Interview with Sarah Purnell, head of UK reward and benefits, Tesco

Sarah Purnell, head of UK reward and benefits at Tesco, says she found her way into the reward and benefits profession by being in the right place at the right time.


After spending four years at Tesco in two different roles as a business analyst and an IT finance manager, Purnell became interim reward and benefits manager after returning to the organisation following a few months spent travelling.

“I am fortunate because Tesco has a really strong talent planning process,” she says. “There was an opportunity to run the reward and benefits team while Tesco was looking for a replacement.

“I was in the right place at the right time. Initially, it was short-term but I asked if I could do the role a little while longer and, fortunately for me, Tesco was happy for me to stay on.”

After graduating from Aston University, Purnell became a finance analyst at Unilever before moving on to a similar role at Ralph Lauren. In these early roles, she was responsible for supporting different parts of the businesses. This varied from new product development and central reporting at Unilever to the outlet and full-price businesses at Ralph Lauren.

“I came to Tesco as a finance person and did various roles,” she says. “I am an accountant by trade, and it was great fun training, but I was looking for new opportunities and Tesco gave me that.”

The Tesco brand was just one driver for her joining the organisation. She feels her background in finance gave her the necessary experience to lead the reward team at Tesco. “There are some similarities,” she says. “There is the analytical and numbers side as well as the people element to the role. I enjoy that: the teamworking, the training and development. I guess the two go together.”

Union negotiations

Purnell looks after all elements of reward and benefits for Tesco’s UK workforce. She is proud to have achieved successful pay increases, through union negotiations, for more than 200,000 employees at the organisation. She plays a leading role in pay negotiations each year.

Purnell leads a 10-strong team, who have a mixture of backgrounds, and says her department’s success depends on being able to handle and enjoy constant change.

“There isn’t one size fits all in the benefits world,” she says. “We have a team of 10 and we are all from different backgrounds. Some people are external, some have come from the stores and others have had a background in reward. Everyone brings something different and it works really well.

“With a diverse workforce, there is not just one skillset, but the one thing we have in common is customer focus and the drive of always thinking ‘what’s right for colleagues?’”

Purnell sees herself staying with Tesco, anticipating a number of future opportunities. “I am a loyal Tesco person; I was before I worked here,” she says. “It’s a large organisation and is very diverse. I am still relatively new and I am still learning and understanding new things. It is what I enjoy.”


What has been the biggest focus in your role?

My biggest focus, which I think is my proudest moment, was going through the pay negotiations process for more than 200,000 employees. From a personal point of view, it has been a real stretch for me and it is really different to what I have done before. I am proud that I have played a part in trying to do the best we can and get the best pay increases for employees.

What one tip would you give someone looking to get into your current role?

I think it is about bringing something new in. It can depend on their background, skills and management. It’s about having a different view, a fresh pair of eyes and looking at things from a different perspective, but also being comfortable with the reputation and size of the organisation.

What would you like your next career move to be?

I am still relatively new to the benefits world and I am still learning and understanding. Because of the type of organisation Tesco is and the constant change, it doesn’t mean the role is always the same. It doesn’t change fundamentally, but there is always something new coming in and I really enjoy using my skills in different ways.