Could hiring ex-offenders offer a solution to the recruitment crisis?
The stiff competition for talent that defined the recruitment landscape last year looks set to continue in 2023. According to the latest Office for National Statistics data, the number of unemployed people per vacancy currently stands at 1.1 – a figure that is currently very low by historical standards and indicative of a tight labour market.
Despite the recruitment challenges businesses face, they often overlook key sections of society. One demographic that remains underrepresented in the workforce is ex-convicts. It’s estimated that one in six people in the UK have a criminal conviction, with those previously incarcerated often finding it challenging to find employment.
Although figures are improving, just 12.7% of prisoners had found work within six weeks of their release from custody in the period January to March 2022. Only a fifth (19.8%) had found work six months post-release. This makes those with a criminal conviction one of the social groups that are least likely to be employed.
“Business leaders tend to underestimate how many people there are with prior convictions,” Business in the Community employment campaign manager Charlotte Gibb says. “It’s a very tight labour market at the moment and companies are struggling to recruit, but many are still choosing to shut out the nearly 12 million people who have criminal convictions in the UK.”
One key issue for former offenders is the stigma that comes from having a conviction. All too often, businesses dismiss them without even looking at their experience. Research from charity Working Chance found that 30% of employers still say they would automatically exclude a candidate who declared an unspent conviction, even though only 15% said it was their organisation’s policy to immediately reject such applicants, hinting at the prejudice people with criminal records still face.
There has been work to reduce this stigma. In 2013, Business in the Community launched its ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, encouraging employers to remove questions about prior convictions from the initial stages of their recruitment process. The charity believes that this tick box is often the first - and biggest - barrier for ex-offenders seeking employment. More than 150 businesses are now signed up to the scheme, including Boots, Accenture and Ricoh.
And there has been improvement. Some 45% of employers now say they would be open to recruiting a former offender, according to the Working Chance data, up from 25% in 2010.
Another area that requires work is preconceptions about those with convictions. Many people still falsely believe that all people with convictions have been in prison, while businesses often assume there is more risk associated with hiring an ex-offender, Gibb highlights. She argues that by taking a “ban-the-box approach”, hiring managers can make more informed decisions, based on conversations with the individual, rather than ruling these people out from the offset.
“Just because somebody has a criminal conviction, it doesn’t necessarily make them any more of a risk for your business than somebody who doesn’t,” she adds.
Jacob Hill is managing director of Offploy, an organisation that supports businesses in recruiting people with criminal convictions. He has noted a shift in thinking by businesses on this issue, “mainly being driven by a lack of labour”. However, he suggests there is also a growing interest from companies wanting to improve their social impact or support their local community. There can be business benefits too, with such initiatives often proving help in, for example, winning bids for government contracts.
“It’s great to see that employers are starting to think differently about how they approach these sensitive issues,” Hill says. “They’re looking at how welcoming their culture is towards hiring people with convictions and giving them a voice in their organisation, as well as a right to anonymity.”
How businesses are helping people with convictions get back into work
One company that has made a concerted effort to hire ex-offenders is frozen ready meal business Cook. The company has recruited more than 150 prison leavers through a programme first introduced in 2012 after its realisation that there were three large prisons close by and very few firms willing to hire people who had been inmates.
“We had open positions and a culture that was very supportive, so the idea was that if you could put them together, then it’s a win-win,” says Co-CEO Rosie Brown.
Brown admits the process to hire those with a criminal record, particularly if they have been to prison, is not easy and that employers need to understand that they will often be dealing with individuals who “come from chaotic backgrounds” and have experienced “the trauma of prison”. She adds: “It takes real commitment but it’s absolutely the right thing to do for society, for business and for individuals.”
London-based caterer Social Pantry is another firm hiring from this talent pool. It aims for 10% of it workforce to be ex-offenders, with founder Alex Head conceiving the plan after taking part in a charity mentoring scheme with a local prison. The company works alongside ex-offender charities such as Only a Pavement Away and Key for Life, which Head says are critical for providing employers with additional support, particularly when making their first hires.
A journey from jail to entrepreneur
Jacob Hill was not your typical criminal. By the time he was 20, the son of two police officers had founded a successful startup selling camping equipment. It secured £300,000 in investment and had the backing of Sir Richard Branson.
“I thought I was the bee’s knees, I thought nothing could touch me,” Hill recalls.
However, after the business went into debt and the investor backed out, Hill says he “made a ridiculous decision” to start selling drugs to repay the money it owed.
Hill was caught and sentenced to 28 months, serving nine-and-a-half of those in custody. Although he had many preconceptions about what prison would be like, Hill says: “When I got there, what I found was a heck of a lot of vulnerable adults.”
The time inside inspired Hill to use his entrepreneurial talents “for the betterment of as many people as possible”. It was while in custody that the initial idea of creating an organisation to help people with convictions find employment first formed.
“I started Offploy with the hope that I could advocate for people with convictions, be part of their support network and help them maximise their life’s potential,” he says.
Since founding the social enterprise in 2016, Offploy has mentored more than 3,000 people and helped hundreds of ex-offenders find secure employment.
“Charities can offer employers a sounding board and answer any questions or concerns they may have,” Head says. “The charity might have connections with the ex-offender’s family, which can be a key part of getting the individual into work and holding down a job.”
It’s also important for businesses to be aware of the additional challenges that people may face when exiting the prison system. “When you leave prison, your life is chaotic and tumultuous,” Hill says. People can face difficulties finding stable accommodation, opening a bank account or getting their benefits paid, while being on a tag can limit the hours they can work. Debt, mental health and drug issues only amplify these problems,” he adds.
However, Hill maintains that one of the biggest challenges ex-offenders face is having to disclose their offence to absolute strangers over and over again. “I don’t think we need employers to be particularly forgiving or over-accommodating to people with prior offences,” he says. “We just need employers to think about whether asking the question is appropriate and what they’re doing with that data.”
Having empathy and understanding for what the individual may have been through is also important. Social Pantry has found that taking members of the business into a prison has been “really beneficial”. “If you can really understand the environment, it contributes to a more successful employment,” Head says.
Overcoming the stigma around ex-offenders
Both Cook and Social Pantry believe that employers have a lot to gain from opening their doors to ex-convicts, regardless of the sector their company operates in. “Where workforces are slightly depleted, businesses are having to get more creative with where they find brilliant talent and pursue different methods of employment,” Social Pantry’s Head says. “Just because they’ve spent time in prison doesn’t mean a person wouldn’t make an excellent employee.”
In fact, Head claims that many have prior skills that are well-suited to the corporate world, if employers can open their minds a little. “You can find very good businesspeople,” she says. “For example, drug dealing may be what put someone behind bars but there are transferable skills in there, when you look at it blankly.”
Gibb also claims that employees with prior criminal convictions tend to have better retention rates than other members of staff.
It can also improve customer perceptions. Some 81% of people think that businesses employing ex-offenders are making a positive contribution to society and three-quarters would be comfortable buying from a business that employs ex-offenders.
But while the data suggests consumers are generally onside, it can be harder to persuade current staff to work alongside people who have convictions. Brown says that many of her staff saw her as “some middle-class do-gooder” when she first suggested the recruitment scheme and was met with questions such as “why are you expecting me to work alongside people who have been in prison?” and “why aren’t these jobs being offered to other people who are struggling to find employment?”
Although there was some initial scepticism, the programme now has broad support across the business and has had a positive impact on the company. Co-CEO Ed Perry says: “When people come face-to-face with people who’ve been in prisons, they soon realise they have much more in common than portrayals in the media would have them believe. It’s made everyone a bit kinder and more compassionate and that’s been great for the business.”
Cook is now using its experience to help other businesses start their own schemes. “The more we can help to break down the barriers and show other people how to do it, the better,” Brown adds. “It’s not easy but I believe that everyone deserves a second chance and a job can be life changing for people.”