Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd

As a society, we’ve established a very clear system of punishment for the 11million UK citizens who have been convicted for committing a crime at some point throughout their lifetime. However, even after a convict has repaid their ‘debt to society’, many still face significant prejudice when trying to re-enter the workplace and this makes securing a job all the more difficult.

Recruitment Grapevine recently reported on one harrowing example in which an anonymous candidate recalled stealing a book worth 99p two decades ago. And whilst the judicial system swiftly closed the case, his conviction continues to haunt him 20 years later. "I have committed no offences in the two decades since…but I have struggled to find anyone willing to take me on,” he wrote in a Guardian op-ed.

So, what can be done to change the perspectives of hiring managers in the recruitment process? Well, a campaign to challenge the widely-held prejudice entitled ‘Ban the Box’ (BTB) is swiftly gaining support through major advocacy groups such as Business In The Community (BITC) – the largest and oldest business-led charity in the UK. The international campaign aims to remove the tick-box that asks candidates to disclose whether they have a criminal record when completing a job application.

BITC, along with a vast network of business such as Barclays bank, tech company Fujitsu and government contractor Serco, are pushing for employers to acknowledge the problems caused by requesting candidates to disclose previous convictions in their job applications. This movement aims to raise awareness in the recruitment process and promote the idea of giving ex-convicts a fair chance to start again and secure employment.

“We understand that employers need to manage risk in recruitment, but asking everyone who applies for a role about criminal convictions at the start of the process tells people who are trying to move on with their lives that they won’t be given a fair chance,” says BITC Campaign Manager Jessica Rose. “Through the Ban the Box campaign, we're calling on all employers to remove the tick-box and carefully consider whether, when and how they need to ask about criminal convictions and what they will do with that information once they have it,” she adds.

Whilst a substantial list of 98 employers in the UK back Ban The Box on ethical grounds, the vast majority of the 2.6million businesses currently operating in the UK either don’t support the cause, or are simply unaware of the issue. This is despite the fact that studies have found that screening candidates based on conviction can not only alienate workers, but also promote racial discrimination.

The Journal of Quarterly Economics recently conducted a study in which it sent approximately 15,000 online job applications on behalf of fictitious male applicants to employers. The applications varied from predominantly white Caucasian names to distinctly BAME names, and alternated between offence and conviction status. The report discovered that employers that asked about criminal records in their recruitment process were 63% more likely to call an applicant with no record – and further found that the policy encouraged greater racial discrimination in the process. White candidates with a conviction were 43% more likely to receive a call back than their BAME counterparts.

Whilst it may only just be gaining traction in the UK, the campaign was launched by civil rights group All of Us or None in Hawaii in the early 1990s as a reaction to tougher sentencing laws in the US. The cause caught the attention of advocacy charity BITC in the early 2010s, and the group began raising awareness for the cause in 2013. As awareness continued to grow, other campaign groups were launched such as Recruiting With Conviction – which continues to push for the rights of convicts with public lobbying and advocacy. “Five years after an offence is committed, the likelihood of being convicted is no greater than for someone who has never been caught, yet the systems and legislation developed continue to use convictions as a proxy for risk,” says Dughall Lang, Director of Recruiting With Conviction.

However, Lang claims that fortunately, a significant number of UK-based companies are now recognising that bias is hurting their talent pools and preventing them from accessing a high calibre of talent. Whilst this is a progressive mindset, he warns that bias still exists in the recruitment process. He states: “Within the changing labour market facing the UK, companies are recognising the need to attract a more diverse and consequently capable range of applicants to posts. It has been my experience that this is rarely driven by softer policy or CSR and is more often a considered approach to getting the best talent possible.

“Many employers have now moved to Ban the Box. This delays, but does not remove, the process of disclosing convictions. By allowing applicants to be seen on the merits of their application and as individuals prior to additional checks allows for skills and capabilities to govern decision making rather than conscious or unconscious biases”

And this is a view echoed by Campaign Manager Ornella Nsio of trade body Recruitment and Employee Confederation (REC), who states that denying the right to work to 11million prospective candidates creates a reduced source of talent, and actively encourages such candidates to re-offend out of necessity.

“Holding a criminal record should not be a damning indictment on all future job prospects. Employment is a crucial opportunity that reduces the likelihood that an individual will reoffend. Conversely, failure to give employment to people with convictions increases crime and costs society billions of pounds every year.

“Removing the barriers faced by people with past convictions will not only provide these candidates with a fair chance at finding employment but broaden the talent pool for recruiters and employers. With candidate shortages across the UK economy. UK business can no longer afford to discriminate against such a large talent pool,” she adds.

What can recruiters do to action change?

The REC is very clear in its belief that a great onus lies on recruiters to advocate the scheme; they have the power to shortlist candidates and put them forward to prospective employers. “Everyone should have a fair chance at finding a job, and people with criminal convictions are no exception. The recruitment industry has a key role to play in helping people into work, and we will continue to urge recruiters to take action to support people from all walks of life in finding employment,” says Nsio.

Whilst simply being educated on the issue is a bold step forward for many recruiters, actively supporting those looking to re-enter the workforce and promoting non-biased recruitment could not only change the way in which historic convictions are perceived in the workplace, but also encourage investment and dedication in the form of positive relationships with such employees. 

“If we’re treated like a criminal, we’re more likely to behave like one; if we’re treated like a person and a valuable member of a family, we’re much more likely to behave like one,” comments Talent Manager Annie Gale of retail manufacturer Cook – an ethical employer for previously convicted candidates.

“We have the same attitude towards everybody. If someone’s willing to do a good job, then we’re delighted. It’s important that people feel trusted, looked after and welcome – regardless of what they’ve done in the past. If we want the system to work, then we have to play our role in it,” Gale adds.

For those who are still hesitant to embrace Ban The Box, a wealth of support and education exists from groups such as Recruit With Conviction and the REC – both of whom draw on a wealth of positive experiences from companies over a numerous sectors.


“For businesses’ who Recruit With Conviction, the feedback universally expresses the improvements in both public perceptions and better recruitment across the board with many adding that this leads to higher staff retention, morale and fundamentally more productive workforces,” adds Lang.

“No company needs to go it alone and there is always support to take the first or further steps - whether locally based or among the national groups mentioned. There is no obligation on any employer - but why miss the chance to recruit the best possible colleagues and benefit your business?”