Why should you employ former convicts?

Employing former prisoners has as many benefits for organisations and society as it does for the individual

The latest reality TV programme to hit our screens brings together six former prisoners – with convictions ranging from grievous bodily harm to burglary – to see whether they can successfully run a florists, aptly named A New Leaf.

But while many will see Channel Four’s Going Straight as just another fly-on-the wall novelty show, its central theme is an issue that HR practitioners should be taking seriously.

A report released last month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Employers and Offenders, called on businesses to take a closer look at the advantages of employing former prisoners. Not only do they represent a valuable talent pool, says the report, but gaining stable work is also the most important factor in preventing ex-prisoners from re-offending – a problem that currently costs the state £11bn a year.

“Employment has a major part to play in reducing re-offending,” says CIPD diversity adviser Dianah Worman. “Both the ex-offender and society are losing out because of current attitudes.”

Ignoring people with criminal convictions is now a luxury many companies cannot afford. According to the CIPD, 20 per cent of the UK’s working population is listed on the Home Office Offenders Index at a time when 85 per cent of employers report difficulties in recruiting people with certain skills and experience.

The message is clear – with the right training and a more proactive stance from employers, ex-prisoners can play an active role in the workforce.

Employment solution specialist, Phil Letts, believes ex-offenders tend to be model employees, as they are so keen to repay the faith an employer has shown in them.

Lett works for New Life, a recruitment agency specialising in helping ex-prisoners get back to work. He understands that many employers will have reservations about taking on someone with a criminal record, but says a knee-jerk refusal to even consider an ex-prisoner is nothing short of ill-informed prejudice.

“Most criminal records come from a bit of pushing and shoving outside a pub when people were young. HR professionals are very unlikely to find themselves sitting opposite an ex-murderer,” he says.

Lett points to further CIPD research that shows only 6 per cent of employers have reported problems after employing an ex-prisoner.

There are two pieces of legislation governing the recruitment of offenders in England and Wales. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 states that offenders applying for jobs do not have to disclose spent criminal convictions. And the Police Act 1997 provides for a basic disclosure system enabling employers to obtain criminal record information about all employees and volunteers, irrespective of whether the job involves working with vulnerable people.

However, Michael Ball, an employment lawyer at Halliwell Landau, says companies should operate a more open approach of self-disclosure, where applicants are asked to volunteer details of any criminal records at the start of the recruitment process.

Being honest upfront makes employees feel more secure, and enables employers to better manage any potential risks.

“For example, if the crime was theft, a job handling money may not be appropriate,” says Ball. “If a new employee has a conviction for violent behaviour, an employer may want to avoid placing them in a public facing role.”

Lett says former prisoners have forged successful careers in all sectors. “We have seen them go on to work in call centres, retail, clerical and building jobs – although I’ve yet to see an ex-prisoner become a lawyer,” he says.

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