Robert Jeffery looks beneath the glossy wrapper of the confectionery giant to find out why it deserves the accolade of ‘Best ever company for HR’

You could live a more than pleasant existence if you were so determinedly ethical in your thinking that you only purchased products from companies in People Management’s ‘Best Organisations For HR’ list.

After driving home in your Ford Focus (filled at Shell) you could unwind with a luxuriating soak in Boots bubble bath, unpack your M&S shopping, pour yourself a Bailey’s (made by Diageo, of course) and sink your teeth into one of those really massive bars of Dairy Milk the Department of Health is probably drafting urgent legislation to ban as we speak.

Cadbury no longer claims, as it did 100 years ago, that munching chocolate is conducive to our wellbeing. But, despite the Kraft takeover and the severing of links with its founding family, its present practices as well as its history make it a deserved winner of our all-time accolade. And here are just a few reasons why:

The power of humility 

Cadbury never fostered the them-and-us culture prevalent in many corporate hierarchies.

Richard and George Cadbury, brothers and bosses in the late 19th century, would walk the floor each morning and join employees for a game of football after work. Richard had worked in the firm’s roasting room, so he would “know the smell” of chocolate before he entered the executive ranks.

But the purple velvet glove came with an iron fist, notes Carl Chinn, author of The Cadbury Story: “There were firm rules concerning lateness, stealing, inferior work, wasting materials and the eating of chocolate.”

It’s all about the benefits

A century ago, Cadbury’s average wage was 11 shillings rather than the local norm of 10. But such generosity has never explained employees’ remarkable loyalty: organisational psychology now accepts that pay rises boost engagement for a month, while benefits – not even the costly ones – last a working lifetime.

Cadbury’s annual gatherings for the workforce became the stuff of legend, while the Bourneville Youths Club that operated in the first half of the 20th century ran week-long trips to the seaside for younger staff that combined education with opportunities for carousing. The company has been consistently generous with holiday allowances: it offered half days on Saturdays long before they were fashionable, and adopted paid holidays before its competitors, eager to see “sun-tanned faces” returning to work. It had a central training department as early as 1906 to help staff brush up on their skills. And that’s without mentioning Bourneville, the “factory in a garden” which including allotments, sports facilities and fields.

Women are key to a happy workforce

The Cadbury family supported women’s charities in Birmingham right from the start, and the high proportion of female staff in its factories only grew during the wars. Its stance on equality in pay and conditions was groundbreaking at the time, save for one curiosity: George Cadbury was adamant women should leave work when they married (they were given a Bible and a carnation on the way out) because he wouldn’t “take mothers away from their homes and children.”

He also feared a trend for husbands to be “quite content to loaf about doing nothing, living on the wages of their wives…”

It’s good to talk

Long before consultation became a buzzword in employee relations, Cadbury was ahead of the pack. It set up men’s and women’s Suggestion Committees in 1902, whose first action was to put an end to 6am shifts (the move was “supported overwhelmingly”).

Diane Tomlinson, HR director of Mondelez (the Kraft-owned company that now contains Cadbury), says the tradition continues – clear annual priorities are set for each employee, and they enjoy personal development plans to chart their long-term progress and monthly one-to-ones with managers to discuss more immediate concerns.

Culture breeds contentment

Tomlinson says the Cadbury ethos will persist under Kraft’s ownership.

And Chris Bones, professor of creativity and leadership at Manchester Business School, says its history of integration suggests there is every reason to think she’s right: “Cadbury’s acquisition success rate was the reverse of most. Eighty per cent of its acquisitions met or beat business targets as opposed to only 20 per cent, which is the norm. One of the reasons for that was that one of the early tests Cadbury undertook was cultural fit.”