Pride and prejudice in the workplace: recruiting ex-offenders

By Dianah Worman OBE, CIPD Diversity Adviser

Let’s think about trust

Building a working environment based on trust is critical to employee engagement and business performance.

Against the background of eroding trust in the workplace evidenced by recent CIPD researchorganisations have their work cut out to regain lost ground. They must focus on honesty and transparency as key values in order to create successful working environments that people want to be part of.

So what does this mean when it comes to offering jobs to qualified ex-offenders?

Simple. Employers want a workforce they can trust to be honest. And there is the first dilemma. Ex-offenders are seen as dishonest in some way having broken the law. The stereotypical perception employers have about ex-offenders is that employing them will be trouble and open up an organisation to problems and risks.

Let’s think about risk

The fear factor of opening up an organisation to risk is the second dilemma. It makes employers and those responsible for recruitment decisions risk averse. No one likes to be held to account for making a mistake.

But being risk averse regarding the employment of ex-offenders could be a big risk for employers. They evidenced that the war for talent continued during the recession and it is now set to escalate as the economy grows.  It is a huge risk for employers because a huge proportion of the labour market with talent and skill to offer them has a criminal conviction - 1 in 3 adult males of working age. This is a staggering number.

Clearly self imposed default positions by employers to screen out ex-offenders from job vacancies make no sense (unless there is a legal bar). Not only is it against employers’ best interests from a talent management perspective  but it flies in the face of the purpose of the social justice system which is designed to make offenders pay for their transgressions before they are released from prison.  

Without question ex-offenders are a valuable pool of talent. They have much to offer employers in terms of freshly updated skills and qualifications as well as training and being job -ready by the end of their sentence. So what will help more of them to get into jobs?

Let’s think triggering sustainable change  

In my view quick fixes won’t work. Making a difference is about changing employer mindsets and engaging their commitment. This takes time and needs to be a continuous process of awareness-raising about the business case facts and figures like the one I referred to earlier. It needs to be supported by accessible good practice guidance about spotting possible risks and introducing appropriate safeguards, testimonies from employers and offenders about the value they gain, tips about how to make things work and how to access information and help when needed.   

Let’s think about the advantages

Why am I so convinced employers should be positive rather than negative about employing ex-offenders?  When we surveyed them the overwhelming evidence was that doing so was successful, with very few reported problems. Ex-offenders were seen as valued and loyal employees.

So what about ‘Ban the box’?

In view of what I have said do I think BITC's Ban the box campaign is the way to go to help more ex-offenders get a job or not? I agree it sounds a good idea to check against automatic exclusion, but to be honest I am unsure whether it goes far enough in tackling the underlying reasons behind employer prejudice towards ex-offenders.

If employers are truly committed to being fair to ex-offenders and giving them a second chance, they need to put in the leg work to make sure their recruitment policies and practices are not intrinsically biased against them and are well designed and understood by the whole organisation - most importantly by those making recruitment and selection decisions.

Policies and practices need to be based on creating trust with potential future employees right from the start. This means clear public statements about the nature of the deal ex-offenders can expect being included in recruitment literature, as well as information about when and how convictions will be discussed and promises about how confidentiality will be maintained. In these circumstances Banning the box would be unnecessary.

Furthermore it is regarded as good practice by employers to ask job applicants to volunteer core personal identity information covered by legal protection on separate monitoring forms on the basis of a promise that such information will not be used in any selection decisions. It helps employers to check if they are attracting diverse applicants and treating them fairly. Information about criminal records could be included on monitoring forms.

However while monitoring forms are important to help employers check that their recruitment and selection processes are fair, they have to be underpinned by helping the game changers in recruitment and selection understand how they need to behave to make sure their decisions are not biased.

Experience shows that being authentic is vital to the progress of diversity and inclusion. We are learning all the time. There are no quick fixes.

As always, we'd be keen to hear your views on this topic.

For further information on employing ex-offenders, including best practice guidance and research reports, please click here.

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