Episode 10

Prison Break – Breaking The Cycle of Unemployment for Ex-Offenders

It is estimated that more than 11 million people in the UK have a criminal conviction. This staggering figure equates to 1 in 3 men with the vast majority of offences occurring before the age of 30.

Of course many of these convictions are for relatively minor offences and didn’t require a stay at Her Majety’s pleasure and have had no bearing on an individuals subsequent employment prospects. But what if the offence was more serious and did involve a custodial sentence? What then are your employment prospects?

We ask 3 employees from the Timpson Group the retailer renowned for employing ex-offenders.

About my guest

Janet Leighton is the Director of Happiness at British multinational retailer The Timpson Group a family business renowned for its culture of upside down management and giving autonomy to its 2000+ stores in the UK and Ireland. Timpson is one of the largest employers of ex-offenders in the UK with approximately 10% of their workforce having a criminal conviction.

Darren Burns is Timpson’s National Recruitment Ambassador. He specialises in both the recruitment and retention of ex-offenders and others who face barriers to employment. Darren is a former police officer and his experience of working in some of the most challenging parts of the UK enables him to help break the offending cycle and ensure marginalised groups can find employment.

Sarah Barker has worked for the Timpson Group since 2010. She was recruited when she was a resident of HMP Askham Grange, an open prison in York. When released she continued to work for the Timpson and is now a part of the Timpson Locksmith admin team.

Transcript

Chris

Welcome to the oven. Ready HR podcast. We tell compelling stories from the world of work to bring new captivating and thought provoking conversations with expert analysis and insights to find out more about your show host Chris Taylor, visit Oven Ready, HR.com. And please do remember to rate and review us. You can also follow us too on Twitter at Oven HR. Thanks.

Imagine this scenario, you’re sitting in an interview room and you feel the interview is going really well. You’ve answered the usual questions about why you want the job. You’ve outlined your experience, et cetera, and so far so good. The interview then points to a gap on your CV, resume and ask for an explanation.

They’re expecting one of the usual responses, such as a career break to go traveling or starting a family. They’re not expecting you to say you’ve been in prison. Society rightly demands that crime must be punished and in some cases with a prison sentence, but then what? Surely the role of the criminal justice system in a humane society is to focus much more on rehabilitation, forgiveness, and hope than it is to seek vengeance and punishment. Of all the interventions available to rebuild ex offenders lives paid employment is perhaps the most powerful. The normality responsibility and dignity that work provides is immesaurable in its ability to turn despair into hope. Joining me to discuss this issue are three individuals with a unique perspective on how one particular organization has made the employment of those most marginalized in society into a major success story. Janet Layton is the director of happiness at British multinational retailer the Timpson group a family business renowned for its culture of upside down management and giving autonomy to its 2000 plus stores in the UK and Ireland. Timpson is one of the largest employers of ex offenders in the UK with approximately 10% of their workforce, having a criminal conviction.

Darren Burns is Timpson’s national recruitment ambassador. He specializes in both the recruitment and retention of ex offenders and others who face barriers to employment. Darren is a former police officer and his experience of working in some of the most challenging parts of the UK enables him to help break the offending cycle and ensure marginalized groups can find employment.

Sarah Barker has worked for the Timpson Group since 2010. She was recruited when she was a resident of HMP, Askham Grange an open prison in York when released, she continued to work for the Timpson group and is now part of the Timpson Locksmith Admin team. Now welcome to Oven Ready HR, everyone. And thanks for joining me on this afternoon.

Now Sarah, can I start with you? Could you describe the events that led to your conviction and give a sense of what life is like in prison?

Sarah

Life in prison is like during another universe. No, you can’t really understand how it is without literally being there, but it’s like walking into some sort of Twilight zone and everything’s really bright.

There’s lots of banging doors, rattles of keys to sound stereotypical. And it was really scary at first in the sense that I really didn’t. Even though I wasn’t worried anymore as such. It was still very alien to me and going through the induction process, getting searched and then being put into the induction wing.

And obviously you don’t know what anyone else has been convicted of or are on remand for. So, you know, there’s that to consider it as well. But I did find that settled into prison life quite easily. And I was always had a very adaptive in that personality. I think that was from being in care and being in different foster homes.

And so I sort of settled in, and just got on with it really , unfortunately not everyone in there can do that. And there was, you know, very upsetting scenes, seeing people screaming and crying, wanting to get out and banging their cell door at night. And, you know, it’s really honestly, it’s, it’s, it really is another world in there.

Chris

I mean, it sounds terrifying personally to me.

Sarah

Yeah I mean, I think I’m quite a special case in that I’ve always been able to adapt, to whatever situation I’m in. I think it’s a case of having to really otherwise things can go pretty bad for you, especially when you’re a child. But I didn’t see a lot of people just absolutely terrified.

There were people in there that had actually taken someone’s life and there were also people in there that haven’t paid their council tax. So you can imagine

range of

a real range and they’re all in the same place as well.

Chris

Oh, gosh. Now Janet, so Timpson’s has got as long championed the employment of, of ex offenders. How did this come about?

Janet

It started many years ago. I think we’re looking at about the 20, 25 years ago. But James took it on board and really championed it. I remember once I think it was, it might’ve been the Sun. It was either the Sun or Mirror newspaper where somebody had got hold of the fact that we were recruiting colleagues who were still in prison and were actually letting them cut keys. And there was a really big hoo hah about the fact that yeah, well, people who joined us since prison, the prison leavers and how could we let them cut keys? And we were like, not every person who’s been in prison has been burglaring homes. You know, it was we just ride the storm with things like that because it it’s crazy. And people shouldn’t marginalize people

Chris

No , absolutely. And is it true to say that around about 10% of the workforce has has a conviction?

Janet

That’s correct yes. But if you think about it in many businesses, there’ll be a percentage of colleagues who have got prison experience and people just won’t know about it we’re just very open.

Chris

Absolutely. I mean, I kind of think that, I mean, perhaps Sarah you could answer this one is sort of talking about , your conviction. Is it a bit like, sort of coming out, you know, do you have to do it almost every day? Do you feel that you have to do it every day or do, or is it now something that’s totally behind you?

Sarah

I think to start with, when I first joined the company, I was very sort of aware. I mean, when I first joined the company, I was still living in prison. So you could’nt really hide it from anyone anyway. But, you know, as time’s gone on, I’ve actually done quite a lot of work with the Timpson foundation with James and Darren. So I’m kind of used to speaking about it. And you know, I think each time I do that, it’s a bit of therapy for me, I suppose. Because you know, it was a massive part of my life, that, you know, big event that happened and it’s taken me a lot of years to, to really be, you know, be sort of okay. So yeah, I mean every day is a schoolday as it were definitely.

Chris

I and, and Janet I mean diversity and inclusivity at Timpsons is fully embraced isn’t it? I mean, what benefits do you think this brings and you do actually have the best title of a job I’ve ever heard as Director of Happiness.

Janet

Thank you very much. If I had a pound for every person that ever says that I would be a multimillionaire I’d still be doing this doing this podcast, but I would be a multi-millionnaire I can assure you definitely.

Having inclusivity and diversity works really well because we see our colleagues as individual people. And quite often you find that people who’ve come from prison people like Sarah are actually really bright individuals who’ve decided to take a chance in life that you and I might be a bit wary of taking.

Chris

Sure

Janet

So quite often, some of our better brighter, stronger world colleagues are people who’ve got lived experience from prison like Sarah, and we don’t care where you’ve come from, what you did last week, what you did yesterday. We’re interested in what you’re doing today and what you want to do tomorrow.

Your CV means nothing to us other than your name and telephone number. So we get we’re really lucky because we have a whole host of real, crazy lively, buzzy people in our business. Becuase we’re recruiting on personality rather than looking at CVs and that works exceptionally well, which is why we’re really wealthy company, which is why we’ve always got money in the bank.

Chris

No. Sure. And I think there’s a fair amount of autonomy isn’t there. In terms of how your colleagues in the individual shops can, you know, they’re opening times and prices that they set and things like that you, you give this sort of I don’t know how you describe it. Is it sort of bottom up sort of culture? Isn’t it whereby the store colleagues are almost seen as the most important within the business..

Janet

That’s correct. We call it upside down management. So what we do is we give our colleagues the freedom and autonomy to be the best they can possibly be in order to give excellent customer service. Now, if that’s being creative, that’s fabulous. If that’s being a really good salesperson, that’s absolutely amazing. But by giving people freedom or autonomy, it makes them better at what they do. Because they believe in themselves. So what we will do is we’ll push people out of their comfort zone and say, no, this is yours. This is for you to do and, we just see how people thrive. You’ve only got to look at excellent colleagues like Sarah to see howSarah has thrived from even working with us when she was still in prison. So she was going back to prison every day and working with us and she’s been able to thrive, becuase we’ve given her that freedom to do that.

Chris

Sure. I mean, Sarah, it, was it, I mean, were you pretty nervous about going back into the workplace when you left prison?

Sarah

Oh, yes very yeah. To be honest, when I went into prison, even though I’ve worked like since I was 16, and I really was at a point in my life where I just thought, that’s it for me, you know, my life’s over and I’ve been through quite a lot so my, my personality was really sort of, I was quite withdrawn at the time. So when I thought there was a possibility of going back to work, when I realized that that was actually going to happen, I was, I was actually quite scared. I thought well, if I’m not good enough, you know what, you know, it really was a case of my self-esteem and confidence on the floor. So I just thought that the reason why I did it in the first place is because I just thought, well, why not what have I got to lose?

Chris

I imagine it must be quite, you know, suddenly you, as you said earlier, one of your answers that, you know, prison gives you a certain amount of control over your life, but, but also it takes away certain responsibility, which you didn’t have to worry about, but obviously, you know, you’re coming out of those gates on, you know, on the day that you are released, you really there’s very little in the way of, of support is there for people that have just left prison is that true?

Yeah. I mean, as far as the Prison service is concerned, I think you get your trade fare and that’s about it. You know, it’s, it’s what it, it is, you know, it’s just the way it is. I mean, there are agencies in, within the prison that can help you to, to a certain extent, but they don’t find you a place to live and they don’t find you a job that’s sort of down to you really.

Sarah

And I was just really lucky that the representative from Timpson had actually visited the prison with a view to potentially employing a few, a few people. If they hadn’t done that, I don’t know where, what would have happened because prior to that, I’d actually applied for over 70 jobs from the prison, you know before my release and I’d got absolutely nowhere because my address was HMP. So, you know, it’s a case of extreme look at that point, it came along exactly when I needed it, which was a bit of a miracle really to be fair..

Chris

No. Absolutely. And, and Janet sort of turning to you. I mean, some of these stories are extraordinary aren’t they? So that, you know, that, that you’re working with and you’re working with individuals, as I say, who had a very challenging set of circumstances in their life and generally quite an early sort of challenging set of circumstances. Do you, is there anything within the Timpson culture, do you think that is particularly special in terms of, of helping to manage and develop these individuals that you, that you then employ?

Janet

Yeah, I believe it’s all about trust and kindness. And as managers, we’re here to support our colleagues. So it doesn’t matter what they’re going through, whether somebody has just stepped out of prison, whether somebody has been out of prison 12 years or whether somebody has never been to prison, If they’ve got problems away from work, as managers, we’re there to support and guide them.

Chris

Sure.

Janet

And, one of the strong reasons we do that is A we’re very ethical, but also if we take away the worries that they’ve got away from work, then when they do come to work, they can actually focus on looking after customers on, on looking after each other and being happy and productive because we all know that colleagues who are happy and productive, you know, uh, make better employees.

Chris

Sure. So, and Sarah, what, what message would you give to those individuals you know, let’s perhaps listening to this podcast who have a criminal conviction and also what message would you give to those employers with the power to offer the job?

Sarah

Um, I would say to those employers I would say on the, on the surface, it’s not that, you know, if someone says, do you want to employ someone from prison? Obviously on the surface, it doesn’t sound that appealing, but when you dig a bit deeper and you’re looking to the results that other companies have had, Timpsons for example, um, you’ll see there’s quite a lot of success stories and the good thing is about employing people from that have been in prison is that you have, you have their record in front of you, then, you know exactly what they’ve done um, and you know what, you’re getting in a sense, whereas a lot of people that come off, off, off the streets, you know, that people lie on the CVs and they, they don’t tell you the whole truth. So in actual fact, you, you’re sort of getting everything right there you can make an informed decision on and if it goes, if it goes wrong, , then you know, you just learn from your mistakes and you sort of move on from there. Plus, you know, it’ s ethically, it’s, it’s a massive win for the business and you’re doing, you’re helping those people and you’re also showing everyone that your business is a business that cares. So as far as I’m concerned, that’s something that, you know, every business could benefit from To say to those people that are either, in custody or that have been in prison and worried about employment and things like that, I think I’d say things are so different now than they were 20 years ago. And there were, so there are quite a lot of employees out there, employers, sorry that do employ ex-offenders, um, and are also open to it. So I would say think before you lie on your CV and because to the right company that, you know, they will give you a chance, but it’s very important to know that I never got a free ride I was lucky to have met them, but I worked really, really hard to get where I am today. And it was very hard, you know, the, the work was hard. I had a great time doing it, but it’s not a free ride and it’s not a charity. You have to, you have to give, give back what they give to you as such. So, and, and also, I would say, try and find some kind of support network for yourself because without that outside support as well, it can be really, really hard to focus on work and focus on getting a job. So just really try and find that for yourself.

Chris

Okay, but that’s very interesting. And Janet, what advice would you give employers or hiring managers listening to this? I mean, obviously you’ve had a major success story with the work that, that your firm has done. Is there any hints or tips that you would give other employers who perhaps considering this is part of their diversity and inclusion policies?

Janet

Yeah I’d say to anybody who’s thinking about recruiting people that have got prison experience is look behind the prison doors. Look at the individuals. When you go to interview somebody that is in prison, they’re going to be afraid, they’re going to be nervous, they’ve never met you before. Look behind them and find that personality, find out what makes them tick. Just like you would, if you were interviewing somebody else. Yeah, these people quite often don’t believe in themselves at a moment in time, but if you’ve got the right personality and you can give them the support and guidance, they will get there. Like Sarah, they will get there very quickly and soon you will see somebody who’s a shining star. That somebody will not even notice because they never took that chance by going through those prison doors and interviewing people. So I would urge more businesses to do it.

Chris

Yeah and as Sarah said, I mean, , you know, her, her her life was, was basically laid bare and you don’t get that with, you know, CVs or, or candidates who haven’t had the, you know, the existence that, that Sarah had at the beginning of her life. So it’s, it’s, it’s a very interesting concept. And I think that, you know, as I said, the work that that obviously Timpson has done is, is hugely impressive. Darren turning to you, you must find Sarah’s story, a rather familiar one in your role within the Timpson group?.

Darren

Yeah, I’m afraid it is quite a familiar story. Unfortunately, Chris, there’s not enough efforts made in our prison system to prepare people for work upon release. Some prisons are a lot better than others. As you’re probably aware, there are various categories of prison within the UK. The Category D open estates or some of the open female prisons are a lot more better prepared for preparing people for the world of work upon release but it can’t be quite difficult and we find that by engaging with people whilst they’re in custody, to offer them positions either in one of our training academies or by offering them a position on wattle release on temporary license, this is the best and safest way to reintegrate them back in to society and to prepare them for the world of work upon release.

Chris

Okay. Does it that, does it also sort of come down to the individual approach by the, by the authority or the governor of the prison, in terms of, of how much sort of outreach there is to organizations and potential employers? Did they have much control over that?

Darren

I think it does, to an extent. But what you have to bear in mind with the prisons is that they are massively underfunded and obviously during the times of austerity there were lots of cuts made; the prison staff and the prison service generally. So that’s made it even more difficulty even more difficult for them, some of the sorts of higher category prison, and certainly Cat A Category B even some Cat C prisons. Their main priority is to just essentially stop people, escaping reduce violence, reduce their drugs and harm there’s not much of a focus on resettlement support. This is where the category D open prisons come in and that’s where the governors have a lot more autonomy to set prisoners up for release really and make sure that they’ve got the training and employment opportunities. So that’s where all the, all the good work comes in..

Chris

Okay and what do you think is the general experience of individuals with a criminal conviction seeking employment in the UK? How would you, how would you characterize that?

Darren

I think it’s really tough. I think they face lots of barriers to employment upon release, or even if you haven’t been to custody, just if you’ve got conviction lots of employers ask the question, whether they’ve, they’ve got a conviction, the minute somebody ticks that box. I think it’s something like 80% of employers openly admit to taking these applications and just putting them in the bin. I’m assuming, because they don’t know how to ask the right questions, don’t know how to do risk assessments. And they’ve just got a general lack of education and knowledge around employing people with convictions.

But as you mentioned earlier, there are 11 million people in the UK with a criminal conviction, more serious than a driving offense. So that’s almost one sixth of the UK population. So to throw that huge swathe of our population on the employment, scrap heap, and assume that they’re worthless, they’ve got nothing to offer ,they’re inherently dishonest. We just see it as madness and where lots of other employers turn down these people aren’t even going to engage with them offer them an interview. We, we see past that. We have an honest and frank discussion with them. And we give them that opportunity and we give them that second chance.

Chris

Okay and Darren, what would you advise HR leaders and hiring managers who are nervous about recruiting ex-offenders? What sort of process would you recommend? Because there is this sort of movement that says sort of ban the box is, you know, where obviously someone has to tick the box to say that they have a, a criminal conviction or it’s not a spent conviction or whatever it is. Do you think that sort of ban the box? ticking is a good idea?

Darren

In principle yes but it’s not something that we exactly subscribed to. And the only reason we don’t is because we don’t need to, because we’re sort of synonymous with being an ex-offender friendly employer. What we did rather than ban the box. We we’ve got a section on our application form, which says, if you have gotten an unspent criminal conviction pursuant to the 1974 rehabilitation of offenders Act, this is not necessarily a bar to employment with us. However, it will be discussed at interview and that then allows for sort of honest and frank discussions with the candidate to the point of interview, we can then make a decision on the spot. If it’s something that we’re happy with it’s something that we’re prepared to take forward and in most situations it is. I spend lots of my time advising other businesses and organizations who are keen to recruit from this cohort, but they just don’t know how to. Often my speak to HR managers they’ll advise me that they can’t recruit people with convictions because they’ve got an HR policy in place and again, we asked them to have, have a look at that policy. Often these policies have been in place for sort of 20, 30 years are completely irrelevant. We advise them to tear it up compile a new policy. We also help by taking employers into prisons that, , introduce them to some of the trainees, and our prison workshops, and our prison academies. And again, as soon as they go into a prison, all these kind of images that they’re sort of expected to see all these stereotypes that have been projected onto them, usually by the media just completely disappear. And they find out that prisons just full of normal people who’ve fallen foul of the law.

Chris

Yeah and obviously every, every prisoner that the story is different, isn’t it it’s individualized to every single person that’s in there..

Darren

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got really, really interesting jobs. So I’m under normal circumstances pre-covid. I spent lots of my time in custody that, um, interviewing candidates, for employment, upon, release, and in our various outlets up and down the UK. Um, and some of the stories are just fascinating, but again, it always just goes against that sort of stereotype of a, um, heavily tattooed thug who can’t string, a sentence together. Um, obviously prison is just like a cross section of society. You meet lots of professional people in prison who have just fallen foul of the law because they’ve made a bad choice or a series of bad choices.

Chris

Yeah. Or just life has been unlucky.

Darren

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, some people just haven’t had the opportunities that we’ve had. And because of that, they’ve, they’ve chosen a life of crime, it often just, just to survive. They found themselves in custody.

Chris

So you must be very proud, proud of Timpson’s and the, sort of the hope that it gives this marginalized group of individuals?

Darren

Oh, hugely proud. I mean, since I’ve been involved with the business and I can’t take any credit for it because the Timpson foundation was started by James Timpson, our CEO back in 2002, but since I’ve been involved, we’ve, we’ve employed, literally hundreds of people. We’ve speak to them whilst they’re in custody it pretty much at the lowest ebb they’ve got nothing positive in their lives. They’ve often lost the relationships, their homes in some cases, and we’ve gone in and we’ve been able to show them that trust and give them that opportunity, give them a second chance. It’s, it’s been a huge sort of positive in their lives, but I think that the flip side of it is, is that it’s also been a huge positive for our business. And because we’ve been giving these people an opportunity and a second chance, they’ve , they’ve paid this back by working really hard. I mean really productive.,

Chris

So it’s been a major success story, right?

Darren

Hugely. Yeah. I mean, at the moment about 10% of our workforce are made up with people, who’ve either been to prison or who’ve got a criminal conviction. , I can honestly say that this whole cohort, we refer to them as foundation colleagues in the business. They are extremely loyal, very hardworking, very productive, and it’s just kind of enriched our business. The sorts of experiences, their life experience, the personal resilience that these people bring. It’s just been a huge positive for us really

Chris

Sarah, Darren, Janet it’s been a really illuminating conversation and thanks very much for your time. A great pleasure to talk to you. Thanks a lot.

Share this podcast

Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Recent episodes

Episode 16
Season 2

Go Big Or Go Home! Getting Workers Back To The Office

Guest(s)

Olly Olsen

“Our people team that have kicked into a gear that I never realised we had, and the number of people that we’re trying to hire at the moment is, is extraordinary”
15
Season 2

LinkedIn – Love It or Loathe it?

Guest(s)

Jon Simmonds

“it used to be a glorified Jobs board and we all knew that LinkedIn was where you put your CV up when you were fed up with what you were currently doing. But once you dig down under the surface now, you know, they’ve made a lot of changes to the platform and for my money, it’s actually, it it’s the most genuine social network out there.”
14
Season 2

Oven-Ready HR Reheated! Further Highlights From Season 2

Guest(s)

Francesca Peters, Daniel Dore, Mike Seidle, Sarah Barker, Darren Burns, Merlie Calvert and Dr Paola Carr-Walker

Another slice of Oven-Ready HR interviews from Season 2.
Episode 13
Season 2

Oven-Ready HR Reheated! Highlights from Season 2

Guest(s)

Jeremy Hunt MP, Michael F Schein, Matthew Taylor, Dr Sam Farley, Michael Whitfield and Reeves Wiedeman.

We’re giving listeners the opportunity for an extra slice of interviews from the first six episodes of Season 2 of the Oven-Ready HR Podcast
Episode 12
Season 2

Changing Attitudes To Mental Health At Work

Guest(s)

Dr Paola Carr-Walker

“Everybody is encouraged to think about their physical health and in the same way I think we should all be encouraged to think about our mental health. And yeah, I would say it’s not just a self-indulgent way of going about things. I think it’s very important. “
Episode 11
Season 2

How Deliveroo Inspired Delivery Of Legal Services

Guest(s)

Merlie Calvert

“I think we’ve got far too many, highly talented business owners, business managers, senior employees doing admin and tying themselves in knots versus doing what they’re best capable of doing, which is going out there, creating, innovating, conversing with people, winning hearts and minds”

Be the first to get the latest episode of my podcast