Horrible bosses: How retailers can clean up their image

Paul Blanchard
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Ted Baker Investigates Allegations Against CEO
Source: Getty

It seems like a case of “another day, another scandal” in the retail industry at the moment. This time it’s Ted Baker founder and CEO, Ray Kelvin, who has been accused of “forced hugging”.

While I can’t comment on the innocence (or otherwise) of the shamed chief, he joins a growing list of alleged wrong ‘uns from the recent boardroom wranglings at Patisserie Valerie, the coffee and cake chain that recently went into administration and was rescued by a private-equity buyer, and of course, the Tesco accounting scandal. Add to that billionaire Topshop boss Sir Philip Green, who’s denied accusations of racial and sexual harassment.

Some say Green also put the final nail in the coffin of BHS, which was one of the early casualties of the current retail slump plaguing the high street. Just this week Debenhams, Paperchase, and “unprofitable” food chains Giraffe and Ed’s Easy Diner (both owned by Boparan Restaurant Group) look set to close hundreds of branches, putting thousands of jobs at risk.

Phew! That’s one hell of a to-do list for those in the reputation game, but I like a challenge.

Tackling some of these problems will partly depend on investigations into the alleged wrongdoings, but businesses in sticky situations can often tackle a sudden loss of reputation if they act quickly enough.

One way is to create a more inclusive leadership team that better reflects society, for example by appointing more female chief executives and board directors. Britain’s public companies will need to appoint women to 40% of their board positions by 2020 if they are going to meet government targets for gender diversity. As well as being the right thing to do, this will improve a company’s image. Also, there’s some evidence that companies with more women in top management perform better.

They should also encourage whistleblowers. They’re doing your business a favour by highlighting serious problems, which you can hopefully fix before they become a crisis and are leaked to the media. UK workers are protected by legislation if they report certain types of wrongdoing, but this is little use if companies use contract law to try to silence them and encouraging them to sign non-disclosure agreements, as Philip Green has reportedly done.

Another tactic is to get your chief executive in front of the media to make a sincere apology that’s not written by lawyers. As I’ll never tire of saying, chief executives need to be the public face of a company during a crisis and show customers that they care and are doing their best to fix a problem. Be humble and listen to your customers. Sometimes, the CEO must fall on their sword.

Be much clearer about your company's social purpose (helping people eat healthily and cheaply, selling clothes that are environmentally sustainable as well as fashionable etc.) beyond just selling goods at a decent price. Ramp up your corporate social responsibility schemes. If you’re a retailer with a young customer base, you could focus on improving young people’s mental health.

Retailers can also create punchy and provocative ads on radio, TV, print and also social media, spelling out the benefits of beleaguered local High Streets and of buying from British retailers.

Following these tips won’t make corporate scandals disappear overnight, but they’ll at least help you get on the front foot. Let’s hope that this latest round of casualties finds a way to save themselves, or at this rate there will be no shops left.

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