‘It’s a huge source of pride’: how companies are helping refugees into employment

People leaders from Pret A Manger, Marriott and Starbucks explain why hiring refugees is good for business and how more companies can help those fleeing conflict or persecution to find employment

Coffee Shop Worker

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK has more than doubled to 586,800 as of the end of 2023. While many employers have offered positions to those fleeing war and persecution, refugees remain at a disadvantage in the jobs market and are around 20% less likely to be in employment than the rest of the British population.

Addressing this imbalance can create a “win-win” situation for business, refugees and wider society. That’s according to Jen Stobart, director of Tent UK, a national chapter of The Tent Partnership for Refugees, the global business coalition committed to improving employment opportunities for refugees. With more than 900,000 vacancies in the UK labour market, Stobart believes there is a “huge opportunity” for companies to tap into this often overlooked pool of talent.

Tent’s research has shown that refugee hires can have a positive impact on customer loyalty, retention and talent attraction. But Stobart warns that businesses must look beyond traditional recruitment methods if they hope to hire refugees. She says: “Companies need to be intentional by reviewing their interviewing and onboarding process to ensure they’re levelling the playing field and giving refugees a fair chance.”

Pret A Manger, Marriott and Starbucks are members of the Tent UK coalition and have collectively recruited more than 7,400 refugees. For other companies looking to follow their lead, these three firms have some valuable advice.

Ed Evans 
Chief people officer, Pret A Manger 

Pret A Manager has been hiring refugees since 2008 as part of The Pret Foundation’s Rising Stars programme. What began as a simple desire to donate unsold food to those in need turned into our charitable arm, which now also helps refugees, those who are homeless and people with a criminal record to find work.

We set up an employment programme in response to the conflict in Ukraine in 2022 to support those fleeing the war. Since then, we’ve hired over 450 Ukrainian refugees which is a huge source of pride for people within the business.

Settling into a new country can be overwhelming for refugees. Many will have to learn a new language, find a job and a new home. They might not have access to transport, their CVs may be formatted differently or they may seem overqualified for the role being advertised. But none of these should be a reason for employers to discredit or disregard their applications.

Language is by far the biggest challenge

Language is by far the biggest challenge. Providing English tuition is important, but having a diverse workforce has also helped. Over 90 nationalities are represented within our workforce and many have helped our refugee hires to learn a new language on the job.

It’s important to make those barriers as easy to overcome as possible. It could be something small, such as providing visuals of what the job entails to accommodate candidates who don’t speak fluent English, or working with them to find a role they are well suited to. 

The refugees we have been lucky enough to work with are resilient, highly skilled and extremely loyal. More than half of those we recruited through the Ukrainian employment programme are still working at Pret A Manger today. Some have already been promoted to assistant manager roles and several are now team leaders. 

I encourage other companies to think about how refugees can add value to your business and tailor your support accordingly. It might not be a one-size-fits-all approach, so be prepared to personalise what you offer and be flexible.

Francisca Martinez 
CHRO EMEA, Marriott International 

Since 2022, Marriott has provided employment opportunities for over 1,400 refugees in dozens of our hotels across the UK, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France and Spain. 

Some of the biggest challenges that refugees face when seeking employment are knowing where to find jobs and then navigating the application process. This can be overwhelming, particularly when you consider the language barriers and the personal trauma and life challenges that refugees go through. In addition, some refugees may have never worked in the industry and may be unfamiliar with the roles that are available. 

Employers need to make the recruitment process as accessible and easy as possible; partnerships with organisations such as Tent can help in this regard. We have also been working with Indeed, which organises refugee recruitment fairs across Europe. These events offer refugees workshops on CV writing, information on childcare and advice on tax and labour rights, which all help ease the recruitment process.

It provides us access to a great talent pool of jobseekers

Employing refugees is a mutually beneficial effort. Our refugee recruitment programme provides us access to a great talent pool of jobseekers, who have a desire to learn, do good work and grow their careers. We have recruited housekeepers, porters, kitchen staff and front desk staff, along with many specialist roles including accountants, engineers and chefs.

These hiring experiences are having a positive impact on our company, our culture and our customers. It enhances the cultural competence and diversity within our hotels, creating a greater sense of community and boosting internal morale.

The biggest challenge we faced in the early stages of the programme was understanding how to recruit at speed and scale, as we didn’t have the systems in place to support this effort initially. We have learned a lot along the way and now take a more centralised approach to hiring and sharing knowledge and experience across our teams to avoid efforts being duplicated. 

The most important advice I can give when approaching refugee hiring is do it with sensitivity, empathy and a commitment to supporting the integration and success of your refugee employees over the long term. With 500,000 refugees in the UK alone, there’s a huge opportunity for businesses to step up.

Russell Butcher 
Director of strategic programmes and partner resource EMEA, Starbucks 

As of last year, we have directly hired more than 5,500 refugees, meaning we are past the halfway mark on delivering against our 2017 commitment to recruit 10,000 refugees. It is true that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted our ability to hire quickly, but our global scale and presence in several countries where refugees chose to resettle means there are many opportunities to help more people.

Finding a new job can be immensely challenging, even without the added complexities that come with building a new life in an unfamiliar place. Employers can play a crucial role in supporting refugees by creating more opportunities and supporting them through the employment process. 

We now have refugees hiring other refugees, which is truly amazing

Adapting recruitment processes, providing specific pre-employment training and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment are important places to start. I also recommend working with expert partners such as the Refugee Council UK and Tent, who have a deep understanding of the experience of refugees.

Refugees bring many of the attributes and skills we look for in an employee: a vast wealth of talent, knowledge and experience and a diverse perspective. Working with refugees has given us a new talent pipeline. Many employees who joined as baristas have now progressed to supervisor, store manager and head office positions. We now have refugees hiring other refugees, which is truly amazing. 

Once in employment, it’s important to provide refugees with in-work support. Employers should provide training and development opportunities to help equip them to succeed in their new roles. Providing peer-to-peer mentoring and regular check-ins, for example, has significantly improved retention of our refugee hires. 

It is also vital to train managers and raise awareness of important topics affecting refugees and their integration into workforce. Above all, employers must ensure refugees are treated as equals and valued members of the team.