Interview with Janine Sparks, reward manager, employee benefits at British Airways

Janine Sparks, reward manager, employee benefits at British Airways, successfully applies the power of positive thinking to all professional matters, including pensions auto-enrolment compliance.

Auto-enrolment and fun are rarely heard in the same sentence. Yet it was laughter that helped Janine Sparks, reward manager, employee benefits at British Airways (BA), deal with the challenges of complying with the pension reforms.

She believes in the power of positive thinking, even in challenging situations. “I always try to look at something in a positive way,” she says. “Even if it’s a major setback, I try to get on with it and think about things positively.

“I generally try to make work fun, even with auto-enrolment. We’ve had times when we’ve been falling about laughing because we’ve just tried to look at the plus side. It doesn’t prevent progress, it just makes it a lot more enjoyable.”

Sparks has seen the reward industry develop so quickly that it bears little resemblance to the one she first joined. “I very much see reward as a key driver of business results, so if [employers] put in the right reward mechanisms, it will promote the right behaviours and the right actions of staff to deliver what the business is trying to achieve,” she says. “Whereas when I first joined, reward was designed around what [employers] needed to offer to compete in the market.”

Some of Sparks’ biggest achievements are those that have had a clear business impact. For example, during BA’s annual pensions month last September, a change in communication methods resulted in a 20% increase in the number of employees who pay additional voluntary contributions.

Business impact

When striving to make a difference, it is vital to identify the potential business impact of any action, says Sparks. “When thinking about reward, in particular if introducing something new, I try to treat the company’s money as my own. So where’s the return on investment for this element of reward, and how do I measure it?

“Also key, which a lot of people don’t think about, is: how will it drive [employee] behaviour and is that behaviour in line with the business strategy?”

With the pace of development showing no sign of slowing, particularly where technology is concerned, reward professionals have even more opportunity to make a difference to employees and the business, she says.

“I don’t think many reward professionals have got their head around social networking as a tool to communicate benefits,” says Sparks. “With online portals, iPads and smartphones, it’s changing so dramatically. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to use these media to communicate with employees, particularly those who are not in front of a computer all day. It’s a great opportunity to communicate with people using media that they choose to use.”

Sparks’ desire to make a real difference to BA’s staff and the organisation is perhaps best summed up by her favourite quote from US essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail instead.”

Janine Sparks will be speaking about auto-enrolment at Employee Benefits Connect on 1 March.



January 2009-present reward manager, employee benefits, British Airways
April 1990-December 2008 head of reward, Lloyds TSB Asset Finance
1986-1990 personnel officer, compensation and benefits, Morgan Grenfell
1984-1986 personnel assistant, Debenhams


What is your favourite benefit?
Pensions is one of my favourites because of its importance, complexity and tax-effectiveness. Another is staff travel, which enables me to travel the world in a very comfortable seat at a very cheap price. I used to travel to Europe a lot, but now I go to the US as my brother lives there. I’ve also been to the Caribbean and India using staff travel.

What is your ultimate ambition?
I want to stay in reward because it’s something I’m good at, I enjoy tremendously and I’m passionate about. I definitely want to stay in the reward area and carry on making a difference by aligning benefits to business strategy.

Do you read any management books?
Before joining BA, I read The First 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels by Michael Watkins. I’d recommend that to anybody because it really helps you to think through how you are going to start in a new organisation. It was particularly helpful for me as I was jumping from Lloyds TSB and financial services to BA and its public sector history. It really helped me think through my first 90 days in the organisation.