Program Management

Overview of Employee Supports


Beyond offering employment to those with barriers to work, most social enterprises offer additional supports and services that help workers secure, succeed, and advance in employment and get on the pathway to self-sufficiency. These services are known as “employee supports” and can range from services such as soft-skills training, earnings supplements, and job placement services.

While often similar to those services offered by traditional nonprofits or social services, employee supports have the added dimension of delivering the service or support in the context of employment, versus in the context of someone of being a client of a social service agency. This presents both challenges and opportunities to employment social enterprises.

This learning guide, the first in a series on this topic, will outline why employee supports are a critical component of an effective social enterprise. We cover:

  • The need for employee supports
  • Type of employee supports offered by social enterprises
  • How employee supports differ from traditional social services
  • Key goals for employee supports

The need for employee supports

Employee supports serve both a mission and a business purpose. For your social enterprise to be successful in preparing its participants for long-term success in employment, it must deliver the wraparound supports that remove those barriers and build towards long term success. Additionally, in order for your social enterprise to be successful in the marketplace, your social enterprise requires productive and dependable employees. Building an effective employee supports program can allow your social enterprise to achieve both.

Employment social enterprises hire those with the highest barriers to employment. For many who are entering the workforce after a long time, or for the first time, the very nature of being at work can be overwhelming. This presents an additional set of challenges, on top of any other social service needs they may have. Additionally, traditional social service systems in this country are designed to support people who are out of work, so employment social enterprises are unique in that they need to figure out ways to deliver these services when somebody is also trying to hold down a job.

Types of employee supports

Moving towards self-sufficiency is a process, not a single event. This is why effective employee supports programming starts before the employment experience at the social enterprise and continues into the individual’s employment after the social enterprise.

Employee supports offered before employment at the social enterprise set the employee up for success while at the social enterprise, whereas supports offered during the social enterprise employment focuses on helping people be job ready and prepared to transition into the mainstream workforce. Employee supports offered post social enterprise employment help the employee achieve continued success in the workforce.

The illustration below outlines some key employee supports and where on this continuum they fall:

ESP LG 1 graphics

Key goals for employee supports

Through our work with social enterprises, REDF has identified more than 40 potential employee supports that can be offered. Employee supports can be assessed based on their effectiveness and relevance for your social enterprise’s target population, the availability of public resources that could support your social enterprise delivering them at scale, and any sort of regulatory barriers that might prevent implementation. In subsequent learning guides, we will review these in greater detail.

For now, it is worth noting that employee supports should align with and support key goals related to your social enterprise’s mission. In the table below, we outline some common goals and some example employee supports that help support the goal.


Example Employee Supports

 Help employees get and keep benefits and earnings
 Level the playing field
  • Barrier removal fund
  • Record expungement
  • Soft skills training
  • Funds for employment related expenses
 Connect to employment beyond the SE
  • Assisted job search
  • Quality job placement
  • Mock interviews by employers
  • Employer involvement in curriculum development
 Prevent backtracking
  • Retention case management
  • Worksite trouble-shooting
  • Relapsed avoidance planning
 Incentivize success
  • Retention incentives
  • Matched savings
  • Earnings supplements
 Build toward a better future
  • GED preparation
  • Educational degree
  • Recognized industry credential

Challenges and opportunities

As we covered earlier, the social enterprise context (already having a job) can be very different from the workforce development context (trying to get a job) and creates unique opportunities and challenges for supports. The context of employment changes the dynamic of the services and the discussions that the social enterprise is having with an individual. Previously theoretical discussions about getting work and how that is going to change that person’s life, are made real in the context of employment when that person is experiencing those opportunities and challenges in real time.

However, we must remember that social enterprises have the parallel priority of building a business that is sustainable over time, and that sustainability is dependent on a product or service being produced in a cost-effective way. This means there are more demands on employees’ time and social enterprises will need to think creatively about how to balance delivering employee supports alongside day-to-day operations.

Opportunities for integrating employee supports

Challenges for integrating employee supports

  • Context of paycheck “makes real” previously theoretical discussions
  • Experiential / contextualized learning
  • Earned income increases likelihood of eligibility for tax credits
  • Reinforcement of employee support personnel’s messages by supervisors
  • Sustainability is dependent upon product/service getting produced
  • Subject to employment laws (e.g., compensating for mandatory activities, risk of lawsuits, information sharing policies)
  • More demands on employees’ time

Designing and implementing an employee supports program

The process for designing an employee supports program for your social enterprise encompasses a number of steps, beginning with defining and prioritizing the goals and strategies specific to your social enterprise. Once you have done so, you can begin to determine the specific employee supports you can offer to achieve those goals and design a program structure that aligns with your social enterprise. This will provide you with the a roadmap for providing the supports and services needed to help your employees secure, succeed, and advance in employment outside of the social enterprise setting.

Once you have an employee supports plan in place, you can begin planning for implementation, first by understanding the current gap between existing capabilities and the resources that are needed. You can then develop an implementation plan for rolling out the new program and increasing resources over time as needed.

As with all components of your social enterprise, you will want to monitor and evaluate the success of your program, and respond to any shortcomings that may be identified.


Transition to work is a process, not an event. It takes time for individuals to get on the path towards self-sufficiency, especially for the populations that social enterprises employ. As a result, success is likely to demand multiple types of support. However, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and supports may need to vary by target population, organizational focus, social enterprise industry, and available resources.

In following learning guides, we will cover how to structure an employee supports program within your social enterprise and how to think about job readiness in the context of employee supports programming.

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Learning guide

Designing an Employee Supports Program: Goals and Strategies

Designing an employee supports program is a multi-phase process. In this learning guide, we cover the first two steps: defining your goals and strategies and configuring your support offerings.

Read learning guide >