Hiring people from disadvantaged groups is not only “ethically right” but benefits business, according to the HR director of Marks and Spencer.

Speaking at the Talent Pipeline Conference, organised by the Employers Forum on Age and Employers Forum on Belief, Tanith Dodge outlined how the retailer encouraged a workforce diverse in age, and was working with the third sector to deliver development programmes for ex-offenders, homeless people and school leavers.

“We find our work is helping people that are more disadvantaged and have difficulty finding employment, and we do it because we believe that morally and ethically it is the right thing to do”, Dodge told the delegates in London.

CIPD research from last December found that less than a quarter of employers hired staff from disadvantaged groups, including young people with few qualifications, the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders and older workers.

“One of the challenges is to overcome a lot of people’s preconceived ideas and perceptions,” Dodge added.

Seven years ago the company launched its “Marks & Start” programme for homeless people, the conference heard, which is designed to boost the employability of people seeking to re-join the labour market by building their confidence, motivation and communication skills.

Dodge said that nearly 50 per cent of the 4,500 participants so far had gone on to enter employment – half with Marks & Spencer.

She also highlighted work the company had done with female ex-offenders, some of whom went on to become “very capable employees in our business”, and generally recorded lower levels of sickness absence than other sectors of the workforce.

Dodge also explained that while 20 per cent of M&S staff were aged between 16 and 24, the company had ceased to operate the default retirement age in 2001.

Older employees “role-modelled and mentored” younger members of staff, said Dodge, “and bridging that gap is a real business benefit.” A “buddy” scheme for new joiners had also enhanced engagement levels among recruits and the long-serving staff who help trained them, she added.

Dodge said that the company’s approach was a central part of its corporate social responsibility strategy, and called on other employers at the conference to consider recruiting people from disadvantaged groups who would otherwise be reliant on state benefits.