Could socially inclusive recruitment solve the restaurant skills shortage?

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

Could socially inclusive recruitment solve the restaurant skills shortage?
With the industry suffering skills shortages across the board, certain restaurant groups are reaping the benefits of employing marginalised people.

It is unusual to start a feature with a caveat – an apology, of sorts – but in this case it is fitting. For in talking about socially inclusive recruitment (SIR), space constraints require a discussion in general terms about various marginalised groups who are not only far from one homogenous body but who, within each cohort, are endlessly varied in their needs, skills and talents.

Such generalisations about the long-term unemployed – ex-offenders, the learning and physically disabled, recovering substance abusers, youngsters from deprived areas, people managing mental or other health problems, single mums, even – is precisely what SIR advocates warn against. That list comprises millions of individuals whose only common experience is being ignored, undervalued or discriminated against in the jobs market.

Truly effective SIR requires employers to engage with individuals within those groups at a granular level. It is a complex business, one too complex to explore fully here. Instead, consider this feature a primer, but one that will hopefully inspire you to take a fresh look at a recruitment strategy which – in ways not seen since the heyday of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen – is fast gaining traction for both its value in transforming lives and the way it can boost business.

Eva Arnaiz, head of charities and communities at The Breakfast Club, an 11-site group currently expanding its SIR programme, talks of the industry overlooking a “massive, untapped workforce”. The numbers are undeniably striking. For instance, 20% of Britain’s working age population has a disability and, according to the charity Scope, are twice as likely to be unemployed (just 6% of people with learning disabilities work).

Similarly, 11 million people have a criminal record. Yet in a 2016 YouGov poll, 50% of businesses said they would never employ someone with a criminal conviction, regardless of the offence (68% of whom were punished with fines, according to the charity Nacro, and mostly for motoring-related offences).

The Clink Restaurant in HMP Brixton

On ex-offenders, the hospitality industry is relatively progressive. Hundreds of former prisoners have now graduated from schemes with the rehabilitation charity The Clink and have founds jobs at operators as diverse as D&D London and the Chester Grosvenor Hotel. “We train towards a City & Guilds NVQ level 2 in professional cookery and we make everything from scratch using fresh ingredients. The Clink is a credible solution to the skills shortage,” argues its chief executive, Chris Moore.

The Clink has established its niche, but research demonstrating the upside of recruiting from other marginalised groups is less publicised. “People with learning disabilities thrive in hospitality. It has lots of entry-level jobs and people with learning disabilities stay in those roles longer, have lower sickness levels and are positive for staff morale,” says Mark Capper, Mencap’s head of employer engagement. 

The Foxes Academy and training hotel in Somerset has placed its learning disabled graduates in jobs at, among others, Hilton Hotels and Yo! Sushi. Principal Tracey Clare-Gray insists there is no need to ‘sell’ the concept to employers.

“The people we train are ready and capable,” she says. “It’s more about matching skills to the job and environment. The graduates employed by Hilton are still in those roles three years on. Retention rates are high. Inclusion isn’t just morally right, it’s business sense.”

Removing barriers to entry

Arguably, the 26-site Vietnamese chain Pho had a head start in this area. Now three years old, its SIR strategy is led by Lucy Taylor, an operations manager and trained social worker who has first-hand experience of how marginalised groups struggle to access employment. Pho has one or two SIR staff front-of-house at most of its London sites and some have progressed into management roles. When it opened in Manchester, working with local charity Factory Youth Zone it undertook a project that filled nine vacancies. More than two years later, two of the nine still work at the restaurant.

Partnering with a charity, says Taylor, is crucial. Other local authority or government-funded back-to-work schemes exist, but charities will tend to carefully pre-select candidates, have insight into their issues, can help businesses design and co-manage the recruitment process, may have funding to cover costs (ie travel), and often provide ongoing in-job support for successful candidates. All of which can make it a very cost-effective alternative to mainstream recruitment.

In partnering with a charity, an operator also ensures it is genuinely reaching out to marginalised groups. Any business can say its recruitment is socially inclusive, but without actively removing the barriers (economic, academic, psychological) that prevent marginalised groups from applying for your jobs, the phrase is meaningless.

Students at Foxes Academy

For example, if you only post jobs online, how will people without a smartphone or computer see them? Likewise, what use is an online application to someone with literacy issues? “This is not a pool of people who will be looking on Gumtree,” says Taylor. “It’s about breaking down this industry into being accessible.”

Good SIR practice – as opposed to ticking boxes on a corporate social responsibility policy – may require operators to remodel both their standard application process (“Why do you need to know someone’s criminal record?”, asks Arnaiz), and how candidates are assessed. Is a formal interview too intimidating? What do trial shifts demonstrate? Recruiters need to think tangentially about how to get the best out of applicants.

“When we’re putting someone on the restaurant floor, it might be their first time in a work environment. They might stand at the bar and not run to the tables, but there are other things we look at. Did they ask questions? Did they enjoy it? What was their engagement like? It’s about changing our thinking,” says Taylor.

That also goes for training, the initial management of candidates and how their roles are defined. Shorter introductory hours, flexible shift patterns, informal verbal rather than written tests, and extensions on menu testing for candidates with learning difficulties, can all get vulnerable starters over that initial shock of being in the workplace. As Taylor puts it: “How am I going to get this person past three months, six months, a year? You can’t bring someone in who hasn’t worked before and put them on five double-shifts. It has to be about the person, not the gap [in your rota that week]. This has to be an ethical buy-in for the social good, not just ‘great, we can get people in’.”

In terms of roles, The Breakfast Club hasn’t had to change much, says Arnaiz. “Some people can only work a few hours, so you might get someone in [at lunch], giving them experience and paid work. And we had someone from a homeless charity who was in recovery so we had to make sure he could go to his recovery meetings.”

Job carving

Particularly for disabled candidates, thinking innovatively about job descriptions and those responsibilities they might reasonably fulfil (so-called job-carving) is key. For example, someone with autism might excel in a kitchen where they can perform a small, set number of relatively highly-skilled tasks.

Aside from the ‘reasonable adjustments’ employers are legally obliged to make for disabled candidates (eg, visual aids, access ramps), the DWP’s Access to Work fund (“often referred to as its best-kept secret,” says Capper), provides grants to cover further adaptations or special assistance. These include the provision of job coaches who can help people get to grips with, say, a fast-paced restaurant environment.

“We had someone come through our Soho branch with the Camden Society [charity] and a mentor shadowed them until they felt fine on their own,” says Arnaiz. Managers must also be alert to practical issues around money and living arrangements, which new SIR starters can face. Can they afford to travel to work? Are they eating regularly? Where will they iron their uniform?

“We have the advantage of knowing someone might need more support,” says Taylor. “The minute you tell the Job Centre you have a job, they cut your benefits. But, as employers, these are things we should be considering for all staff.”


When it comes to giving managers information about an employee’s issues (anger management, for instance), Taylor works on a case-by-case basis. Those issues should be addressed in the recruitment/training process, and sometimes forewarning a manager about an employee can be counterproductive. It can be better to simply let them get to know one another. No baggage. No preconceptions.

In terms of discipline, all Pho employees are treated equally. Those recruited through SIR channels may get more ‘behavioural coaching’ (“It’s automatic I’d ring my boss if I’m not going to work, but it might not be for everybody,” says Taylor), but in the basics – lateness, hygiene and appearance, aggressive behaviour. Any issues are addressed as they would with any employee. “You have to be consistent.”

At Middlesbrough’s charity-backed The Fork In The Road restaurant, hospitality professionals work alongside recovering addicts and convicted criminals, some of them on day-release from nearby HMP Kirklevington Grange. A significant part of the process, says founder Andy Preston, is simply teaching people how to interact calmly with the public. “A lot of people leaving prison haven’t got that learned experience in appropriate behaviour and language,” he says. “Because people are unsure of themselves, the way they present themselves can come across as a little aggressive. A big barrier to employment generally is modifying those behavioural skills.”

None of this should be misinterpreted as going easy on problematic employees. “At the beginning we cut people slack and over time that decreases. We have to be firm at times,” says Preston. Taylor agrees. If someone is not working out, ultimately Pho will let them go. Occasionally, managers can feel unduly guilty about dismissing a SIR employee and Taylor has had to step in to urge them to act.

“A lot of people who say they’re ready for change just aren’t,” says Preston. “Sometimes they drift away or we say come back in six months. We’re not a magical place that changes everyone’s lives. We give people a chance. Some take it. But it’s hard. Not everyone makes it.”

Hidden gems

When SIR works, however, as it regularly does, the results for both business and employee can be remarkable. It can change people’s lives and invigorate the restaurants they work in.

“We’ve uncovered some priceless gems,” says Preston. The tight-knit camaraderie of a kitchen can be “the making” of previously chaotic addicts. Finding your groove front-of-house can give people unimaginable self-confidence.

“It’s possibly the last career where you can come in with nothing and really prosper. If you work hard, have common sense and a bit of flair, it doesn’t matter about your accent or chequered past. People tend to be taken at face value in this industry,” explains Preston. “One of our managers, Joe, is still a prisoner. He started as a dishwasher. We got him front-of-house, gave him more responsibility and now he’s a completely trusted key-holder dealing with the public and handling money. It sounds bizarre but he opens up and then takes the keys back to prison.”

Obviously, for SIR to work at a chain like Pho or The Breakfast Club, managers and head chefs must buy into it. Some managers will push back against working with ex-offenders or addicts. Others may harbour irrational fears about working with the learning disabled or other groups (many charities offer training packages that address common misconceptions). SIR can be time-consuming, at least initially, and so it may not be suitable at very new or very busy sites.

Consequently, individual restaurant sites may lead on SIR as companies feel their way into it. “We have certain head chefs who are very patient and better at training and so they’re our first choice, as with general managers,” says Arnaiz. Gradually, she would like The Breakfast Club managers to overcome their “fear of the unknown” and become pro-active SIR advocates within the company, rather than it being a top-down edict.

That cultural transformation will take time. But given the shortage of great staff in hospitality, those operators embracing SIR are getting ahead of the game. Changing lives by cultivating loyal talent? Both ethically and as a business strategy, that sounds like a win-win.

This feature first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.

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