

The company also exports its products to markets like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Japan, South Korea, Ghana, Nigeria, the Middle East, the US and Europe.

Succeeding with a people-first approach

URC knows that employee engagement is huge for company success. At the heart of URC’s sustained growth and company success lies the three “Cs”: Culture, Capability and Capacity.

“Our culture is very entrepreneurial and family-oriented, and part of what we do in HR is to ensure that we continue to articulate, demonstrate and embody our values of ‘Put People First’, ‘Own It’, ‘Move Forward Fast’ and ‘Dare to Do’ in every aspect of work,” Abalajon shares.

We will continue to invest on people, processes and technologies that create or enhance our competitive advantage

On Capability, Abalajon explains that the company grooms current leaders to be “their best selves”, while investing in the hiring and development of the next-generation leaders, focusing on their technical skills, commercial acumen and organizational skills.

She adds, “By Capacity, we work to free up space for the organization to do more. The role of HR is important in organizing teams for growth. For us to fund our key growth initiatives, we need to continuously optimize our structures and hire the right people. We will continue to invest in people, processes and technologies that create or enhance our competitive advantage.”

Related: Why a good talent attraction plan is the first step to retaining your best staff

Leading a business through the pandemic

The focus on incorporating safety guidelines and proper hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was emphasized and communicated early to the employees.

Every employee received a hygiene kit containing face masks, a face shield, alcohol-based hand sanitizers and packs of vitamin C supplements. When face shields were not yet commonly available, one of URC’s factories was even converted into a facility that produced face shields, which were then handed out to employees and front-liners.

Despite the pandemic, URC managed to improve on its bottom line first by taking care of its workforce. In fact, as early as February 2020, about a month before the global pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization, URC developed guidelines relating to employee safety and health in response to the brewing COVID-19 crisis.

Being an early adopter of flexible workplace arrangements

Working-from-home (WFH), a term that defined work arrangements during the pandemic, was a strategy originally part of a hybrid work arrangement that allowed employees based in URC’s headquarters to work anywhere, at any time, for one day of the week. The scheme swiftly evolved to a five-day arrangement as soon as COVID-19-related lockdowns were announced.

Related: Workplace flexibility crucial for leaders to get right: report

Looking out for employees and engaging staff during the pandemic

There are employees whose physical presence at work is indispensable, like machine operators and technicians at production plants. Other than keeping the work environment safe, another challenge when it comes to taking precautions for frontliners was finding transportation during the height of the pandemic.

So, URC provided lodging for workers within the plant facilities, housing around 600 employees in safe and sanitary conditions at one point. This arrangement also helped provide an extra layer of safety as their external exposure to the coronavirus was minimized.

“We learnt that URC employees remain highly productive while working from home,” shares Abalajon. She added that URC is considering the hybrid work arrangement to be a permanent feature for all head-office-based URC employees. While productivity is paradoxically high, one possible trade-off of WFH is the decline in the camaraderie that comes with working closely with colleagues in an office setting.

To remedy this, URC rolled out programs to keep employee engagement high. These include URCircle, a private Facebook group where employees can connect with each other, share what they’re up to, and celebrate important events.

URCFit, a wellness program launched before the pandemic, proved to be especially relevant during the COVID-19 era. This program offers yoga, Zumba, and other exercise classes that are done online, and free mental health assistance and counselling for employees.

Related: How to manage performance reviews during the COVID-19 pandemic

Looking to hire? Reach out to our headhunters to learn more.

The best HR practices

The human resources department is tasked to uphold a company's values, build up a company’s work culture and nurture trust throughout different departments. There are many functional elements that make up the human resources matrix, and they all come together to create the backbone of an organization.

Besides creating common ground for everyone, another key function of the human resources department is to find qualified candidates, especially in a talent-short market. And to be successful at recruiting, Abalajon shares that the right hire makes a significant difference to business performance.

“There are two things a hiring manager should prepare for as part of the hiring process. The first is to be clear on what type of profile they are looking for. The second is how they are assessing job candidates. Often, hiring managers make the wrong decisions because of failure in these two areas.”

Technology has allowed HR to reduce manual and transactional work, while keeping the focus on more strategic partnering with the business

For hiring strategies, Abalajon shares that URC partners with LinkedIn, Jobstreet and other digitally-enabled recruitment engines to communicate their business requirements and reach potential candidates. The company also invested in Darwin Box recruitment tools that streamline the process of posting requisitions and viewing CVs for hiring managers.

After all, a significant portion of HR work is influenced by technology, from recruitment, employee engagement, learning and development, and talent management processes, and embracing technology has become part of the future of human resources, according to Abalajon. Technology has allowed HR to reduce manual and transactional work while keeping the focus on more strategic partnering with the business.

Related: The power of employee recognition and how it contributes to business success

Navigating the challenges in the hiring world

Talent attraction and retention have become more challenging in recent years due to a variety of reasons. Some challenges include the lack of qualified candidates in all industries, and this is especially evident for tech talents as the world moves swiftly to adopt and integrate digital technology. Another challenge is the shifting workplace expectations of the millennials and Generation Z.

Attracting tech talent

“There is a lack of tech talent in almost every industry around the world and the situation is no different for URC. Some roles like digital solutions leads, data scientists and UX/CX specialists are difficult to hire because they are very much in demand, so much so that their salaries are spiraling to such a degree that they are hitting the salary ceiling for their job grade levels,” explains Abalajon.

To address these challenges, Abalajon says that HR practitioners need to think differently on how to source, pay and develop talent. For instance, sourcing such talents has to be more targeted, and may have to start from the internship level or even before they graduate from university.

“To retain them, we need to have a different career track and pay structure for technical roles. We really need to acknowledge that we treat them differently from regular tracks,” she says.

Meeting workplace and career expectations from millennials and Gen Z

On the other hand, salary is no longer enough to attract millennials and Gen Z to join a company.

“They are attracted to companies with a clear ‘higher purpose’ and holistic development of employees. To retain such high-potential talents, you need to be more transparent on their career progression and should be able to respond to the question, ‘what is it for them’”

“These group of individuals are also attracted to start-ups and [sectors] like fintech and may find FMCG companies to be old-fashioned. To cope with the times, FMCG should relook at their policies, benefits, and programs and readjust to meet these expectations,” says Abajalon.

Related: 5 ways to improve equity in the workplace

Working with recruitment firms

The truth is the best candidates are not always actively looking for a new job. Abajalon works with recruitment firms for “difficult-to-hire” positions as this channel is the “most expensive way” to recruit talents.

Given this cost factor, it becomes vital for an organization to evaluate the strength of a headhunting firm before engaging one that can fulfil specific talent requirements. 

Michael Page has really been the most reliable recruitment firm that we have partnered with so far, providing consistent candidates in terms of both quality and quantity. What also sets the Michael Page team apart from others in the market is that our assigned recruiter is usually focused and specialized in their assigned industry, allowing them to provide candidates that are a better fit in qualifications and requirements,” she explains.

“We have frequent alignment meetings with the Michael Page team to discuss different updates on our vacancies, and I believe this strong partnership and communication has really been the key to our hiring success.”

“We have already closed two vacancies in 2021 for our brand marketing team – thanks to the Michael Page team, and we are currently in partnership with them to help us with our other hard-to-fill and difficult positions in our information technology, marketing, and research and development teams.”

Read more:
The highest paying jobs in the Philippines for 2022
How to be more confident at work according to Asia's female leaders
Hyperlocal recruitment trends in the healthcare and life sciences sector during COVID-19

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