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Star Interview: Kelly Dolphin, People and Culture Director, SBFM

27 June 2024

Kelly Dolphin explains to Amanda Vlietstra why SBFM's people programme, Evolve, has generated such an industry buzz.

ESG (environmental, social, governance) is a huge buzzword right now – but a 2023 survey by consulting company Vivid found that a shocking 43% of employees believe their employer’s environmental efforts to be ‘nothing more than a tick-box exercise’ with a third of those surveyed (33%) stating the same about social diversity and inclusion programmes. 

This was exactly what SBFM’s People and Culture Director, Kelly Dolphin, wanted to avoid when she set up Evolve, a programme designed specifically to support individuals who face barriers to work - such as ex-offenders, care leavers, refugees, people with disabilities, over-55s, and those experiencing homelessness – into employment. Crucially, Evolve offers those individuals the opportunity to improve their career development and increase their earning potential – even if that means them leaving the FM industry completely. 

“Evolve was the brainchild of myself and SBFM’s CEO Matt Chapman,” she says. “SBFM is privately-owned and we have a direct link with the founder and owner, Colin Shute, and he told us to go for it – so we did!” Indeed, helping ex-offenders into work is an issue that’s particularly close to the heart of Colin Shute; he is currently the chair of the Government’s Employment Advisory Board, a programme which links prison leavers with local employers who can offer their expertise on skills, qualifications and training.

Evolve is an extension of this, working with organisations such as the Timpson Foundation, New Futures Network, Ingeus and Shaw Trust to identify opportunities for disadvantaged individuals and recruit them into work. The recruits are given roles as cleaners with SBFM’s Evolve Partner sites, such as Pure Gym and DPD, and from there, are offered training and development to help them upskill. At Pure Gym, for example, they are offered the chance to train as personal trainers and move into the fitness industry.

Making a difference

Niall O’Neil is one of SBFM’s success stories; in and out of prison for 18 years, on his release in February 2023, he was able to turn his life around with the help of Evolve. He started work as a cleaner before moving onto the SBFM help desk. You can read his story on p15. 

“We made a video of Niall and that gets played in quite a lot of prisons in the UK now, and it's actually inspiring other people in the prison to realise that, actually, there’s more to life [than crime and prison] and that they can come out and do that as well,” Dolphin says. 

Niall’s experience was spoken about at the Workplace Futures Conference earlier this year. Given that ‘talent’ is a current preoccupation for the FM industry, it’s not surprising this has generated a lot of interest; while many employers are exploring different pipelines, there remains some – quite understandable - reluctance about recruiting from demographics such as ex-offenders. Indeed, only 17% of ex-offenders manage to get a job within a year of release from prison. Seeing a company like SBFM succeed in this field is something that’s bound to get employers interested.

However, Dolphin is keen to emphasise that Evolve isn’t just about recruiting ex-offenders. “In fact it’s an ED&I initiative for everyone, we want to attract people from all different demographics, no matter what background.”

Tailored programmes

What makes Evolve work, she says, is the effort put into each individual programme. Different groups of disadvantaged people face different challenges, meaning there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ template for Evolve. Instead, it’s tailored for each individual participant.

However, one aspect remains the same, and that’s building trust with the individual. “Not just the prison leavers, but from any background, they don’t always believe that they deserve a chance or that anybody will give them a chance because they think that there's something wrong with them or that they're not good enough and so on,” Dolphin explains. “It’s all about gaining their trust first.”

She says the key takeaway for SBFM has been the discovery that offering support is the most important part of the programme. “It's a truly bespoke programme for each person, and they get their own learning pathway,” she says. “They get a mentor, because what we’ve learned is that the most important part of [Evolve] is the pastoral support. That’s what they need – it’s not always necessarily the skills, it’s just the support and knowing that somebody cares and that you’ve got someone to turn to on the first day, or three weeks in.”

Pastoral care

“An issue that many care leavers and people in prison experience is they don't have that pastoral network in place,” she continues. “Most of us have got family that we can turn to, but that’s not necessarily the case for them. That's why they rely so heavily on the support that we can give. I don't think we quite realised this when we set out, but we've learned a lot of lessons along the way.”

There are currently 22 people on the Evolve committee, but the operational teams of their clients are also fully behind it, so SBFM has their support as well. This means, Dolphin says, that although Evolve is resource-heavy, “we’ve not had to say ‘no’ to anyone yet.”

1,870 people have been helped by Evolve so far – and Dolphin believes programmes like this could prove to be a significant talent pipeline for FM. “I don’t think people see the possibilities within FM unless you go out and market it to them. It’s such an amazing industry to work in and there are so many opportunities and people advance their careers at speed,” she says.

However, she stresses that Evolve’s primary function is its social value rather than its recruitment potential. “When we’re attracting people in, we hope they’ll stay with us, but we accept that they may want to move on. We accept there’s a limit on what we can offer,” she explains. “If you take the Pure Gym contract for example, there are 1,000 cleaners and 15 area managers – that’s only 15 opportunities for progression. So where can those people go? We don’t want them not coming into the industry because they think there’s no progression. That’s what Evolve does – it celebrates that attrition and helps them move onto better things.”

“The whole idea [for Evolve] came from raising people above the poverty line,” she adds. “We follow the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and number one is ‘no poverty’. We can’t always offer higher salaries, higher wages or more hours, because that's dictated to us by the clients, but if we can develop them and progress them, maybe they can move into a better-paid job with the client.”

, Shute and Chapman are thrilled with the success of the programme so far. “We didn’t do this as a box-ticking exercise or for likes on social media,” she states. “We’re surprised and delighted that it’s gained so much momentum, and we hope to be able to help a lot more people.”

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