This is a story of how our fashion company, LegsApparel Fashion Academy, was able to improve the commitment of its workers and retain a lot of them.
LegsApparel Fashion Academy is a two-fold fashion business. We run a fashion school with several branches around Nigeria, and we also run a garment production line. The business environment in the country is tougher than in most Western countries. Cost of credit is very high (28 percent for loans obtained from commercial banks, and 30 percent from B2B lenders), and there is a very big problem with worker motivation and commitment. In Nigeria’s fashion industry, the average period of time workers stay with a company is about 6 months. Such a high turnover of workers has a lot of negative ramifications for businesses that are already grappling with major challenges to business growth and survival.
There are a number of reasons why worker turnover is very high among businesses in this country, and more so in the fashion business. Some of these reasons an inherent nonchalance from workers, widespread poverty in Nigeria, poor salaries and compensation packages, bad working conditions, verbal abuse of staff by business owners, and the absence of an incentive system.
There is widespread poverty in Nigeria, which has become the poverty capital of the world according to the latest figures in the Global Poverty Index. Over time, this has led to the development of the “survival instinct” among a large segment of the populace. This instinct presumably leads workers to aim only to grab what they can from the system in the shortest time possible and afterwards exiting. Apprentices and interns in vocationally inclined businesses such as fashion hardly spend the minimum length of time they need to spend to properly acquire skills. It is no longer rare to see interns who would ordinarily need to spend between 3-7 years undergoing skills-based training, leaving after one year to set up their own businesses. Cases of employees stealing goods from businesses are on the increase, and there have also been cases of employees being induced by competitors to steal and sell trade secrets.
Sadly, many businesses do not recognize these issues and they have to bear the brunt of continuous worker turnover. The fashion industry is skills-based, hence, companies have to spend the time to train staff at all levels to be able to run their business effectively. First, it takes time to recruit workers for fashion business, as some level of baseline skills must be possessed by such recruits. The selected employees must then undergo customized training to match the needs of the business. These training costs time and money, meaning a high worker turnover represents a loss for any fashion business anywhere.
However, should employees alone be blamed for high staff turnover? LegsApparel Fashion Academy research showed that this was not the case. It is sad to note that many business owners exploit their employees in all ways imaginable. They overburden their staff with long working hours, pay their staff poorly and infrequently, and regularly subject some of them to verbal abuse.
After suffering some initial hiccups with high worker turnover, we decided to change the narrative and today, the story has changed for us. We regularly have workers applying from other fashion companies to work for us. It is a small industry, and word spreads around quickly. People get to know who pays best, who trains staff properly, and who offers the best chance for career progression.
So what did we do right where others were failing?
Curbing Worker Nonchalance by Offering Them a Stake
While pondering on how to get workers more committed to the workings of our business, I watched an interview granted by the legendary late hairstylist Vidal Sassoon on a fashion network. Incidentally, he was asked how he was able to keep many of his workers on board for so long, to which he replied that he offered the workers a financial stake in his enterprise. The reason for this, according to Sassoon was to give them a sense of belonging, and a sense of feeling that they were working not just to get a salary, but to grow “their business” as well.
I had never heard this anywhere. Straightaway, I got my directors together and we decided to offer 2.5 percent of our company shares to employees who spent a minimum of 3-5 years in the company. Some of our instructors have been around for 5 years now and have qualified for this benefit. Has this particular decision helped our business? The results have been stunning. Workers now contribute to the business in many ways than just going through the motions of clocking in at 8 am and clocking out at 5 pm. In a particular instance, an instructor gave the company a promo suggestion that saw the company record a 400 percent increase in revenue in a month which had traditionally been a slow month for the business for 10 years before that. Now that they seemingly see the business as ‘their business”, employees have had a mindset transplant. The business is growing and everyone is happy.
Paying a living wage
In a country where the minimum wage has lingered at $50 a month in the last 7 years, and where the government has expressed reluctance to pay the new negotiated minimum wage of $90 a month, we have set the pace in this regard. Not only has our company been paying living wages for the last 8 years, but we have also committed to paying them as at when due. It is almost the norm among businesses and government in Nigeria never to pay workers on time. In fact, it is becoming a norm for many state governments in the country to owe their workers and pensioners for months. LegsApparel Fashion Academy has changed that narrative. Anyone who comes to work for us knows that they will be paid their salaries on the last day of the month without fail. It is an inviolable standard we have set.
We have also given at least five salary increases in the last decade. President Donald Trump once said on an edition of The Apprentice: “if you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys for workers”. No one wants a monkey for a worker, so why pay peanuts?
Promoting Healthy Competition
We have also put up various contests to promote healthy competition among staff. One of our contests on the “Most Innovative Instructor” seems to have brought out previously untapped talents hidden in our instructors. They now research deeply and have upped their game. The feedback from students in our fashion school has been positively overwhelming.
The tale of two monkeys comes to mind. A scientist fed two monkeys with a banana each. They ate them with relish. Then the scientist gave the first monkey a really big banana, which he wolfed down gleefully. The second monkey was then given a banana which was way smaller than what the first monkey received. Guess what? That monkey threw the banana back at the scientist!
Whether this experiment actually took place or not, I cannot really tell. But if monkeys can detect when favouritism has set in, how much more are human beings who can be quite emotional? The last thing any business needs is for office politics to set in as a result of favouritism shown by management to a few staff. It is a no-no and we have tried to implement this in our business. So far, this has worked. Many experts have written about this and the consensus is that favouritism is something that should be avoided.
Adopting a common language
Nigeria is multicultural and multi-ethnic, and a lot of political tensions have been caused in the country along these lines. At the management level, we realized early enough that allowing workers to band together according to religious and ethnic affiliations was a recipe for disaster. We prohibited the speaking of local languages within our business premises and adopted the lingua franca of the country (English) as the official language used in our premises. Even some of our francophone staff were encouraged to learn and use English. I and at least two other directors are bilingual, but we realized that speaking French to some staff and English to others would create a segregated environment which would be inimical to the growth of our business.
Improving worker commitment is not a one-day process. We did not achieve this in one day. It took years of planning, implementation, and constant tweaks to put the company on the path to retaining its best staff. If you have been struggling with staff turnover, maybe you need to put some of the strategies listed here to work, and also implement some of what we did.
Ikenna Eteng is a social entrepreneur and Co-founder of LegsApparel Fashion Academy, Abuja, Nigeria. He also writes about the financial markets.