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The best of HR: How rethinking youth recruitment made Mitchells & Butlers overall winners at the CIPD People Management Awards

24 Oct 2019 By Robert Jeffery

The pub company put its employees front and centre, impressing the judges enough to take home the best talent management initiative and overall prizes

One of the central responses businesses have been urged into with Brexit fast approaching is to think strategically about where their future talent will come from. It’s a message that has manifestly failed to land with many. But national pub chain Mitchells & Butlers is so on board with the need to engage young people in its business, and ensure it has a healthy pipeline of talent in the anticipation of fewer EU workers, it should surely be given its own government ad campaign.

“It’s become even more important to grow our own since Brexit,” says director of learning and talent development Jan Smallbone. “We’ve seen such a drop-off in applications it’s frightening… We’re more fortunate than some hospitality organisations, particularly hoteliers, who have a far larger proportion of non-UK employees. But we’ve felt the effects.”

Smallbone is in her sixth year with the business, the parent company to an array of pub and restaurant brands employing 46,000 people across 1,700 locations. Mitchells & Butlers’ portfolio spans everything from All Bar One and O’Neill’s through to Harvester, Miller & Carter and Stonehouse Pizza. Its HR team is similarly dispersed, spending as much time as possible on the frontline (“we’re not a team that sits in head office and never leaves”) travelling the length and breadth of the land to understand and influence what happens in pubs.

Find out more about the 2019 People Management Award winners and register your interest for 2020

HR, then, has always been close to the business. But over the past few years, it has undertaken a deliberate revolution in the way it manages careers and values its people, the results of which have not only given it reason to be optimistic about the future, they landed both the best talent management initiative and the coveted overall winner prizes at this year’s CIPD People Management Awards. 

Judges were wowed by the way the privately owned business thought long term about its staffing issues, rather than being tempted into knee-jerk actions, and worked to find local, grassroots solutions to its problems.

The genesis of the talent initiative masterminded by Smallbone and her team can be traced back to 2015, with turnover issues that predated Brexit forming a “massive burning platform” that required change. Attrition was running as high as 84 per cent and replacing people was both difficult and, in many cases, prohibitively costly. Learning was largely compliance-focused and progression wasn’t transparent. HR’s response was to undertake radical surgery. “We just stopped everything. We needed to rethink and start again. We were brave and we started to build from scratch,” says Smallbone. 

Fundamentally, the slowly fermenting crisis was reframed as an opportunity to keep people longer, increase internal mobility and make recruitment easier by giving employees – whether chefs, bartenders or servers – a real chance to build a long-term career. While temporary workers, particularly students, would always form part of the workforce, why couldn’t the core be ambitious, learning-focused homegrown talent?

Turning this dream into reality in a hospitality environment of shrinking margins required a roll call of different interventions. Mitchells & Butlers introduced a new learning management system that encouraged digital L&D across the business, with an emphasis on social learning. Every employee would have a clear ‘learning journey’ starting with a number of key webinars in their first few months, which Smallbone says constituted a ‘back to basics’ mindset that emphasised commercial skills.

Indeed, the entire approach to talent was rethought. The way managers interacted with their teams was remodelled around a “highly simplified behavioural framework” involving regular development catch-ups rather than formal appraisals. General managers have been supported to identify high potential early on. “We had the nine-box grid, which I have no patience with,” says Smallbone. “You spend all your time putting people in boxes... instead, last year, we trained 4,500 managers on a new way of assessing potential.” Talented individuals are judged on their learning mindset and resilience, which are seen as key to progression.

The work, designed and deployed over the course of three years, made development clearer and more fluid. But fixing recruitment was an even bigger job. Mitchells & Butlers decided it wanted to increase the number of under-18s in the business, and encourage more school-leavers and graduates into roles. It has utilised apprenticeships to such effect that, from a standing start, it has become the largest provider of apprenticeships in the hospitality sector. “When the levy came along, some organisations saw it as a tax but we saw it as a massive opportunity,” says Smallbone. “We had no problems spending it from day one.”

An expanded retail graduate scheme put new recruits directly into pubs, often as assistant managers. And the business has partnered with charities such as Springboard and other groups to help broaden the range of individuals who are handed opportunities. 

Meanwhile, a Chef Academy is helping both recruitment and retention in one of the most critical roles in the company, offering them relevant and industry-leading skills training with an emphasis on quality of food.

It hasn’t always been easy, says Smallbone, particularly when the business is comprised of 13 brands that are encouraged to be autonomous in their thinking: “They all think they’re special and different and we want them to feel like that because it’s good for the brand culture. The challenge is how you balance that with getting efficiencies of scale. We spend a lot of time with operating colleagues demonstrating that we can deliver a high-value product that will preserve the culture of your brand but also give you high-quality learning.”

Among other things, she adds, getting colleagues on board has meant the HR team honing their PR skills, “banging the drum again and again” at careers fairs and school events, where they convince sceptical parents that a career in hospitality can be rewarding – potentially leading to a general manager position in as little as five years. 

Awards are important in this context, both external programmes such as those run by the National Apprenticeship Service and internal events that make heroes of those who have progressed rapidly through the business.

But what it hasn’t required is huge amounts of cash. “There was no way I was going to be able to go to my executive committee and say ‘can I have a million pounds extra for this?’” says Smallbone. “Our budgets haven’t changed. It’s about being really smart, because we knew we had good resource and we weren’t using it as well as we could. We’ve learned to be slicker and smarter.”

Has it worked? Today, apprentices comprise 5 per cent of the workforce and can be found at every site; 50 people each year are joining graduate schemes and the volume and quality of applications has never been higher. Best of all, 78 per cent of employees who are undertaking a qualification – whether existing staff upskilling or new recruits – stay with the business each year, constituting a dramatic turnaround in retention. 

Smallbone is clear determination, above all else, has been the key factor in such promising metrics and in ensuring Mitchells & Butlers can set such a fine example in an era where the future of talent is troublingly opaque: “You have to be clear on the commercial reasons you’re doing something, because that’s why we’re here as a business. 

“You know it’s working and it’s worthwhile when you go out and talk to people. When you go into a pub and give someone a qualification and hear them talk about the career they’ve got now. We can see people progressing – and that’s why we do it.” 

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