Employer Profile: Penguin Books

Penguin Books mixes benefits provided by parent company Pearson with locally-negotiated perks to cater to workforce needs, says David Woods

A comforting way of spending a cold rainy night is to curl up on the sofa with a good book. However, the idea of turning the pages of a paperback may end up just a distant dream, as the digital age has brought significant upheaval for the book publishing industry. As consumers become more used to bite-sized information and reading text online, printed books may have to share the shelves with digital reading devices or e-books. As a result, many publishers are looking to keep abreast of the emerging markets. Penguin Books is looking forward to the challenge. Helena Peacock, director of HR, explains: “Books aren’t ever going to disappear but we still have [a] challenge to embrace the digital age.”

Penguin already has a number of e-book titles available, with more scheduled for release. Last month, it also announced it is making the first chapter of all its latest titles available for free as a download that can be read on computers, iPhones and BlackBerrys.

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Peacock explains the challenge is to provide a service to consumers that is relevant to their lifestyle preferences. “We constantly have to adapt our business practices to suit what our consumers want,” she says.

According to Penguin’s worldwide annual results for 2007, which were published last month, its profits rose by 20% year on year and underlying sales by 3%, although in the UK sales dipped by 0.8%.

The rapidly-changing demands of the market, however, mean Penguin’s workforce must be able to react quickly to what is required of them. “Publishing is a creative industry and we are [dependent] on staff for ideas all the time. We want them to be bright and sparky and we need to look after staff in order to help Penguin to be a great company,” explains Peacock.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that benefits are deemed a crucial part of working life. For the most part, these are managed independently from its parent company Pearson. Some perks, however, such as the company’s pension and employee share schemes are organised by Pearson on Penguin’s behalf.

Pearson also uses its size to negotiate benefits for employees in all of its operating businesses, such as private medical insurance, dental care and bikes for work. “Pearson encourages all its operating companies to seek out benefits attractive to employees. Pearson offers central benefits and we do the rest,” explains Peacock.

Some of Penguin’s benefits, for example, stem from its 2000 acquisition of Dorling Kindersley (DK), when the employment terms and conditions of the two firms were amalgamated. DK, for example, had more generous holiday entitlement, so this was adopted for all staff.

Penguin Books is currently in the process of revising staff pay scales. Previously, employees received pay rises depending on the length of time they had been with the company. This structure has now been dropped, although the new scheme is still being finalised. “We are still working on this scheme, however, everyone will still get a negotiated pay rise, but there will be something extra for exceptional staff,” says Peacock.

The company is also keen to retain good employees. As part of its strategy to do so, it places a focus on work-life balance and has a array of initiatives in place ranging from part-time and flexible working arrangements, to six-month-long unpaid sabbaticals for staff after three years’ service. ” It is far better to keep a good employee who needs flexible working than not employ someone who can only work [from] nine to five,” explains Peacock.

In the summer months, staff also have the option of working longer hours between Monday and Thursday, and leaving at lunchtime on Fridays.

According to Lynette Swift, managing director of flexible working specialists Swiftwork, organisations that offer such arrangements may be able to reduce absence costs. “Employers will give employees a higher level of trust that they will be able to deliver and this gives employees a sense of control over their own work and time. This leads to improved morale, which will lower absence,” explains Swift.

When it comes to holiday entitlement, however, Penguin employees are not allowed to buy or sell days. “We believe it is important that staff use all their holidays so we don’t see the point of giving [holiday] up for extra pay,” explains Peacock.

Childcare benefits

To help staff achieve a good work-life balance, Penguin Books also offers a number of childcare benefits. As well as permitting some staff to work flexibly in order to accommodate their childcare commitments, it also offers childcare vouchers through a salary sacrifice arrangement.

In addition, it offers childcare allowance for employees who earn less than £35,000 a year if neither they nor their partner are able to look after their children. Qualifying employees can apply to receive a subsidy of up to £105 each month, which is graded according to salary.

Such benefits are thought to be well suited to the organisation’s predominantly female workforce, however, Peacock is keen that they also appeal to male employees. “Benefits such as flexible working tend to suit women better, for example, but we want men to feel comfortable working here too,” she says.

Publishing is also a relatively young industry, so the majority of Penguin’s staff are aged in their 20s and 30s. The company believes that staff should have the right to choose benefits that suit them. Although it does not offer a flexible benefits scheme, it still aims to cater to the needs of all employees.

“When [employees] start work, they might be keen purely on salary because they need to save, but then they think about having children. If they have been in the same job for a while, they might think about travelling and, as they get older, they might want to start thinking about their pension,” says Peacock.

As a result, it offers a selection of ad-hoc voluntary benefits for employees, such as retail discounts. Employees can also take advantage of discounts in the company’s on-site cafeteria, as well as taking part in regular staff competitions, or joining a staff choir and football club. These are communicated regularly on Penguin’s website and posters on site.

“We have a strong employer brand and people come to work here because it’s Penguin. I’d like to think they stay, not only because they are challenged, but because it is a good place to work,” says Peacock.

Free books

Understandably, the company wants to nurture a love of reading, so staff can receive up to two free books each day, which have been returned to the publisher from shops.

“I don’t think there is anyone here who doesn’t love books. It is lovely to be able to take books home as a benefit, and getting paid to be surrounded by books is a benefit in itself,” says Peacock.

Penguin Books will also try to help staff who run into difficulties. “One of the benefits of being in a large corporate environment is that it is possible to be kind quietly when it is necessary. We have a policy to err on the side of generosity when someone is genuinely in need,” explains Peacock.

She believes this approach to benefits has had a positive impact on motivation and engagement. “It is worth looking after a good employee. We want to keep our talent because a company is only as good as its workforce,” she adds.

Career profile

Helena Peacock has been HR director at Penguin Books since 2006.

Coming from a legal and tax background, this was not a role she ever imagined herself in, but she is enjoying the challenge.

After graduating with a law degree in 1978, Peacock initially worked in private legal practice. Following this, she took on a part-time position at the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants, while also running her own practice that specialised in personal and corporation tax.

Peacock joined Penguin Books in 1993. One of the reasons that she was attracted to the organisation is its flexible working arrangements. These enabled her to spend time at home with her young daughter.

Having held positions dealing with commercial matters in Penguin’s legal department, Peacock became company secretary in 1999, legal director in 2000 and eventually HR director. She now holds all three roles simultaneously. “The varied role has allowed me to really spread my wings,” she explains.

Running both the legal and HR departments at the same time has proved a challenge for Peacock, but she explains that having a good sense of humour and two great teams to manage helps with the task.

Penguin at a glance

†Penguin Books is the UK division of the Penguin Group and is owned by Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times. Penguin was set up in 1935 by Allan Lane, and has grown to become the world’s second largest book publisher in the world, after Random House, based on sales. In the UK, Penguin Books is the third largest book publishers, according to figures compiled from Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market for 2007. Revenue for retail and internet for the year was £177m, down 0.8% year on year.

Globally in 2007, Penguin Group reported a 20% year-on-year increase in operating profits and a 3% increase in underlying sales.

The company also owns brands such as Ladybird, Viking, Puffin, Allan Lane, Michael Joseph, Frederick Warne, and Dorling Kindersley. Penguin publishes a variety of books ranging from children’s fiction and non-fiction, commercial fiction and literary fiction.

In the UK, Penguin Books employs around 1,000 staff at its London office and has another site in Dublin where a further eight employees are based.

A 2004 deal with the BBC has allowed Penguin books to publish children’s books for the broadcasting corporation as well as supporting books for television programmes, such as explorer Bruce Perry’s Tribe.

In 2004 Penguin Books was awarded title of Guardian Media Employer of the Year, while in the same year the NSPCC also gave the company a Family Friendly Award.

Value in flexibility†

Nicola Evans is a senior legal adviser who has worked at Penguin Books for six years. Her role involves handling all the copyright and libel issues within the publishing house, as well as dealing with rights of dispute.†

“I have a love of reading but the benefits were definitely a huge attraction to this job,” she says.

As Evans has young children, she values the flexible working options offered by the company. “When my children were at home, I worked four days a week and had Wednesday at home with them. Now I stretch my hours over the week which enables me to pick my children up from school four days a week,” she explains.

Penguin offered Evans the flexibility to adapt her hours to suit her lifestyle. She also took advantage of the tax-efficient childcare vouchers while her children were at nursery. In addition, Evans is a member of the firm’s final salary pension scheme, sharesave plan and its cycle-to-work scheme. She is also entitled to private medical insurance.

What are the benefits?

Work-life balance

• Staff can take a full year off work on maternity leave. They are entitled to 25 weeks’ full pay while on maternity leave, followed by 14 weeks on statutory maternity pay.†

• When employees have been with the company for three years, they are entitled to a six-month sabbatical.†

• For nine weeks during the summer, staff can compress their hours during the week and leave at lunchtime on Fridays.†

• Childcare vouchers.†

• Childcare allowance up to £105 each month, depending on salary, for eligible staff.†

Healthcare and wellbeing

• Eyecare vouchers.†

• Employee-funded private dental insurance.†

• Employee assistance programme (EAP).†

• In-house occupational health department.†

• Private medical insurance (PMI), where Penguin pays half the cost and the employee pays the other half in addition to the tax due on Penguin’s share.†

• Cycle-to-work scheme.†

• Discounted gym membership.†


• Final salary scheme closed to new members.†

• Defined contribution scheme with age-related company contribution for all other staff.†

Voluntary benefits

• A range of ad-hoc discounts for employees, which change regularly.†


• Subsidised on-site canteen.†


• Sharesave scheme through which staff can buy shares in Pearson at a discount.