Business management

Why retailers should give ex-offenders a chance

Employing people with criminal convictions could help to address retail’s labour shortage while boosting companies’ CSR credentials.

  • Timpson has famously been employing ex-offenders since 2002; other retailers to follow suit include Marks & Spencer, Greggs, Halfords, Boots and Sainsbury’s
  • But many businesses remain unconvinced, citing concerns about public image or the reliability of ex-offenders as employees
  • Campaigners argue that employing ex-offenders can bring real business benefits as well as boosting corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials

There are also concerns in the industry over Brexit’s impact on labour shortages, with EU nationals reported to make up around 6% of the sector’s workforce.

Dominic Headley, founder of Dominic Headley & Associates, a consultancy that helps businesses employ ex-offenders, believes people with convictions could help to fill this gap. “With more than 11 million people in the UK with a criminal conviction, why restrict your talent pool?” he says.

Some forward-thinking retailers are already doing just this. Shoe repair chain Timpson has been blazing a trail in this area since 2002 when CEO James Timpson visited a local prison and met a young man called Matt. Today Matt is a successful branch manager and approximately 10% of Timpson’s workforce is made up of people who have criminal convictions.

James Timpson says that employing ex-offenders is now just a normal part of running a business: “I’m a commercial person. I want the best people I can find in the company and there are lots of them in prison.” He admits that at the beginning some customers, and even some colleagues, were not comfortable with the idea of the company hiring people with criminal convictions. But because, generally, the people he hired were very good, they started to understand the commercial benefit of doing so.

“Customers come into our shops now more because of what we do than try to avoid us because of what we do. So, ironically, employing people from prisons in a business that cuts keys has become a commercial advantage,” he says.

Other retailers opening up their recruitment to ex-offenders include Marks & Spencer, Greggs, Halfords, Boots and Sainsbury’s. But many employers are still hesitant. A 2016 YouGov survey commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions found that 50% of businesses would not consider employing an offender or ex-offender. The research showed that while only 32% had concerns about ex-offenders’ skills and capability, 40% were worried about the public image of their business and 45% were concerned that ex-offenders would be unreliable.

Loyal workers with high retention rates

As well as representing a largely untapped talent pool, Headley says ex-offenders can make extremely loyal and hard-working employees.

“People with convictions don’t want to have to disclose it time and again to other employers. So when an individual is given an opportunity to work in a company, they are more loyal. This saves companies money on recruitment costs and keeps knowledge within the company,” says Headley.

Jessica Rose, campaigns manager at Business in the Community (BITC), agrees. She cites the example of bakery chain Greggs, where the average six-month retention rate for people with criminal convictions is around 80% compared with an industry average of 30%. She says that giving ex-offenders a chance is not just about corporate social responsibility (CSR); it can bring real business benefits.

Customers come into our shops now more because of what we do than try to avoid us because of what we do. So, ironically, employing people from prisons in a business that cuts keys has become a commercial advantage.

James Timpson
CEO, Timpson

“Employing ex-offenders should be part of any responsible business strategy, not only because it can help to bring down the £15bn annual cost of reoffending to society, but because it can help to diversify your talent pool, give you access to loyal workers with high retention rates and improve your reputation among commissioners and customers as a business that takes social responsibility seriously.”

But although many retailers are already doing great work in this area, not all want to shout about it. That’s what Adriana Paice, director of campaign group The Exceptionals, is trying to get more companies to do. She believes there’s a misconception that employing ex-offenders might negatively affect a company’s reputation when actually it can have a very positive impact. The Exceptionals aims to help businesses understand this potential and to assuage many of their fears.

“Although businesses are keen to think about employing ex-offenders, they are nervous about how to manage that process effectively and efficiently,” she says. “Our message to employers is very much to do this in partnership with a rehabilitation organisation [see contacts below] who understand the process, understand the candidates and can support businesses to get the right people.”

First steps

So what are the first steps businesses should take if they are thinking about hiring ex-offenders?

“The first thing I would say to a business is look within,” says Headley. “Do you have a policy or process that automatically excludes someone with a criminal record? If you still have a box on your application form saying you don’t take people with unspent convictions, you are already behind where you want to be. If you use a recruitment agency, what are their policies and processes?”

Rose agrees. In 2013 BITC launched its ‘Ban the Box’ campaign calling on UK employers to give ex-offenders a fair chance to compete for jobs by removing the criminal records tick box from application forms.

“It’s about opening up your mainstream recruitment processes to be accessible to people with criminal convictions,” says Rose. “The tick box puts candidates in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. They think that if they tick the box they’ll be thrown on the scrapheap and if they don’t they could be found out later and lose their job anyway.”

Rose believes it makes more sense for employers to ask about criminal convictions later in the recruitment process in a way that gives the candidate an opportunity to explain the circumstances of their conviction.

The second step is to educate and engage staff about what an ex-offender is. According to Headley, many people from less privileged backgrounds, including care leavers and black, Asian and minority ethnic people, are disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system. “Many people who go on to commit criminal offences are known to have initially been victims, so we need to work with businesses to challenge the picture they may have built in their mind when we use the term ‘ex-offenders’,” says Headley.

Third, get advice and support. “Speak to other businesses in your sector who are doing it well to get an understanding of their experience (but not a blueprint of how they have done it),” says Headley.

Pilot projects are great when it comes to providing support and recruiting people from prison, says Headley. “You can get support from the prison service, the probation service, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions. There is a lot of support for employers to do it now.”

Useful contacts

The Ministry of Justice

Dominic Headley & Associates is a consultancy that helps businesses employ ex-offenders

Clean Sheet offers advice and support for people with convictions trying to find sustainable employment

The Exceptionals helps businesses employ ex-offenders by connecting them with organisations that provide training, recruitment and support

Nacro houses and supports vulnerable young people and adults

Working Chance is a recruitment consultancy for women leaving the criminal justice and care systems

Business in the Community was created 40 years ago by the Prince of Wales to promote responsible business

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