Interview with Sodexo’s Chief Exec Debbie White: Level headed

SOME ORGANISATIONS may feel that equal pay and the living wage are insurmountable challenges after years of recession. Sodexo boss Debbie White isn’t one of them. Jo Roberts reports.

Foodservice Footprint P11 Interview with Sodexo's Chief Exec Debbie White: Level headed Features Features Interviews: Industry professionals  Think Act Report Sodexo UK & Ireland Sodexo ONS Living Wage Foundation Service Living Wage Debbie White Chareterd Management Institute British Hospitality Association BHA Better Tomorrow Plan










Fairness is not a word currently associated with British business. While the UK officially came out of recession last year, workers are still feeling the pinch. They are taking home less than they did in 2009, according to ONS figures. While workers struggle on lower wages, the gap between chief executives and those lower down the chain is getting bigger, sending the message that big business is not looking after its employees.


Women in particular are being punished with lower pay than their male counterparts. A report published by the Chartered Management Institute last year showed the gender pay gap widening in management, with female managers in their 40s earning more than a third less than men.


The foodservice and facilities management company Sodexo is attempting to redress the balance by implementing company-wide systems that aim to instill a sense of fairness in its business. It’s in the process of introducing an auditing system in a bid to stamp out the gender pay gap by collecting the pay data of its 35,000 employees. Debbie White, the chief executive of the UK and Ireland arm of the business, is driving the scheme, not least because she believes that business has a duty to ensure any pay discrepancies are ironed out.


Appointed to the main board in January 2014, White is a keen defender of women’s rights, regularly airing her views at public speaking events. The business has signed  up to “Think, Act, Report”, a framework that promotes gender equality in the workplace. Sodexo ran a pilot audit in 2014, but the complexity of collecting data from all its employees means that it doesn’t expect to roll out the system fully this year.


“I think as a responsible business we should be reporting these figures, we should be made accountable,” says White. “I’m a strong believer that businesses should be held accountable for things where they can have a major impact on the community in which they live and work.”


That’s easier said than done, though, and the company’s gender equality audit is complex. “We’re in the process of working out job families,” says White. “The most important thing is to make sure you’re comparing apples with apples and that is challenging with six business sectors, with multiple head office functions.”


That’s not an excuse to back out – rather an invitation to make it work. The results of the audit will be publically available, and the plan is for the figures to relate to gender as well as ethnicity and disability where the data is available. Investigations will be carried out if there are discrepancies in pay, and “we will seek to address them where we know them to be unfair”.


While the gender pay gap has been widening, workers at the lower end of the scale have been losing out too. White says Sodexo has been looking to address this for a while. For the last year she has been working on a public-sector pledge, which will be published in February or March.


A key component of this pledge is introducing the living wage – an issue that will be firmly under the spotlight in the run-up to the general election. The British Hospitality Association says introducing the wage will “destroy jobs” (see page 7 Jan issue of Footprint).


But White is someone who sees solutions rather than problems.


Given that 90% of its employees work on other people’s sites Sodexo can’t simply introduce a blanket increase. Debbie has formed a public-sector board. “We’ve been working on what we are here to really do and how we can really make a difference,” she explains.


One of Sodexo’s pledges is to always offer an alternative bid that includes the living wage when it tenders for contracts. White says the company is also pledging to engage with clients on a frequent basis to discuss moving all employees to a living wage. To cement this commitment, we have signed up to the Living Wage Foundation Service.


White says business has a duty to look after its employees. As the economy swings back into action, it makes sense for Sodexo to put its head above the parapet and make a name for itself as a responsible business to attract and retain the very best staff to serve its clients.