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Seeing Potential At COOK

Posted on 26 January 2016

Tags: Good Relationships

Last year at COOK we set ourselves a target of employing 2% of our workforce from marginalised communities. This meant we’d need to recruit up to 20 people who would otherwise find it very difficult to nigh-on impossible to find a job - not because they don’t have the potential to do meaningful or valuable work, but because their backgrounds or circumstances tend to exclude them from the jobs market. We regard this kind of recruitment as one of the single biggest ways we can have a positive social impact as a business and help forge a more inclusive and compassionate society. Done well, it also adds value to our business. I’m delighted to say we hit our target, although it was far from straightforward. Here’s what we learned along the way:


We’ve had to accept that this remains largely uncharted territory. There’s no existing framework or off-the-shelf solution. There are people who can help you, and great organisations, but at the end of the day no one is holding all the answers, ready and waiting with a smooth recruitment pipeline. You need to go out and explore the frontiers yourself. It can be pretty scary and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But, crucially, we made a commitment. We set the target and wrote it into our company plan for the year. Turning back wasn’t an option.

It works from the bottom-up

Commitment obviously requires everyone at the top to buy-in to the plan: the senior team or the board need to be engaged. But ultimately it’s the people on the front line, who will be working side-by-side with the new recruits, who have to make it work. We partnered with a prison to recruit ex-offenders, engaged our teams, and specified that we wouldn’t take anyone with a record of violence (at the team’s request). But just as the scheme was finding its feet, we discovered that a candidate who had progressed through to the final interview stage had been found guilty of a very violent crime. This guy had come all the way through the process. The team managers in the kitchen had met him and were convinced he would be a good recruit. What should we do? We decided to ask him to come in and meet the teams he would be working in, to explain to them about his past and why he was so eager to be given an opportunity. Even though some members of the team were sceptical about the scheme, they listened and they agreed to give him a second chance. They’ve embraced him as a team member and he recently won a place on our leadership development programme.

Company values apply - no exceptions

Anyone we recruit through our community employment schemes has to go through exactly the same process as a normal recruit. Most importantly, that means they have to live up to the same set of values that apply to everyone else. It also means that, as a company, we have to make sure we’re living up to our values. Through a local, church-run community centre we found a recruit who, through drug addiction in his teens, had ended up in prison. He was committed to turning his life around but was struggling to find an opportunity. We met him and liked him and, what’s more, he was a local boy. We offered him a job. But then we discovered that during his wild years, he had put one of our other employees in hospital with a broken jaw. Understandably this long-standing member of staff objected to us offering this guy a job. One of our core values is ‘Be part of the family’, so we always make up after a row. Rather than simply retract our job offer, we asked if our team member would be willing to meet this potential recruit to discuss what had happened nearly 10 years previously. They met, with leaders present, and talked it through. There was a heartfelt apology and our existing member of staff had the courage to offer forgiveness. They’re both thriving.

So where’s the value?

Recruiting from marginalised groups usually means going through a third party, such as the prison service, a community group or a charity. This means any candidate is likely to have already been vetted, interviewed and background checked. It’s actually far more rigorous than taking in candidates off the street, saving time and money in the process. Perhaps most importantly, and surprisingly, we’ve found that everyone who’s involved in the scheme – from the senior team, through the people team, the managers and the team members – has found it personally rewarding. Some of the biggest cynics have been transformed into the scheme’s biggest fans. It has enabled us to show our values in action and to offer evidence that, as a business, we’re acting to be a force for good in society. It has also helped deepen and enrich our shared company culture. And, as management guru Peter Drucker put it, culture eats strategy for breakfast.


For more information have a look at the See Potential campaign or

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