From building confidence to setting an alarm: how HR can support prison leavers joining the workforce

Former inmates can bring emotional intelligence, resilience and new perspectives to an organisation, delegates at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition were told

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As part of the panel discussion ‘Ex-offenders – an untapped pool of talent’ – which was chaired by CIPD Trust chair Sally Eley – Duncan O’Leary, chief executive of the New Futures Network, told delegates that employers hiring prison leavers “will find people who know your business and are really committed to it”. 

This could also see companies save money by recruiting people who have spent time in prison, he said, as employers with such schemes report higher retention rates, lower recruitment costs and less onboarding, O’Leary said.

Mindy, a former prison leaver and head of EDI at charity St Giles, said people with criminal records are uniquely equipped for the challenges of the workplace after having overcome adversity. She explained that she was recruited for her first job at St Giles while still in prison, adding: “Going to prison is a trauma in itself.

“You have to develop those skills to cope, to survive. To be in a position to be able to go into employment upon release, you have to develop that resilience [and] emotional intelligence.” 

Dawn Moore, group people and communications director at J Murphy & Sons, said the challenges facing people leaving prison and entering the workforce could easily be overcome if the right support was offered.

She added that the challenges facing former prison leavers might be different to those expected by employers.

She told the conference about an employee who did not turn up because he “missed his alarm clock”, having become accustomed to waking up to the sound of prison keys. He explained to her: “After seven and a half years in a prison, I haven’t needed to consider a watch. In fact, I haven’t had one for over seven years. My life has not been regulated by a clock, it’s been regulated by the sound of those keys.”

So what can employers do to recruit prison leavers and support their transition to the workplace?

1. Maintain confidentiality 

“The most important thing HR professionals can do is to ensure the fact that someone has a conviction is kept confidential and that this information is only shared with those who have a genuine need to know,” Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of Working Chance, an employment charity supporting women with convictions, tells People Management.

She says people who have been in prison may have spent a lot of time out of the workplace and could be “worried about being judged or gossiped about by their new colleagues” if they were aware of their conviction. 

On the panel, Mindy told delegates it was important prison leavers do not feel labelled and instead feel like they “are just like any other employee in your organisation”. She said people should “feel completely included [and] that you’re not going to be judged, you’re going to be treated the same as everybody else”. 

2. See employees as individuals

“No two people with convictions are alike and every employee should be treated and supported as an individual,” says Finlayson. Once in the workplace, “not everyone who has been to prison will need or want special support from their employer”, she explains.

Nancy Anderson, programme facilitator at apprenticeship provider Breakthrough – which also recruits from prisons – agrees. She says prison leavers may have varying levels of support outside of work; some may have been employed before going to prison and their financial means and stability of address will vary. 

Finlayson recommends some provisions be put in place to help them integrate into the workplace, such as a mentor scheme or being provided with practical help such as managing debt or mental health. She says people who have been in prison may also benefit from additional flexibility to be able to attend appointments or meet with a probation officer.

3. Focus on skillset over criminal record when recruiting

Employers should value the skills and experience of each individual through their recruitment process, rather than writing a candidate off as a result of their criminal record, says Tony Simpson, justice operations director at Sodexo UK & Ireland, which runs prisons in the UK and also employs ex-offenders. “People with convictions often have everything employers need. This ranges from academic qualifications like English and maths GCSEs to vocational qualifications in skills-shortage areas, including construction, hospitality and more,” he says.

Simpson adds that most prison leavers will have previous work experience to draw on, as well as having worked in jobs in prison, such as cleaning, cooking, serving in cafes and hairdressing. Furthermore, training schemes such as the Construction Skills Certification Scheme run courses within prisons, equipping prison leavers to fill a skills gap.

4. Create a more inclusive recruitment process

“Anyone making decisions about criminal records must be appropriately trained and understand that checking criminal records is not a pass/fail exercise; it is about whether a criminal record is relevant to the role at hand,” Ellie Grudgings, policy officer at charity Unlock, tells People Management

“We encourage employers to introduce recruitment policies that help them identify what skills and experience applicants can bring to a role. These should be communicated up front to prospective candidates, so that they can be confident they will be treated fairly,” she says. 

Ola Kolade, employment and skills director at Business in the Community, says the organisation had worked with employers “to remove the criminal conviction box on job application forms” to make hiring more inclusive.

Simpson adds: “Reducing the number of checks you need can save time and money, particularly for small businesses, and we must not forget that they are never a guarantee of a good hire. People coming into roles without convictions get fired every day.”

The CIPD Trust has teamed up with two organisations, St Giles Trust and Offploy, to run a pilot supported by the people profession, developed to help people with lived experience of the criminal justice system re-enter the workplace and sustain current roles. The scheme is looking for more HR professionals to become mentors. For more information and to get involved, visit or email