Risks and Benefits of Employing Ex-Offenders

Chief Executive Godfrey Owen considers the challenging subject of employing people with an offending past. What do you do when you receive a job application from someone with a criminal conviction?

“I’d be mad to turn away profit because I don’t want to employ someone who happens to have been to prison for a bit of their life”, says James Timpson, chief executive of Timpson Ltd, who takes a very business approach to the recruitment of offenders.

The challenging subject of employing people with an offending past is relevant to all of us who recruit. What do you do when you receive a job application from someone with a criminal conviction?

The issues are threefold; what is an offender; what is the risk; what is the business benefit.

All three issues were addressed recently by Gouy Hamilton-Fisher, Director, Colleagues and Support for Timpson Ltd. Timpson’s strategy of recruiting from prisons have resulted in some 300 ex-prisoners as part of their 3,000 workforce. Timpsons state the policy is part of their successful business position in the high street. The risk is managed by robust and in some case innovative/unusual recruitment and HR approaches, and the benefits are increased loyalty from those to whom they have given an opportunity, recruiting from a talent pool that others do not currently fish in, and a social impact that has to be one the most impressive of all private businesses in the UK.

There are obviously risks, but which organisation is not used to managing risk? The change in mindset of business leaders and managers in an organisation would seem to be the biggest hurdle. Generalisation of the term ‘offender’ is really unhelpful. Many of us lack knowledge of criminality offences; what does it mean to be convicted of theft; is that different from burglary; what is our attitude to  dangerous driving; do you change your attitude when the dangerous driving was committed by a 21 year old man, rather than a 55 year old woman.

If recruiters want the best people in their organisation they need to look at the person, not the offence in isolation, and risk assess.  The campaign, Ban the Box – the box being a Yes/No question asking the applicant if they have a criminal conviction, which for many recruiters is a reason to add the CV to the ‘No’ pile has had some success in opening up opportunities for ex-offenders.

Finally, whatever the actual risks, what will people think; ‘people’ are customers and the media. Following one too many brickbats thrown by the tabloid newspapers, Timpsons decided to ignore what was said in the media, as they couldn’t win (although actually, their positive reputation in Government and on the High Street suggests they may well have won in the end). And customers? Many don’t know (after all none of the Timpsons colleagues have a badge indicating their past to customers) and those who do know probably don’t care. And given Timpsons know they are doing the right thing, they seem to think that those who do object can take their business elsewhere. But given Home Office figures state that 30% of men have a criminal conviction (not motoring) by the time they are 30 years old, maybe we are all need to think about employing some of the undoubted talent in that group.

Thanks to Knowledge Information & Skills Exchange, a network of organisations in Cumbria committed to supporting ex-offenders for organising a Roundtable, held at Brathay Hall between a group of Cumbrian employers, support organisations and academics.