How to hire ex-offenders — like Timpsons

Employing ex-offenders can be a great way to fill hiring gaps and offer someone a second chance at their future. Here’s how to do it.

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Helena Young
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Tomorrow, the government will tell us what we already know to be true: our prisons are overcrowded. Ministers are preparing an early release scheme to ease the pressure, and the move could provide an opportunity for small businesses drawing up recruitment plans.

Cross-sector labour shortages have been worsening due to tightened laws on migration that have made it harder to recruit foreign talent. As a result, 73% of UK firms reported hiring difficulties at the end of last year; a problem which our jails might hold the solution to.

They did for James Timpson. The owner of the key cutters chain, Timpsons, was (ironically)  last week appointed as the UK’s new prison minister. Over 10% of the firm’s workforce are ex-offenders, and the new prime minister has praised Timpson for his rehabilitation efforts.

How to recruit ex-offenders

Employers who hire ex-offenders have a duty of care to their employees and the public. They may need to make some adjustments to their job application and recruitment process to ensure that ex-offenders feel welcome to apply, and they are not breaking the law.

We’ll explain how to design a fair policy for recruiting people with a criminal record below.

1. Decide if the job posting requires DBS checks

Before any job listing is posted, an employer must decide whether the position requires them to apply for a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, better known as a DBS check.

Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders (ROA) Act 1974, companies are legally required to conduct a standard or enhanced DBS check for specific roles (typically if the job requires unsupervised contact with children or vulnerable adults).

The DBS’ eligibility checker can help you to work out if this is necessary. If yes, the employer must clearly state the level of check that will be carried out in the initial job posting.

In the vast majority of cases, though, a person’s criminal record will be irrelevant to the job and the employer will not need to know about an applicant’s criminal record.

Submitting a job application is nerve wracking for ex-offenders, who may feel their past will unfairly count against them. Firms can encourage those who might feel wary about applying by issuing a simple statement on the job post about your willingness to employ ex-offenders.

2. Interview the candidate

All job seekers should have a chance to be judged on merit and ability, not just whether they have a clean record. Regardless of whether you are planning to request a DBS check, you should progress with a job interview to ensure you don’t discriminate against the applicant.

Criminal convictions can be classed as either spent or unspent. If it is spent, the conviction will be removed from most criminal records to give ex-offenders a clean slate.

If they feel it is relevant, employers can ask for details about unspent convictions outside of a DBS check during the interview stages. The applicant is then legally required to provide this information when asked (although they do not need to tell you about spent convictions).

Any requests for details about unspent convictions should be done confidentially and in a separate letter, not during the initial screening process.

3. Review Disclosure information

Once a job offer has been made, a Disclosure might arrive which reveals new information that the applicant did not reveal during their interview.

If the new information raises concern, the employer can ask the applicant to provide an explanation and assurance that it will not cause an issue.

In rare circumstances, the new information may constitute a high risk and could result in the hiring manager or supervisor withdrawing the job offer. For example, if someone is applying for an accountancy role and it transpires they have a conviction for money fraud.

Unless bound by law, HR teams should consider making reasonable adjustments to mitigate risks, such as introducing extra supervision, to avoid having to take back a job offer.

4. Securely store, or delete, offence information

The Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) states that all personal data — including unspent criminal convictions — must be stored securely.

Best practice is to delete this information where possible, but you can hold onto it if you feel it may be relevant to an employee’s contract (for example, if you need to keep a record that a person with a driving ban cannot operate company vehicles).

Once a conviction is spent, the ROA act lays out that this person’s record is now clean and their previous offences cannot be held against them. Employers should wipe the information from their databases and their computer hard drive.

Why should you hire ex-offenders?

Talent shortages are a real threat to UK SMEs. Today’s labour market is marked by rising unemployment as companies struggle to source the right skills to meet demand. Last month, the UK’s largest curry organisation called for support to increase access to hospitality staff.

In this context, employers are increasingly turning to a taboo source of talent; our jails. In 2023, 20% of business owners told management company Sodexo that the need to fill more technical roles was causing them to look at candidates with criminal records.

Perceptions of prisoners may hold some company owners back. Yet many ex-offenders are gaining crucial skills for the workplace, particularly in sought-after areas like IT, thanks to prison learning programmes and workshops.

On top of this, employing ex-offenders has a positive impact on society for mission-driven brands. It tells customers and clients that the company cares about giving people a second chance, a narrative that prison minister, James Timpson, says people respond positively to.

In a government release, Timpson revealed: “When I first started employing people from prison my biggest concern was what people would think. [But] far more people come to our shops because of what we do and see it as a really positive thing.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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