1226 GMT January 16, 2019
Do you believe in giving people a second chance? Many US employers say they do: In a recent nationwide study, about half the managers and half the human resources (HR) professionals expressed a willingness to employ someone with a criminal record.
Perhaps more surprisingly, two-thirds of those HR professionals — and more than 80 percent of the managers — said they thought workers with a criminal record were of equal or better quality than workers who had not had a brush with the law, BBC wrote.
It is an important issue because in many countries people with a criminal record now make up a sizeable segment of the population — and there’s a general consensus that employment is one of the best ways to discourage them from returning to crime.
Historically, people with a criminal history have found it hard to find work. UK government figures released earlier this year suggest only 17 percent are employed in steady work i.e. on the payroll, in the year following release from prison.
John is struggling to find a job in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has been in and out of prison several times. But during his last spell inside — which ended in February 2016 — he engaged with a charity called LifeLine (now called Change, Grow, Live) and began turning his life around. He is dealing with his problems with alcohol for instance, through cognitive behavioral therapy, and is committed to using his experiences to help others.
“I was going to be a support worker, I volunteered for two years,” he said.
But John said he simply cannot escape his past: Whenever he applies for jobs, potential employers are sent reports detailing his earlier criminal history and issues with mental health. John said he has been sober for 900 days.
“I’ve done an awful lot — you’d think they would give me a little bit of leeway to move on with my life. But they won’t.”
Many employers worry about hiring ex-offenders. A 2006 survey of companies in the northwest of England found about 90 percent of them were concerned that an ex-offender might pose a risk either to staff or customers — and 60 percent of employers thought that hiring ex-offenders could generate bad publicity for their firm.
Jonathan Spencer, the director of the Criminal Justice Research Unit at the University of Manchester, led the survey. He said sex offenders were a particular worry for participants.
“The view was that if they reoffended there would be reputational harm to the company,” he said.
On the flip side, Spencer and his colleagues found that about 60 percent of employers who had actually taken on ex-offenders reported that the experience was mainly positive. But, he said, that is a message which is hard to spread to other employers who have not hired people with a criminal history.
What this means is that companies have no blueprint to follow when it comes to hiring people with convictions. UK-based Virgin Trains first began employing such people in 2013, urged on by company founder Richard Branson. “I don’t think we had a business plan or many expectations, we were just giving it a try,” said Damien Henderson, the Scottish affairs and media manager at Virgin Trains.
But the experimental recruitment process has been largely successful. Virgin Trains now employs 30 people with convictions and holds regular recruitment fairs in prisons, where potential employees can discuss their criminal history and demonstrate their desire to enter the work force.
“I don’t want to give the impression everything is perfect,” said Henderson.
Virgin Trains has had to part company with some employees with convictions, generally for the attendance and punctuality issues that can be an issue for any new employee.
“But we haven’t had any problems relating to reoffending,” he said. In fact, many of the recruits with criminal records have flourished.
This experience gels with the second finding in the US study — that some employers appear to believe that a well-trained ex-offender can outperform a well-trained candidate with a clean record. There is some evidence that backs this up.
As a general rule the US Army will not consider employing ex-offenders. But at various points in the past when it has failed to meet its recruitment targets it has taken on people with criminal records.
In a paper published earlier this year, Jennifer Lundquist, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, and her colleagues used Freedom of Information Act-requested data to examine how these ex-offenders fared compared to their non-offending peers.
Army recruits with a previous conviction for a serious crime, or felony as it is often described in the US, were far more likely than non-felons to secure promotions to higher ranks. Most strikingly, the researchers found that ex-felons were 32 percent more likely than non-felons to be promoted to the rank of sergeant — a promotion based largely on meritocratic performance.
Lundquist said the research team went into the study expecting that non-offenders and ex-offenders would probably perform at similar levels once variables like education and age had been factored out. “We were surprised to find a positive effect — that ex-offenders actually did better,” she said.
One widely held belief is that it comes down to a lack of other opportunities.
“If this is the one employer who has invested in you, you might feel a degree of loyalty,” said Lundquist. There are, indeed, several studies suggesting that ex-offenders entering a range of professions remain in their jobs for longer than non-offenders do.
Lundquist suspected how a company or institution recruits may also play a part in the extent to which ex-offenders succeed in employment. She thought in the case of the US Army its screening of potential recruits with a criminal history plays an important role. It operates something called a ‘whole person’ selection process that might be so strict it picks the very best ex-offenders: The candidates with the skills and motivation to succeed.
Lundquist and her colleagues point out that many employers automatically reject job applicants with a criminal record at an early stage in the application process — but doing so may mean they are missing the opportunity to hire some outstanding workers.
Henderson agrees that there are plenty of exceptional candidates who also have criminal convictions. Virgin Trains is part of an initiative called Release Scotland, which launched earlier this year to encourage more companies to take on ex-offenders.
“The aim is to promote some of the experiences that employers have had recruiting people with criminal convictions,” said Henderson.
There are other initiatives in place to try to help ex-offenders overcome knee-jerk rejections. The most well-known is the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign originally started in the US, which encourages employers not to ask job candidates to tick a box on the application form if they have a criminal history. The idea is that this gives ex-offenders an opportunity to get a foot in the door and impress employers before their past is revealed, making the candidate more likely to be offered a job.
But perhaps an equivalent to the US army’s ‘whole person’ review could complement those initiatives. Such a system might help ex-offenders signal their ability and willingness to work in a format that employers could learn to trust.
“We just need to get some really good minds together and come up with some templates,” said Lundquist.
Henderson said a review system along those lines would be welcomed by organizations, like Release Scotland, that seek to emphasize the merits of recruiting ex-offenders.
“Everyone tends to focus on the risk of employing people with convictions. But it’s not just about risk: It’s also about benefit.”
So is the recent survey of US employers — carried out by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) — evidence that these sorts of efforts are finally leading to attitudinal shifts among employers?
“I’d want to see more surveys before I’d think there’s been a real change in the way employers look at the formerly incarcerated,” cautioned Lundquist.
But there are economic reasons why employers in the US and the UK really might be softening their attitudes towards employing ex-offenders according to Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow for criminal justice reform at CKI.
Unemployment rates are lower in both countries than they have been for decades, leaving employers scrambling to find candidates to fill jobs. For pragmatic reasons, it might make sense for them to consider employing ex-offenders.
“It’s hard to know for sure but it seems like a reasonable inference. Employers really want to hire right now and you have this amazing pool of people out there who are looking for jobs.”