With research suggesting skills shortages in some sectors are at their highest level since 2008, an increasing number of employers are turning to ex-offenders as a source of labour. How do they overcome any preconceptions and challenges with recruiting those with convictions?
When Richard Cowlishaw was approached two years ago about whether he’d consider taking on an ex-offender, he admits that he took a sharp intake of breath. “I then posed the question to our board and they did the same,” remembers the group HR director for logistics company Clipper. “But then we decided that, as long as there was a robust process for recruiting people and we worked with someone who could guide and steer us, why not give it a go?”
The company started by taking on two ex-offenders as a trial at its Leeds site. Soon after the manager called back and asked for six more, and then another six more. Recruiting ex-offenders to work at Clipper’s warehouse facilities has proven so successful that there are now between 130 and 150 on the payroll.
Retention among the ex-offender workforce at Clipper is 92%, and managers get a buzz from playing a role in the employees’ rehabilitation, according to Cowlishaw.
According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice, only 17% of ex-offenders manage to get a job within a year of their release from prison. Yet those that do manage to secure a job are up to 9 percentage points less likely to reoffend. And in a jobs market where some sectors are reporting their highest level of skills shortages in more than a decade, tapping into ex-offenders as a source of talent could be part of the solution. “We work with leading businesses across a range of industries where there are proven employment shortages,” says Duncan O’Leary, CEO of New Futures Network, a government organisation that helps businesses make connections with prisons and develop employment opportunities.
The New Futures Network argues that there are tangible business benefits, too. As well as offering job-ready skills they have acquired while in prison, bringing in ex-offenders can reduce the overheads associated with hiring other candidates (the CIPD estimates that the cost of recruitment for a non-managerial candidate is around £2,000), and retention among ex-offenders tends to be higher because they become loyal employees, it says.
Facing the unknown
Clipper worked with Tempus Novo, a charity that supports prisoners to get into employment, which helped with some of the administration such as checking the recruits have somewhere to live and ironing any niggles out with line managers. Cowlishaw says there was some initial reticence from managers to employ ex-offenders, but this was through lack of knowledge more than anything else.
“It was an unknown situation,” he says. “Can we trust them? Can our retail customers trust them? So we asked [our retail customers] for their permission – every single customer said bring them in.” Managers have also been into prisons to speak to inmates about getting a job before they are released. Getting to know their situations first hand has helped managers to overcome any preconceptions they might have had about prisoners. The prisoners themselves receive training in the tasks they will perform in the warehouse and they’re paid while they’re trained. “Right from the outset we’re saying ‘we invest in you’,” adds Cowlishaw.
Scottish prisons to offer welfare support
Last month the Scottish Prison Service announced that it would trial measures for prisoners to access welfare payments and employment opportunities before their sentence is complete.
It said that Jobcentre staff would support prisoners to obtain identification documents, prepare their CVs and identify training, work experience and other employment support. Dedicated phone lines will support them to arrange Universal Credit payments for when they are released.
“Without access to work or money, some can feel pushed to re-offend, and this pilot aims to take prisoners out of the cycle of crime and get them into work. This has benefits for both them and the wider economy,” said Will Quince, minister for welfare delivery.
Clipper now also has a number of its logistics sites working with prisoners who are ‘released on temporary licence’ (ROTL). Last year, the government announced a change in the rules to allow prison governors more autonomy to grant prisoners ROTL so they can gain work experience and training while serving their sentence, increasing their chances of securing a job on release. Other companies employing prisoners on ROTL include hospitality business Greene King.
“This takes a level of commitment from managers because the people are coming to work here straight from prison, and returning after,” says Cowlishaw. But visiting prisons and getting to know the individuals themselves has reduced stigma, he argues. “Not all of these people are bad. They might be in there for a myriad of reasons and it’s often because they had the wrong start in life, or lacked role models.”
The number of employers opening their doors to ex-offenders and serving prisoners is growing. The MoJ estimates that there are more than 11,000 prisoners currently working either in prisons themselves or in businesses or government departments. And more than 135 employers have signed up to the ‘Ban the Box’ initiative through the charity Business in the Community, covering more than 910,000 roles.
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These employers have committed not to ask candidates about criminal convictions at the initial stage of a job application (often represented by a box they must tick, followed by supplying details of their convictions). BITC argues that asking this question upfront puts up a barrier to anyone with convictions, and urges employers to review their employment processes so that – if someone discloses a conviction later in the process – they are given the opportunity to explain the situation.
Jackie Sinclair, legal officer at Nacro, another charity that supports prisoners into work, says forcing individuals to disclose so early in the recruitment process can really damage their employment prospects. “Once they are in a position to start applying for work, many will then face repeated rejection from employers who do not want to take the risk of employing someone with a criminal record,” she says.
“Research tells us that at least 50% of employers would not consider an applicant with a criminal record and that many employers have (often misguided) perceptions that offenders do not have the required attributes to make them a valuable employee.”
Talking to prisoners and ex-offenders about disclosure has been an important element of printing company Ricoh’s experience. Ricoh has been committed to the Ban the Box campaign for five years and offers employability workshops to prisoners across a number of locations, as well as taking on a number of ex-offenders directly and in its supply chain.
“One of our concerns for [the prisoners] was disclosure. Sometimes it might be a case of only me, the manager and the individual knowing, so we’d have to discuss whether we told the team,” explains Rebekah Wallis, Ricoh’s director of people and corporate responsibility. “As with any change exercise, it is crucial to give managers the right knowledge and support. Myself and the CEO made ourselves available for any questions they might have.”
Sinclair argues that a decision to welcome applicants with an offending history should be shared among employees and key partners, and transparency maintained. “It is a good idea to communicate this to your employees (and sponsors, contractors and the like) and invite them to discuss any concerns they have so that they can be addressed,” she says.
Managers should also be braced to support with any practical challenges prisoners face upon completing their sentence, she adds: “Many will have lost their homes and built up debts; relationships may have broken down or become strained during incarceration, which means they may have a very limited support network,” she says.
“We know that lots of people leave prison without any form of ID, which can significantly delay any access to accommodation, benefit entitlement and employment. Most will struggle to access any type of insurance, including public liability insurance, which prevents them from becoming self-employed.”
Governance and risk management
Because Ricoh had decided to ‘ban the box’, Wallis felt there was little in terms of added burden in background screening compared with non-offender candidates. “Obviously in the background we have the appropriate governance and risk management in place, but other than that this does not change our vetting process in any way,” she says. “Lots of our employees work in schools or hospitals anyway so will go through a rigorous vetting process. Also, we know upfront the details of why the person was in prison and the governor sends us a report about their suitability for the job.”
The surprising impact of engaging with prisoners and ex-offenders for Ricoh has been with its existing workforce. Getting involved with the employability workshops in prisons is part of the company’s leadership training and Wallis believes it has really opened people’s minds to difference.
“This has made our leaders better,” she says. “They’re more likely to take someone on or give work to someone they might not have previously considered. They look at what people can do, they’re more accepting of co-workers and they’re more inclusive.” As well as the employability workshops, some employees spend time with prisoners on gardening or joinery programmes inside HMP Onley, near Rugby. “Fear comes from not knowing – getting to spend time with prison with inmates means they come back as complete advocates,” adds Wallis.
The corporate social responsibility aspect of its engagement with prisons has also been positive. The workshops offer inmates information about the job application process, discussions about disclosure and a mock interview where they get substantive feedback they might not typically receive. Some prisoners have been out of the job market for a long time, says Wallis. “Ninety-five per cent of these people feel like no one would employ them. Just going on the workshops challenges their whole world view, they change their behaviour once they’re back on the wing.”
Far from the outdated preconceptions of prisoners being untrustworthy and unreliable, many employers have gained access to skills and improved engagement through recruiting ex-offenders – and the whole workforce is reaping the benefits.
For more information and support and to register your interest in offender employment, visit https://offenderemployment.campaign.gov.uk/