Northern Ireland’s jobs market makes ex-offenders an afterthought
Recent justice reforms made rehabilitation a crucial part of reducing crime. New research says that local businesses are cautious about hiring people with convictions – but are open to change, if they get more support.
Northern Ireland’s employers are uncertain about hiring anyone with criminal convictions due to a lack of information and support.
Last month, Ulster University (UU) and NIACRO, an NI organisation working to reduce crime and the impacts of crime, published “first-of-its-kind” research into employers’ attitudes about recruiting those with criminal records.
They found that 97% of local employers believe in rehabilitation – with 59% also believing that this rehabilitation is the responsibility of everyone, rather than just the individual with the conviction.
However, employers told UU and NIACRO that the current job market structures lacked clarity and often left them with unaddressed concerns when it comes to hiring people with convictions.
For instance, disclosures about offences come too soon in the job applications process and come without enough detail. Often these disclosures amount to no more than ticking a single box on a form – something which can harm an applicant’s chances without ever providing them a chance to elaborate on their circumstances.
These are the reasons behind the Ban the Box campaign which “aims to give people with convictions a fairer chance at securing employment, by encouraging companies to ask the conviction question at a later point in the application process”.
Ban the Box wants employers to focus on whether someone meets the criteria for a job first and foremost and then, at a later stage, take a more rounded and detailed look at any convictions and their circumstances.
This, combined with other recommendations from the UU/NIACRO research, could be transformative for people in NI with convictions who are looking for work, could help employers by effectively increasing the talent pool from which they recruit, and could help society by reducing crime.
Jonny Pardoe, a Disclosure Specialist who commissioned this research from NIACRO, said: “Every day in Northern Ireland, talented and hardworking people are simply overlooked by recruiters who could really use good team members like them. But, unfortunately, unhealthy stereotypes about criminal records tends to cloud employers judgements, resulting in blanket bans and tick boxes whose only purpose is exclusion.”
The UU/NIACRO research found that over four in five employers (82%) said the type of offence was their biggest concern regarding any applicant with a criminal record but 64% of applicants aren’t given a chance to explain their convictions on the application form.
Safety – of both clients and other employees – is the primary concern for employers. A lack of clear information inevitably leads to uncertainties, and this tends to make employers cautious.
At the same time, most employers want to be fair and consistent.
Some proof of rehabilitation would make 83% of employers more likely to hire someone with a conviction and, right now, a third of employers say a lack of support prevents them from hiring anyone in those circumstances.
Having a clear and consistent employment policy framework – and support for employers to implement that framework – would make employers more comfortable in employing those with convictions.
A total of 85% of employers know someone with a conviction, 61% have previously worked alongside someone with a conviction – and over three quarters of those employers had a positive experience with such an employee.
The overall picture here suggests that Northern Ireland’s jobs market has a little catching up to do. Since around 2015, the nature of NI’s prison system has changed. It is now focused on rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for life in the community. Clearly some barriers remain in place outside the justice system itself.
Reform and possibility
Research has shown time and again that three factors are crucial in reducing recidivism. One is getting into a stable relationship, one is moving away from criminal peers and into a supportive social environment (NI’s prisons are keener than ever to build and maintain offenders’ relationships with their families, when this is possible). The third factor is getting a job and holding it down.
Helping people with a conviction find work is crucial. Reform of the justice system should not be the only place where this receives a focus. Employers need better information and support.
The UU and NIACRO research comes with several recommendations – including better and clearer structures for employers, and better practice when it comes to disclosures - which NIACRO says it is already putting into practice, using this knowledge to train staff from a range of organisations on hiring people with criminal records.
Mr Pardoe continued: “These findings emphasise the importance of the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign which seeks to get rid of the tick box relating to convictions on application forms and allow applicants to disclose convictions at a later stage in the recruitment process.
“It also encourages best practice such as the use of 'disclosure statements' and more training and resources for employers to help them understand criminal records and how they can make fair and safe hiring decisions.
“Throughout the survey, employers told us that they want to be more open minded and forward thinking… They want to be more inclusive, widen their pool of potential candidates and have a better understanding of how the rehabilitation legislation works.”
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