Trish Hopkinson, senior HR business partner at DHL Supply Chain, tells Personnel Today about the challenges involved in devising a prisoner-employment scheme.
More employers should consider employing ex-offenders, according to justice secretary Ken Clarke, who is trying to boost rehabilitation of former prisoners by helping them to gain employment.
Clarke has also said that he eventually wants to see businesses manufacturing and providing services from prisons on a commercial basis.
At a Downing Street reception later this month, Clarke will outline why organisations should think again when it comes to ex-offenders. DHL, the logistics and courier company, is one of the employers that will be attending, but working with ex-offenders is not new to the employer.
Part of the company, DHL Supply Chain, already works in prisons. In 2008, it won a tender with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to supply and deliver canteen food to 80,000 inmates in 137 prisons across the UK.
Unique challenge for HR team
The contract came with a unique challenge for the HR team - they would have to recruit and train staff who could work effectively alongside workers sourced from the prison, some of whom had been convicted of serious crimes.
A team of 460 full- and part-time DHL staff worked on the contract, alongside 550 inmates, who provided operational support.
At the same time, the inmates - who worked with DHL employees in prison workshops - were given the chance to gain an NVQ in storage and distribution, and were given employment opportunities within the company.
Trish Hopkinson, senior HR business partner at DHL Supply Chain, explains the challenges her team faced: "The unique work environment required us to adapt our recruitment, selection and training process. Resourcing the contract and attracting people to work at the prison, alongside inmates, on a day-to-day basis, created some initial uncertainty as they were unfamiliar with the work environment.
"This was overcome by providing detailed information around the contract, insight into the prison environment and support from the HR team who were well briefed to discuss job opportunities with colleagues prior to their formally applying for the roles."
Key elements of raining and support
Training and support were key elements of the company's strategy to make sure that DHL staff could cope with the unusual environment, and, as a result of its efforts, DHL Supply Team won the Employee Engagement Award, sponsored by Harvey Nash, at the 2011 Personnel Today Awards.
DHL Supply Chain at the Personnel Today Awards.
A critical part of the process was educating DHL recruits about prisoners, dispelling the myths and stereotypes that surround them. All DHL employees working on the contract were required to attend prisoner-awareness training, delivered by professionals from the prison service.
Hopkinson comments: "Interestingly, no colleagues have refused to work with prisoners on the contract. Understandably, in the early days, a small number of colleagues were nervous about working directly with ex-offenders. This was managed through coaching and attendance on prisoner-awareness training."
To add to the challenge, the prison environment meant that technology could not be used to deliver training.
"Working in a prison environment, where laptops, mobile phones and overhead projectors are not allowed, required us to modify the training/support process. Instead, roadshows and training workshops were held regionally," Hopkinson says.
At these roadshows, staff would hear about the prisoners and the activities they undertook while in custody, and would listen to first-hand accounts from ex-offenders who wanted to turn their lives around after their release.
DHL also provided staff working on the contract with a confidential hotline that they could call in the event of any issues with prisoners, security staff or other employees.
According to Hopkinson, however, staff have barely needed to use this resource.
"Surprisingly, the helpline is used very little by colleagues on the contract," she says. "The strong communication link between colleagues, managers and the prison service means that any concerns are swiftly raised, dealt with and concluded."
Despite this, Hopkinson stresses that the helpline is deemed to be very important and will continue to be available regardless of how much, or little, it is used.
Support wasn't just provided to DHL recruits: the programme also offered training and employment opportunities to the ex-offenders who were involved.
NVQ in storage and distribution
In 2011, 137 inmates signed up to complete the NVQ in storage and distribution through their work with DHL and, in addition, 64 secured placements on the Release on Temporary Licence scheme within the wider DHL business.
In these placements, prisoners serving custodial sentences, who are deemed to be trustworthy and capable of working in the community, are offered the opportunity to work at a DHL site.
One concern raised in response to Clarke's efforts to get companies to employ more ex-offenders is that, with unemployment levels still high, they could be taking jobs away from non-offenders struggling to gain employment.
However, Hopkinson stresses that offenders are not given priority over regular applicants.
"A meeting will be facilitated with the site, where the offender will follow the relevant selection process and be treated in the same way as other candidates," she explains.
"The process is fully supported by the establishment, while the business provides valuable work experience, which requires a high level of motivation and commitment from the offender."
Breaking the cycle of crime
The company hopes, as does Clarke, that this kind of scheme will help ex-offenders to break the cycle of crime. Indeed, a number of those who have been through the programme, and have since been permanently released, are now employed full time within DHL.
At his Downing Street summit, Clarke will be calling on executives from up to 40 companies, including M&S, Virgin, Iceland and Co-op, to play their part in rehabilitating ex-offenders by offering them jobs after their release.
While working with prisoners and ex-offenders may seem like a high-risk strategy, if Clarke is successful in his campaign it may prove to be one that many more employers adopt.
The Personnel Today Awards 2012 are open for entries. View the categories, submit an entry or book your table for the night here.