The Hidden Workforce
The UK is in the throes of a workforce crisis. However, there is an under-utilised talent pool crying out for gainful employment. To utilise it, employers need to shift their perspective and understand there may be some short term additional needs to address but the long-term rewards far outweigh any adjustments that may need to be made.
This workforce is comprised of offenders. A lack of knowledge and accessible information can lead employers to avoid hiring those with criminal convictions and also deter potential candidates because they fear discrimination. This article aims to bridge the knowledge gap, help with recruitment needs, support those trying to break the cycle of offending behaviour and put the past behind them. After all, your golden employee could be in custody serving a prison sentence, be reintegrating into society having recently left custody or have a historic conviction.
Methods of Recruitment
There are two avenues for recruiting: whilst still in prison or upon release. Whilst still in prison, organisations can use the ROTL [release on temporary licence] process to recruit and train individuals ready for their release. During the day, the offender attends work and they return to prison in the evening. To take part in ROTL, the person has been risk assessed and deemed trustworthy by the Ministry of Justice.
ROTL is part of the resettlement process. It helps build confidence and prepare the person for their release date. Work placements offer the chance to save a deposit for accommodation and pay taxes to repay their debt to society. Often, if the offender has taken part in a ROTL programme, they leave prison with a confirmed job or at least a reference to take with them. Having a safe place to stay and employment provides a solid foundation to rebuild their future, and it significantly reduces re-offending.
Once released, ex-offenders may be under licence conditions, but they can apply for jobs like any other candidate. Recruitment apps like Imployable or work programmes facilitated by Belina GRoW can help nervous applicants find approachable employers.
Criminal Records are a Barrier to Employment
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act  protects the public. It ensures that, when relevant, offenders must disclose their criminal convictions to employers. The time of disclosure depends on the offence and the length of the sentence. Once the disclosure period has moved from ‘unspent’ [legally required to disclose] to ‘spent’, they consider the individual to have been rehabilitated and they no longer need to disclose. Certain offences will always need to be declared when applying for certain roles: working with vulnerable adults, with children or for roles involved in criminal justice.
Upon release, offenders are under the National Probation Service and have to abide by their licence conditions. All offenders know the disclosure stipulations and prepare to discuss it in an interview. Offenders who are genuinely trying to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society can be an asset to a company but attitudes towards resettlement can stand in the way. Compassion goes a long way. It is an opportunity to employ your ideal candidate and for them to find gainful employment but the impact that disclosure can have on the job applicant gets neglected. The distress it causes and continual rejections can make people ill and cause them to give up trying to break the cycle of offending.
Job interviews are stressful. Candidates are there to promote themselves and their skills to show their suitability for a role. The dichotomy of then disclosing your deepest shame and biggest mistake is like self-sabotage. There is no issue with transparency but ‘the question’ is like a bomb waiting to explode and distracts you throughout the interview. When it comes around, recruiters are judging your explanation – assessing your body language and tone. Often it can seem like there is no ‘right way’ to talk about something so personal.
Sharing your conviction and the events that led to it can be traumatic. If you come across in a manner that they do not agree with or understand, it is detrimental to your interview. For instance, if you are too passive, then you are flippant; non-emotional you don’t care; defensive, you’re aggressive and therefore haven’t changed. It is a minefield and a true judgement of character, one that the candidate may have spent a long time addressing.
Organisations do not have the right to know if a candidate has a criminal record if it is ‘spent’ and it is not a protected role. It had become common practice to ask someone to disclose spent convictions or to offer an unpaid trial period to assess ‘trustworthiness’ or ‘risk’. It is exploitative to expect someone to work for free when they are seeking paid employment and it deters capable candidates from applying for roles they could have excelled in.
Please do not forget, candidates are assessing your organisation too. Empathy and professionalism are crucial. Bad practice reflects poorly on all parties.
Ban the Box Campaign
To combat this, multiple organisations have joined the “Ban the Box” campaign after reviewing the job application process and how disclosure can deter applicants from applying.
Ban the Box calls on UK employers to create a fair opportunity for people with convictions to compete for jobs by removing the tick box from application forms and asking about criminal convictions later in the recruitment process. recruit.unlock.org.uk
Victim Awareness & PR
A matter often raised is the ‘risk’ of employing an ex-offender. There are perceived PR problems about supporting the perpetrator of a crime over the victim. Employing an ex-offender who has completed their sentence, and therefore a Ministry of Justice approved sentence plan, means that you are providing a second chance to someone who has sought redemption and is trying to atone for their mistakes and rebuild their life. That does not take away from victims of crime or their experiences. Sometimes, it honours that process because it completes the process of crime, punishment and resettlement.
It is important to remember that if someone with a record declines your offer or uses their discretion when answering a question; they are implementing boundaries and showing emotional intelligence, both positive traits in an employee. As part of a sentence plan, every prisoner has to attend self-development courses in order to address attitudes towards crime and offending.
Thinking Outside the Box
Whilst serving my sentence, I worked as a Peer Support Worker in the Resettlement Department. One of my roles was as a Teaching Assistant for the “Work Skills Programme” preparing women for employment before their release. The programme covered confidence building, CV writing, interview skills and disclosure.
It was common to work with women caught in cycles of offending, some generational. Many had never had, or been allowed to have, meaningful employment before and felt defeated before they even began the programme. One of the deepest and challenging areas to cover was looking into skills and experience because it caused genuine distress. Often, it was the moment that triggered low self-esteem or cries of, “No one is ever going to employ me – I have nothing to offer. But I don’t want to do this anymore. I want a normal life.”
It was at this point that we would start thinking outside the box. This meant unpicking job advert jargon, job specifications, and matching transferrable skills. It could be tricky [but amusing] because it involved looking at the women’s criminal records and shifting the perspective to highlight the skills involved in their crimes and how they could apply to paid jobs instead of criminality. Showing them their ability to problem solve like that switched their attitudes from negative to hopeful. They were still dubious that anyone would give them a chance but it laid a firm foundation.
For instance, I did not meet a single offender who was not resourceful, resilient, or quick-witted. Many understood supply and demand, stock control and management, KPIs, health and safety, confidentiality, planning and implementation, time management and were excellent at marketing. As for working well under-pressure you couldn’t meet a talent pool better suited. They just didn’t know what those terms meant and may not have expressed themselves as eloquently. Their loyalty was bone deep, and all they wanted was a chance to prove themselves so they could get on the right path and rebuild their lives for themselves and their families.
Disclosure gives an advantage
With a shift in perspective, disclosure can be a benefit to employers on multiple fronts and an advantage to the applicant. Often, personality traits get masked until an employee has been in place for some time. This offers an early insight. Instead of finding a role that does not ask about a criminal record, they have chosen the harder route. That one choice shows strength of character, willingness to accept responsibility for mistakes, knowledge of legal guidelines and ability to follow procedures. The ex-offender shows mutual respect by trusting the organisation with sensitive information before the company offers anything in return. Ex-offenders have to look you in the eye as they answer questions of your choosing about something personal and discriminatory, thinking on their feet and responding appropriately. That shows professionalism, integrity and courage.
If you take a chance on an ex-offender, they will remain loyal and never forget your kindness. They possess staggering skills and creativity, and their self-awareness can be an asset to any organisation. Often, they are diamonds in the rough who need a little extra encouragement, reassurance and confidence but will try anything, work hard and prove themselves.
Blotted Blog is a platform designed to remove the barriers to resettlement. Anna Taylor draws on her own experiences of the criminal justice system to challenge misconceptions about offending behaviour, educate society to encourage second chances and petition for the consistent implementation of the ‘Resettlement Pathways’. The long-term goal is to dismantle ‘the revolving door’ of offending behaviour because no-one will feel desperate enough to commit crime.