When a young woman stole a sandwich and book worth 99p from a shop, she would never have thought that this decision would blight her career almost 20 years later.
But that is exactly what happened when the woman, who at the time was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness, recently tried to get a job as a teaching assistant.
After the theft in 1999, she had failed to attend court which, combined with the theft, saw her left with two convictions. Years later she was forced to disclose this information in the job application process and was eventually denied the role.
Aged 47, she took her case to the High Court in 2016 and won, arguing that revealing her minor convictions and subsequent medical history breached her right to privacy and was disproportionate.
This victory was a great step forward in the face of existing stigma around hiring people with criminal convictions.
Today marks the start of Prisons Week, a longstanding calendar event that raises awareness of the victims and communities affected by crime, those working in the criminal justice system and their families. It is also a call to action for those of us who can play a part in supporting prisoners and ex-offenders to turn their lives around.
I fully believe recruitment can play a crucial role here. Of course the severity of a crime must be given proper consideration, but hiring rehabilitated offenders can help them to settle into a routine, and give them new direction and purpose.
This week, REED conducted research into the opinions of recruiters across the country and found that four in five said they would consider hiring someone with a conviction. Yet data from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice in 2011 revealed that a third of Britons claiming out-of-work benefits had a recent criminal record. The cost of this to the taxpayer was around £8 billion – clearly, change is needed. The government and charities must take responsibility to support those with convictions in finding work, but businesses too must also ask more of themselves.
I have identified five ways businesses can support equality in their hiring practices:
The Application Stage
The ‘Ban the Box’ campaign calls on UK employers to remove the tick box that identifies criminal convictions on job applications. Influential organisations such as UCAS have recently adopted a similar approach for university applications, which is encouraging but more still needs to be done to ensure widespread adoption.
The progress made by this campaign could potentially be threatened by the rising use of technology in recruitment. How do people with convictions apply for jobs when an automated filtering function could instantly ‘weed’ them out? We must be mindful of passing on human bias to technology.
The Recruitment Stage
REED has played an advisory role in the Blind Recruitment Committee, which promotes fair recruitment by clarifying how employers could remove bias from the application process.
‘Blinding’ recruiters from personal information on CVs and applications, such as their name, place of birth, educational establishment and photo ID, is one proactive solution.
Encouragingly, the government has backed this notion by recommending ‘name-blind recruitment’ in its 2016 Bridge Report. This champions a fairer recruitment model to improve equality and diversity in the UK public sector. In the future we could see a version of this approach expanded to include applicants with past convictions.
The Interview Stage
Candidates must know their rights when it comes to disclosing past convictions. Key public sector jobs currently require candidates to reveal all previous convictions by law – although all other jobs do not have this requirement. Employers have a responsibility to respect this rule and to handle any sensitive personal information, such as past convictions, with great care.
The Decision Stage
Rather than judging a book by its cover, I urge employers to consider what the company is seeking and the responsibilities of a particular role, and then reflect carefully on whether a candidate’s past convictions actually affect their ability to perform the job.
Employers should also recognise the value of alternative work histories. Not all CVs neatly fit into our ideals of a ‘normal’ career path which starts with education followed by a first job and then steady career progression. People outside of these standards can demonstrate transferable skills in other ways, for example voluntary work positions in prison and community service.
Many applicants have a ‘gap’ in their CV, whether through illness or a criminal conviction. Education is needed to help employers look past these gaps and consider not what the candidate hasn’t done, but rather what they have done, both in their career and during their time out.
The Post-Interview Stage
Responsibilities for employers do not simply end once a candidate with a past conviction has been hired. By providing a mentor and clear access to external support networks, employers can ensure they give their most vulnerable employees the support they need.
If people with convictions are keen to work and wish to play their part in helping our economy thrive, they should be allowed to do so. At REED Specialist Recruitment, we currently have more than 8,000 people with convictions registered with us who we are helping to return to work. However, they still encounter huge barriers to employment.
Prisons Week gives us the opportunity to reassess how we think and act towards those with past criminal convictions who want to make a positive change to their life. This year I would like to see more businesses support government and charity initiatives, and help people with convictions through the five stages of the recruitment process.