Jo Whitfield, chief executive of the Co-op Group’s food division, has said she will begin a four-month break from business in May to help her two sons study for their GCSEs and A-Levels.
In her absence, Group chief executive Steve Murrells will take control of the Co-op’s food business.
She said: “I always knew that this year would be a big year with my boys undertaking key exams.
“We decided as a family, that in order to prepare for the inevitable pressure and emotional turmoil that would involve, that when the time came, I would look to spend more time with them to ease the challenge.
“I can take this time away reassured by the knowledge we have a strong food leadership team who will keep moving our Co-op forward, working with support and guidance from Steve Murrells, our Co-op CEO.”
Ms Whitfield is using the Group’s career break policy, which allows all colleagues of more than a year’s standing to request unpaid leave of between three and 12 months.
The move has prompted debate, with some praising her for putting family before career and others noting that not everyone can afford to take such a long period of unpaid leave.
Sarah Doole, chief executive of TV production company Red, told the BBC that Ms Whitfield’s decision showed “there is more to life than the salary you bring home”, and called her “a fantastic role model for all of us”.
But, writing in City AM, Eliot Wilson – co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official – noted arguments that: “it it could look like another exercise of entrenched privilege: Whitfield was paid £1.2m in total in 2020. A cashier or shelf-stacker might not be able to face a third of a year unpaid with the same equanimity.”
Mr Wilson argued against being “too censorious” over the career break policy, adding that it “is particularly helpful to women, who are more likely to need that kind of flexibility, and so is another crack, however modest, in the glass ceiling”.
But he added: “Employers must always be careful that benefits are based on equality of opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the Group is saying goodbye to Charlotte Lock, its director of data, digital products and loyalty, who moves to the John Lewis Partnership to work as its first customer director with responsibility across the entire business.
Starting in April, she will report to Nina Bhatia, strategy and commercial director at the worker-owned retailer, and will lead the delivery of a customer strategy across the John Lewis and Waitrose brands, leading customer capability and “delivering a new partnership loyalty proposition”.
“Charlotte’s appointment reinforces the importance of placing the customer at the heart of everything we do,” said Ms Bhatia said. “Charlotte brings tremendous relevant experience and will play a pivotal role in building our Partnership brand, customer strategy and loyalty propositions.”