Kirstie Brewer: After the crime: why employers should give ex-offenders a working chance

By Kirstie Brewer

hen Michaela was 19 she got into a fight in a nightclub with a stranger and was handed a four-year prison sentence for GBH. “It was a 30-second mistake I’ll always regret,” says Michaela, who spent two years behind bars and another two on licence.

Now 26, she was released from prison almost four years ago and has found applying for jobs a stressful ordeal, despite doing everything she could to rehabilitate and make herself employable.

She isn’t the only one – only around a quarter (26.5%) of prisoners enter employment after release, according to government figures. The criminal record tick box, often used on mainstream application forms, can automatically filter ex-offenders out of jobs, condemning them to unemployment.

A YouGov survey [pdf] commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2016 found that 50% of employers would not consider employing an ex-offender, regardless of the offence or sentence received.

“Employers have a negative picture of what they think of as an ex-offender,” says Dominic Headley, a legal officer at Nacro, a social justice charity that supports people with criminal convictions and offers a free helpline to employers seeking advice on how to deal with employees and criminal records.

“There is a perception among employers that [people with a criminal conviction] won’t be highly skilled and that they won’t be reliable,” he says. “They also worry about the insurance risks and their reputation – what if staff and customers aren’t happy about working with an ex-offender?”

More than 11 million people in the UK have a criminal record – an increase of 1.1 million over the past two years, according to government figures obtained by Nacro. But it would be wrong to conflate criminal records with prison sentences – just under 40% of convictions are for motoring offences, such as speeding or not paying parking tickets.

While the stigma of having a criminal record continues to freeze ex-offenders out of the workplace, the number of unfilled job vacancies is now the highest since comparable records began in 2001, with shortfalls in industries such as textiles, construction and health and social care, to name a few.

Employers that partner with Nacro and employ former offenders have positive feedback about their strong work ethic and commitment, according to Headley. “Employers say ex-offenders are loyal – people with a criminal record are more likely to stick with a job because they know how difficult it was to find that job in the first place,” he says. “They will have gone through rejection and the worry over how they will be received in the workplace by colleagues and so on.”

Ban the box

Nacro would like to see employers wake up to the idea that these 11 million people are part of the solution to a shortage in skilled staff. With Brexit bringing uncertainty, the charity believes it is the time to invest in home-grown talent from all walks of life.

Nacro is working with The Exceptionals, a social change campaign group that offers a one-stop directory for businesses looking to employ ex-offenders. “We want to show employers that this is not only good for society, it is also good for business,” says Adriana Paice, director of the initiative.

Both organisations support Ban the Box – a campaign calling on UK employers to give former offenders a fair chance to apply for jobs by taking the tick box out of application forms and asking about criminal convictions later on in the recruitment process.

“People are written off straight away or employers often have no process in place for what to do if someone ticks the [criminal record] box, which can lead to painful conversations,” says Headley.

This is what happened to Michaela. A recruitment agency put her forward for a credit controller role because of her strong customer service credentials – while in prison, Michaela secured day release to work at a cobbler and key-cutting firm. She would travel for three hours to get there and held on to the job when she left prison, eventually becoming a store manager.

Impressed by her interview and the job shadowing she was asked to do, the company made her a verbal job offer. But an hour before the job interview, Michaela was hastily handed some paperwork. One of the questions was: do you have any unspent criminal convictions? She ticked the box and once they found out, the company was swift to cut all communication, revoking the job offer without any explanation.

“I was honest on my application and got punished for it,” she says. “The way I was treated made me feel self-conscious and low; I’d told close friends and family, and even gone out and spent some money on office clothes because I was made to believe the written confirmation was just a formality.” Michaela might have been a teenager when she was arrested, but she will be 31 before her conviction is spent; until then she faces going through this process again and again.

Of course, there are some jobs that aren’t suitable for people with particular prior convictions, but this needs to be made clear from the beginning to spare candidates getting their hopes up and wasting time, says Headley. “[And for all other cases] we would like to see ex-offenders given the opportunity to write a statement disclosing what happened, rather than just a box or a few lines,” he adds. “This will give some context. Interview situations are nerve-racking enough and people struggle to articulate what happened, things get lost in translation.”

People with a criminal conviction can face outright bigotry when trying to find work, says Jocelyn Hillman, founder of Working Chance, the UK’s only recruitment consultancy for women with criminal convictions.

“I’ve heard employers ask – ‘Do we have to hide our handbags if we employ someone with a criminal record?’ Or they hide behind supposed regulations,” she says. “The women aren’t the problem, it’s the employers.”

According to the Prison Reform Trust, the chances of finding work after prison are slimmer for women, with fewer than one in 10 having a job to go to [pdf] when they get out. Working Chance was launched about nine years ago and Hillman has seen an improvement in attitudes since then.

“Women who have been through the criminal justice system are highly resilient – they don’t want charity, they just want to be treated like everybody else,” she says.

Photo credit @Antonio Olmos for the Observer

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