Why employers should stop discriminating against ex-offenders

Edwina Hughes discusses Business in the Community’s campaign to “ban the box” that many ex-offenders are required to tick on application forms. Here, she explains the impact of the criminal record tick box and how employers that do not use it open up a wider pool of talent. Above: view the interactive video.

A tick box asking applicants about their criminal convictions is routinely present on job application forms, but the majority of employers do not appreciate its detrimental effect. Its presence alone can deter talented candidates with criminal convictions from applying. If ticked, it leads three-quarters of employers to discriminate against the candidate in question.

Employers might ask: “So what? It’s only a few people and it doesn’t affect me.” The reality is that this is not a niche issue. One-fifth of the UK population aged 10 and above has a criminal record, meaning that at any given time a huge number of people have to tick the box if asked – immediately stacking the odds of employment heavily against them.

Blocking those with convictions

It is in nobody’s interest to block people with criminal convictions from employment, for the following reasons:

  • Employment is one of the key contributors to healthy communities and a prosperous economy.
  • Taxpayers benefit if the cost of re-offending is driven down – it is estimated to cost the UK economy £11 billion per year.
  • Individuals diverted away from the trap of re-offending and into employment become positive contributors to their local area and the economy. In fact, they are up to 50% less likely to re-offend.
  • With so many people being excluded from work, employers are missing out on a wider talent pool.

As it stands, the tick box is a blunt instrument that blocks people from work without consideration of relevant skills, experience, abilities and motivation. It prevents employers from seeing beyond a conviction, and in doing so, may stop them finding best person for the job.

Business in the Community has launched “Ban the Box“, which asks all UK employers to remove the default tick box from application forms. Ban the Box simply asks employers to assess jobseekers on their skills and abilities first, moving disclosure further down the recruitment process. Alliance Boots has announced this week that it will adopt this policy.

Convictions are “unspent” for a certain number of years after the date of conviction. During this time, employers are entitled to ask and, if asked, individuals must tell them about these convictions. The length of time is dependent on the sentence that was given, whether that was a fine handed down in court, a community order or a prison sentence.

A broad spectrum of people will be ticking the box on an application form from the person who has received a £300 fine for a driving offence, who will have to tick the box for five years, to someone with a prison sentence of more than 2.5 years who has to tick the box for the rest of their life. The tick box is often used as a proxy for “bad employee”, without taking into account what a ticked box may mean.

We are not suggesting that any of the checks and processes legally required for “regulated roles”, such as jobs working with children or vulnerable adults, should be removed. For these jobs, employers have to complete a full criminal records check with the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), informing them of spent and unspent convictions. For the majority of roles, however, it is at the employers’ discretion what they ask and how they do it.

How can an employer encourage positive disclosure that does not discriminate?

The tick box, while commonplace, is not a legal requirement on application forms. Assessing candidate skills first is the employer’s choice, as is the decision as to when and how it asks for disclosure.

Whenever the employer asks about previous convictions, it should request positive disclosure, giving applicants the chance to explain how they have reformed and to explain or account for their criminal record. This could be by letter or at the interview. The candidate should be informed in advance to have the opportunity to prepare what can be a difficult, personal story to share, and it should be explained that the employer is asking to understand what has happened since, rather than to automatically exclude them from the role.

What to ask at the point of disclosure?

This is about making a fully informed decision, not issuing a blanket “no”. A good recruiter will seek to contextualise the offences by considering:

  • the number and type of offences as well as the age of the applicant when they committed these offences;
  • whether their offence(s) relate to the job;
  • can the person explain the offending behaviour;
  • how they’ve moved away from any previous criminal activity.

Recruitment is always a process of weighing up the information at hand. With the right policy and approach, employers can ensure they are taking on the right person.

A few years ago, Business in the Community supported a young man called Daley into employment. Daley is an ex-offender, who will have to declare his criminal record on application forms for the rest of his life, having served a number of prison sentences, including one of nearly three years. Daley is in employment now, but he worries about the impact of the upfront tick box on his future career. In his own words: “Any future employer can ask me if I have an unspent conviction and I have to tell them. That’s fair enough. The problem is that once an employer sees that tick box, lots of them are already ruling you out. What they don’t see is me, my new life, what I’ve done since I came out of prison and how I could be a great employee. The tick box is definitely a barrier for me to get to interview.”

All employers can take action and help deliver economic, community and social benefit. But this is not really about “doing good”. Businesses benefit from opening up their talent pool to dedicated, motivated and diverse potential employees, who genuinely want to move forward in their lives, put criminal activity behind them and contribute to society. Assessing these individuals on their skills and abilities over previous convictions is essential.

Edwina Hughes is campaign manager for reducing re-offending at Business in the Community

XpertHR resources
Employment law manual: Job applicants with convictionsCase study: How DHL Supply Chain works successfully with ex-offenders
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