Why wouldn't you employ an ex-offender?

Having served time behind bars himself, Jacob Hill argues that it's time for employers to give ex-offenders a chance

For some HR leaders, great talent is great talent. They hire according to who – from the competitive employment landscape – is best suited for the role. For others, recruitment decision-making is influenced almost entirely by whether someone ticks a single box on an application form: ‘Do you have a criminal conviction?’

It’s important to stress that ex-offender employment can, admittedly, represent a step into the unknown. So it is no surprise that some HR teams explore this tentatively, or not at all. But many of the perceived risks associated with this form of hiring are based on misconceptions.

Before my new venture Offploy’s journey began, I was a successful entrepreneur with, most notably, a festival camping business. I’d secured more than £300,000 of investment and support from Sir Richard Branson. But as the business spiralled, faster than I could have ever imagined, so too did the debts, and I made the regretful mistake of selling drugs – perceiving this, at the time, as a way out.

Following my arrest, I served a nine-and-a-half-month prison sentence. It was during this time that I met – and have since started to represent – individuals who need to overcome the sense of hopelessness they feel when rebuilding their lives upon release. 

The reoffending rate is more than twice as high for offenders without a job (43 per cent compared with 18 per cent for custodial sentences of a year or more), which is just one of the reasons why the UK’s Ban The Box initiative is taking off.

But a certain stigma still surrounds this niche area of recruitment. While this is perhaps understandable, the situation can no longer continue – organisations have roles to fill and the talent pool needs to be opened up.

Of course, companies have a duty of care to provide safe working environments for employees and customers, so HR teams absolutely need to ask appropriate questions and assess risks, in the same way they should with any recruitment decision-making. 

However, the apparent hurdles to ex-offender employment include fears that something may happen to stock, staff or customers, whether in relation to theft, reputation, violence or otherwise. So it is crucial for HR teams to look at the facts. 

Given 50 per cent of UK criminal convictions relate to a driving offence, many of these worries would soon be allayed. Also, one in three adult males is reported to have a criminal conviction, so the chances are the workforce already comprises some people who have simply not ticked the box. 

And only eight per cent of people sentenced annually actually go to prison, so it is unlikely that they have been institutionalised with the thug-like prison mindset that many people incorrectly imagine.

It is important to note that specialist advice exists in the HR space to make this process as informed, logical and straightforward as possible. A pilot project could provide an opportunity to enrol a small cohort of ex-offenders to prove the concept before rolling out a wider strategy. Above all, it is important not to rush. 

Brands like Marks & Spencer, Virgin and Greggs are just some of the organisations already instigating change in this arena. But ultimately, HR has an opportunity to lead on the agenda. They need to secure buy-in from the boardroom so they can communicate the benefits to operational teams. And those benefits will be vast and wide-reaching – if the misconceptions can be banished.

Jacob Hill is founder of ex-offender employment specialist Offploy