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Analysis | Do ex-offenders get a fair hearing?

Gavel legal law justice

Like many employees, Michael* often wonders what his life would be like if he wasn’t working behind a desk all day.

But while many others would imagine a life of travel and adventure, for Michael the alternative is a bleak vision of time behind bars.

As an ex-offender, Michael credits his job at Carillion as one of the major factors in him being able to successfully rebuild his life and not forever be stigmatised for past crimes.

He tells his story in his own words below, but his story certainly isn’t unique.

One in five of us

Around 10.5M people in the UK have a criminal conviction on the Police National Computers – that’s one in five working adults. The majority – 68% – of those convictions are court fines for minor one-time offences. Only 8% of people with a criminal conviction ends up going to prison. However, for anyone with a conviction, ticking the box on an employment application form that confirms an offence can often mean they never get any further in their search for work.

Non-profit organisation Business in the Community is coming up to the third anniversary of its Ban the Box campaign, where it urges employers not to ask applicants about previous offences at the first stage of the application process. And it’s something the civil engineering sector has embraced. The latest firm to sign up to the scheme is London’s super sewer developer Thames Tideway, following in the footsteps of the likes of Amey, Carillion and Interserve.

A key part of the rehabilitation process is employment

“A key part of rehabilitation process is employment, it reduces chances of reoffending by 33% to 50%,” says Business in the Community’s communications manager for work inclusion Samantha Di Talamo.

“For those who have gone to prison, they face discrimination in the workplace and in wider society and do feel unfairly criminalised. Once they’ve had their time in prison, they feel they’ve paid their debt to society. It can be frustrating for people who feel they have a lot to give to face that discrimination again.

“By automatically excluding all candidates with convictions, employers are denying skilled and motivated people work.”

See the person first

The scheme aims to give people the opportunity to present themselves and their skills, without a criminal conviction being the first thing an employer knows about them. Some companies will ask about convictions later in the recruitment process, others not at all. Often the information is kept confidential, sometimes it can be shared with a line manager.

“It gives the applicant the opportunity to answer questions in their own words about a conviction and how they’ve moved on. It also enables someone to make informed hiring decisions. Recruitment always comes with risks and challenges, and a decision comes with a judgement call,” says Di Talamo.

We have a duty to ensure that we’re employing the best people to deliver

It’s an area where the civil engineer sector has been receptive, with some of the biggest names in the industry signing up.

“As a responsible business, we have a duty to ensure that we’re employing the best people to deliver our services across the UK but also making a difference to the communities we serve, including playing a role in the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. That’s why we operate a fair recruitment process that offers equal opportunities to all, as well as providing the right training and development for people to succeed,” says Amey head of social impact Emily Davies.

Amey will make a risk assessment on each job and carry out background checks as appropriate, but despite the misconceptions around employing ex-offenders over safety, reliability and reputational risk, it still sees “banning the box” as an important part of an inclusive recruitment process.

Look at the legacy

Tideway has a target for one out of every 100 employees working on the project, including across the main works contractors, to be an ex-offender.

“As one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Europe, we have a duty not just to help clean up the River Thames but to also leave a skills and employment legacy for all Londoners, and for the construction industry,” says Tideway’s head of human resources Julie Thornton.

“By removing the criminal convictions question from our application forms, we are ensuring a fair and equal opportunity for anyone who applies for a job at Tideway. We are confident this will encourage more people with the right skills and ability to consider how they could get involved in the hugely important work we’re doing for London.”

For many civil engineering companies the difference they make to people’s lives is obvious, whether they’re connecting communities through roads and bridges or protecting communities through flood defences. But many firms are now seeing there’s also the opportunity to make a huge difference simply by removing a small box.

Case study

Michael is in his early 40s and works as a team leader at Carillion’s headquarters. He has been employed by the company since 2011.

Michael has a number of convictions that have resulted in time in custody. His sentences mean that his convictions will never be spent (meaning that he will always have to disclose them to employers when asked). Michael explains his experiences before and after gaining work:

“I’ve been in and out of prison for most of my adult life. When I received my last sentence I was in a really bad place – a long-term relationship had broken down and I was drinking and taking drugs to get through.

“When I was last in prison, I was more used to being in there than out. I could have easily ended up in prison at 50 having done nothing else with my life. But with this last sentence, I had an epiphany. It was like a light came on inside my head – I was nearly 40 and didn’t want this life for me or my kids anymore.

“When I was released from prison I was homeless. So with my tail between my legs I went to stay with my mum and tried to find my feet. I helped my friend out who worked in removals in order to get by. I was determined to stay out of trouble but I didn’t even consider applying for more permanent work – I just thought ‘who is going to want to give me a job?’ especially if I had to tick a box and tell them about my past up front. I had no formal qualifications, a big gap in my work history and criminal convictions. So I would just ask friends for work; I completely took myself out of the running for other, permanent jobs.

“Six months after my release I was introduced to Business in the Community by my probation officer. Through them I accessed training and a work placement at Carillion, which resulted in a job offer. I had trained as a chef before but couldn’t imagine that I would ever end up working in an office. And now I’m doing just that!

“Things have changed a lot since then. This will be my fifth year in work. I started as a junior administrator and have now progressed to be a team leader, managing a team of seven people. Managing a team is really new to me but I’m getting lots of support from my colleagues and it’s a great challenge. In our team we’re at the frontline of the business – if we make a mistake it affects the whole business, but it’s really rewarding when we manage to make sure that everything goes well.

“I would like to think that I’m a good employee for Carillion. I’ve definitely come a really long way since 2011. They’ve been so supportive of my background that I really owe them! I put my cards on the table and rather than exclude me, Carillion have helped and stood by me. I’ll always be loyal to the company because of that. I really think that, from my perspective, they’re one of the best companies in the country to work for – all I needed was a chance to show what I could do and an opportunity to progress, and I’ve been given that. I’m keen to keep progressing within Carillion and want to stay here long-term.

“Sometimes I wonder how I managed this – it would have been so easy to go back to my old life. Having a job was the key factor for me to keep on track. I could stay focused on work, preventing me from distraction and going back to the people I knew before. If I didn’t have this job, I don’t know what I’d be doing now. Chances are I would have gone back to prison.”

SOURCE: Business in the Community

*Full name withheld to protect identity

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