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HRD Insight: GGHT’s Gary Cookson on hiring the long-term unemployed

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As a housing provider with a social mission, we recruit lots of staff who are long-term unemployed. 

This means that many of our employees – particularly our plasterers, joiners, electricians, plumbers and housing management officers – have often had little experience of the workplace.
 
A large proportion of our workers are also our tenants, with hundreds aged between 18 and 24 who have never worked before. As head of HR and organisational development, it’s my job to manage this situation.
 
When we first introduced our social value recruitment strategy, I knew that we’d have to develop HR systems and policies that enabled us not only to tackle worklessness in the local community, but also to continue to deliver a high quality service and true value for money to all of our residents.
 
Fences still needed to be mended, kitchens fitted and repairs made – all to a high standard. There was no room for neighbourhoods to fall in to disrepair just because one of our new workers couldn’t be bothered to get up in the morning.
 
Balancing social value priorities with a value for money focus hasn’t been easy. People who’ve been unemployed for a long time or who’ve never worked before often take a while to adjust to the workplace.
 
They aren’t always used to keeping strict hours or being given instructions. Some aren’t familiar with being paid monthly as opposed to collecting weekly benefits.
 
Being managed and adhering to rules can also create tension. But understanding the importance of routine, standards and targets are vital if someone is going to remain employed and do a good job.
 
Less risky
 
To help here, we worked with a social enterprise called Employer Pool. It is experienced in supporting people without a job to get back into work and it helped our HR team develop procedures that would cut drop out, dismissal and sickness rates among our new employees.
 
One of the key features of this system was to scrap occupational sick pay. It may sound dramatic, but the decision was a carefully considered one and has reaped huge rewards.
 
Many of the people that we were employing had never received sick pay before and we wanted to ensure that this benefit wasn’t abused. Anyone can wake up and think ‘I don’t want to go in today’, but if they don’t get paid for staying in bed, the incentive isn’t there.
 
All employees are still entitled to statutory sick pay, but we scrapped occupational sick pay as a simple move to increase productivity.
 
And it paid off. Sickness absence rates among employees with little work history are low – an average of just 3.8 days per worker every year. Compared to other employers that also recruit lots of staff who have been long-term unemployed, these results are positive.
 
Another policy that we put in place was to appoint Employer Pool as a ‘host employer’. This move made things less risky for us and meant that we didn’t have the burden of awarding permanent contracts to certain groups of employees or of dealing with complex paperwork.
 
It also enabled us to put groups of employees on ‘no notice, no liability’ casual contracts. The advantage of this approach is that, if there are issues with a member of staff’s absence or performance levels, it is relatively easy for us as an HR department to withdraw the role.
 
Workers on this type of contract are fully aware of the terms and it enables them to leave the job quite easily if they don’t feel that it is right for them. This situation also benefits for the individual in that people don’t have to hang around serving a long notice period.
 
Overall this policy has reduced sickness-absence rates and cut the number of conduct issues. Dismissal figures among one particular cohort of 10 staff, all employed at the same time and all previously unemployed for more than six months, were zero.
 
Helping hand
 
Another factor that has kept resignation rates low is running a weekly payroll. People who’ve been out of work for long periods and collect weekly benefits are often put off by the fact that their salary will be paid every four weeks.
 
We wanted to reduce resignation rates and give key groups of employees a good reason to stay and perform well. So Employer Pool helped us to set up weekly contracts – something that we couldn’t have done had payroll gone through our own accounts department.
 
But we knew that some of our new long-term unemployed workers would also require wrap-around support and intensive supervision as many had been out of work for a long time and some had never had a job.
 
As a result, comprehensive inductions, one-to-one sessions with senior staff and internal training were all put in place to provide a helping hand. We also did a lot of work around soft skills development, emphasising the importance of performance, time management, self-discipline, setting goals, trustworthiness and teamwork.
 
All of these HR strategies have contributed to generating some positive results. Drop-out rates among employees with little work experience are zero. Absence rates and numbers of conduct issues are also very low.
 
So far, new workers have undertaken planned maintenance work on time and to a high standard, benefiting tenants across the housing association.
 
Employment policies like this do help to fulfil a social purpose. We’re providing work to our tenants and helping to tackle local unemployment. But I’d encourage other HR directors to think about their aims if they want to set up a similar system. This isn’t about getting hold of cheap labour or taking unemployed people off the streets.
 
For us, it’s about making a difference on our estates and among our unemployed tenants. But it is hard work and you need to be clear about your priorities and how you intend to measure the value to the wider community as well as the value to the business.
 
 

Gary Cookson is head of HR and organisational development at the Golden Gates Housing Trust.

One Response

  1. Golden Gates Housing Trust

    A very positive article, addressing the concerns that most employers have when considering whether to employ the ‘workless’. Unfortunately, when you are looking at one or two positions in the private sector, it is not possible to use the approach so successfully used by Gary. The option is to use agency workers who have no personal commitment to the employer or the job.

    I would be very interested to understand how this particular model compares with permanent staff doing the same job e.g. absence rates, union issues and tribunal cases…

    It certainly looks like this model could be used to replace permanent staff as and when they leave, but I doubt the unions would be too pleased!

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