How hiring ex-offenders can be beneficial for your startup

While many entrepreneurs might harbour reservations against hiring ex-offenders, they’re indeed missing out on a potential skilful workforce

How hiring ex-offenders can be beneficial for your startup

Second chances to restart one’s career after committing a crime are few and far between. But of those who do get lucky, most inevitably prefer to capitalise on the opportunity and aim to change their lives for the better. And to ensure they get this prospect, head honchos must encourage the recruitment of ex-offenders in their companies. 

One such entrepreneur is Josh Babarinde, founder of Cracked It, the phone repair company, who staffed his firm wholly with ex-offenders after he realised the benefits of doing so. “It started from a place of supporting them away from crime,” he says. “What we know is employment is one of the single most effective means of reducing someone’s desire to commit crime.” The figures have proven as much. A report by the Office for National Statistics revealed that employment was a major factor in reducing crimes and ex-offenders finding a job were 9% less likely to reoffend. This is why the government has been increasingly willing to help those with a criminal past to get their life back on track. In May 2018, justice secretary David Gauke introduced the Education and Employment Strategy to make it easier for ex-prisoners to hone employable skills and hence reduce reoffending. And since, more than 120 businesses have signed up to work with prisons. “The reason can be attributed to a number of organic incentives that encourage employees to comply with pro-social values,” Babarinde says. “So things like sensitive communication, negotiation, teamwork – these are all things that you have to practice in the workplace to get paid so it’s a perfect way of fostering people who have offended in the past.” The benefits aren’t limited to being a good cause for the community.

Apart from fulfilling a business’ social responsibility, hiring ex-offenders can make all the difference as it opens a new avenue for employers. Given more than 11 million people in the UK have a criminal record, according to Nacro, the social justice charity, it’s a rather huge talent resource which business bosses must look into. Babarinde believes from exceptional skills to the desire to prove their worth, ex-offenders in fact have commendable work ethic when they’re in a professional environment. “For many of these individuals, once they actually get an opportunity, once an employer says ‘you know what let’s give you a second chance,’ a proportionate amount of these young people are determined they don’t make a mistake again,” he argues. “They’re extremely loyal and hardworking because they know this might be their last shot.” And Babarinde isn’t alone in this mission. Big businesses like Marks and Spencer, Halfords and Virgin Trains have utilised the talent of ex-offenders by recruiting them. “It’s a [win-win] relationship.” Babarinde declares.

Additionally, in the course of committing crimes, they’ve undeniably had to practice numerous abilities that may not seem obvious at first glance. “For instance, as a drug dealer, you need a vast array of skills ñ building up a network of potential clients, keeping those clients happy, financial management [and] customer service skills,” Babarinde argues. “They might have developed these skills through illegitimate means but my goodness if we can harness those skills and direct them towards supporting the achievement of our commercial operations, that has benefits for both employers and ex-offenders.” And it’s easy to see how many ex-offenders today have continued to serve as stool pigeons or have become poachers turned gamekeepers. Just like Frank Abagnale, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, who has gone from con artist to security consultant.

Consequently, ex-offenders have been responsible for Babarinde’s booming business. “[It] has opened up many opportunities that wouldn’t have happened were we a standard business that had no special commitment to employing ex-offenders,” he opines. “For example, we have an arrangement with the Ministry of Justice where we go in and fix staff member’s phones and that’s an extraordinary opportunity for us on a commercial basis and the key thing that got us in the door is because we employ ex-offenders.” And research by Office for National Statistics said, a further 92% of inclusive company heads admitted to seeing an upward curve and scoring new contracts after they hired ex-offenders.

However, while there are entrepreneurs like Babarinde making an impact, many prefer not to take this route. The criminal record tick-box, often used on application forms, automatically freezes a majority of ex-offenders out of the workplace. And as a result, only around a quarter of prisoners get employment after release, according to government figures. The stigma of a criminal past is seen by employees too. For instance, Richard Cowlishaw, HR director at Clipper Logistics, the logistics firm, faced challenges from within his company when he proposed the idea of hiring ex-offenders in the warehouses. “There was some scepticism and nervousness at the board level,” he recalls. “In the early days it was the thinking ‘Is this a good idea, can we really afford to take that risk?’ The way I overcame that was saying ‘Firstly, we know what they’ve done and they’ve been punished for that crime. Secondly, they’re being monitored to keep their noses clean. Thirdly, we’ve put a lot of people in our organisation, some of whom will be, on a daily basis, committing offences or breaking the law and we won’t know about those people.'” Now, having employed 50 ex-offenders already, he’s on a crusade to double that number soon.

The main step Cowlishaw took was to ensure all the ex-offenders employed in his warehouses were given support and training by Tempus Novo, the charity aid for prisoners’ employment, for six to 12 months. This gave him the confidence that they were ready to transition to the working life ñ a task which wasn’t on their to-do list when they were in the clink. From support with financial management to mental health, it’s essential for employers to invest in their overall wellbeing. “I wouldn’t recommend any employer engage in the recruitment of ex-offenders without a support mechanism like Tempus Novo – it’s a key ingredient,” he says. He advises that hesitant companies must “take that leap of faith” and see for themselves. “[Entrepreneurs] have got to speak to employers like me to understand it to get my experience of employing ex-offenders and they’ve absolutely got to try to make sure it works in their organisation,” Cowlishaw adds. “Once the trial is successful they’ll have no hesitation.”

If an employer is still wary they must make themselves aware of the law. It’s unlawful under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 to refuse to employ an individual with a spent conviction. And furthermore, job hunters who’ve had a brush with the law needn’t disclose this information when asked during an interview. “If an employer discovers that an employee has an unspent conviction, their dismissal may be fair but employers must remember that the usual rules of dismissal will apply,” says Michelle Tudor, an employment lawyer at Barlow Robbins, the law firm. “The employer must establish whether the unspent conviction gives rise to a potentially fair reason for dismissal and follow a fair dismissal procedure.” Additionally, if companies do hire ex-offenders, they must be aware of the laws surrounding the industry they’re in. “There are some sectors with sector-specific legislation and guidance where having a criminal conviction may be taken into account when assessing an individual’s fitness for work, such as financial services, law and accountancy or working with children or vulnerable adults,” Tudor continues.

Apart from these precautions, there exists a real opportunity to tap into a skilful workforce for employers. And for the sake of society at large, employing ex-offenders may be the best opportunity to significantly disrupt recidivism. “There’s a huge investment to make but there’s also a huge return and what it takes are employers who are forward thinking and bold about their different means of staffing their operation,” Babarinde concludes.

Varsha Saraogi
Varsha Saraogi

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