Better advice and information could increase employers’ confidence in hiring people convicted of sexual offences

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Over half of employers would feel more confident hiring people with sexual convictions if they had access to management advice, or if they believed that the applicant wouldn’t reoffend, a joint report by the Prison Reform Trust and Unlock reveals.

Almost half of employers surveyed would be reassured by knowing the person would be under strict probation supervision, and over a third if they believed that other workers would accept them.

Thinking Differently, written by Dr Mia Harris, Dr Rachel Tynan and Dr Kimmett Edgar, explores employers’ attitudes towards hiring people convicted of sexual offences. Its findings are based on a survey of employers and interviews with prison resettlement officers, employers, charities and other professionals.

Sexual offences cover a wide range of very different behaviours, from some of the most serious crime on the statute book to, for example, 17-year-olds sending sexual images of themselves to their partners. In the year ending March 2020, police recorded 154,113 sexual offences. However, given the lack of reporting, this figure is likely to underestimate the true extent of sexual offending.

Reoffending rates for people convicted of sex offences are low compared to other offence types. On average, between 10 and 15% of people convicted of sex offences are charged for another sexual offence within five years.

Research evidence suggests that having a stable job can help reduce reoffending, including by those convicted of sexual offences, by providing structure, a sense of belonging, personal fulfilment, and a perception of something to lose. However, employers tend to discriminate against people with convictions in general, and people convicted of sexual offences are the most stigmatised within that group.

There are some jobs, for instance those involving contact with children or vulnerable adults, where a sexual conviction may be a legitimate reason for not employing an individual due to safeguarding concerns.

However, there are many jobs for which a sexual conviction should not be a bar to employment and in which any risk presented by the individual could be safely managed. But too often discriminatory employment practices and attitudes prevent people with sexual convictions from entering the workplace. Understanding employers’ views about hiring people convicted of sexual offences is therefore an important part of any strategy to increase opportunities for employment, in pursuit of reintegration and safer communities.

As well as exploring the attitudes of employers to hiring people with sexual convictions, the report sought to assess whether better-informed employers might be more open to hiring people from this group. In order to do so, two versions of the survey were used. The long version of the survey provided information about sexual offending, supervision and support in the community and reoffending rates.

Employers who were given additional information about sexual offending were found to be three times less likely to list reoffending as a reason not to employ people with sexual convictions than those employers who were not sent the longer survey. These findings must be treated with caution, because employers taking the long version of the survey were more likely to report from the outset that they were open to hiring people with convictions, and actively promoting the recruitment of people with criminal records.

Among the report’s recommendations are for employers to be provided with factual information about all offending, but particularly sexual and violent offending. This should include detail on risk factors and assessment and supervision and safeguards.

Commenting in the Foreword of the report, Dr Lynn Saunders OBE, governor at HMP Whatton and Chair and co-founder of the Safer Living Foundation, a charity established to prevent sexual (re)offending, said:

“People with sexual convictions find it difficult to obtain work even though they are often well motivated, skilled, and have a good work ethic—desirable characteristics for any employer. Although the impact of a sexual offence on an individual victim should not be underestimated, neither should the importance of reducing the likelihood of the creation of future victims. Providing a person with the opportunity to obtain stable employment has a significant impact on the prevention of sexual crime. Given advice about how they can be safely managed in the workplace, employers can assist their successful rehabilitation.”

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“This detailed and thorough report tackles a subject that it would be all too easy to ignore. But stigma thrives on ignorance, and ultimately harms public safety. Balanced, accurate information about the huge range of behaviour that is categorised as sexual offending, and about the supervision of people convicted of those crimes, can build employers’ confidence. Just as people need safe places to live when they leave prison, so they also need a way to earn a living – our communities will be safer when we remove the barriers that stop that from happening.”

Christopher Stacey, Co-director of Unlock, said:

“People with convictions face stigma and obstacles many years after their sentence is complete. For people convicted of sexual offences that is amplified and we regularly hear from skilled and motivated people who cannot find a job as a result. Employment enables people to give back – to their family, community and by contributing to the economy – and it makes society safer too. This report shows that employers can, with the right information and support, start to see people with convictions for sexual offences as potential employees.”

Notes

Employer case study: Goodwill Solutions CIC

As well as being a logistics business, Goodwill Solutions CIC also runs programmes of training and support to help those with additional challenges become more employable.

A question we are asked many times by organisations like Probation and the Police is, “Is there anyone you won’t work with”? At first I wondered ‘why that question?’ Surely when you say you want to try and help people to turn their lives around and become fully functioning members of their local communities you don’t say ‘no’ to anyone. However, it turns out that even in a sector which pushes an agenda of inclusivity, significant prejudice remains amongst those organisations and businesses who support ex-offenders.

At Goodwill we have supported, and where we’ve been able also employed, offenders of all kinds including those convicted of sexual offences. It’s not easy because we have to be mindful of their restrictions and make sure we aren’t putting them or others in danger.

There are very few jobs which cannot be done safely by people convicted of a sexual offence. In most instances it is a mindset challenge for employers and other employees but one that we believe is key to the whole community. Many have families, parents, children who depend on them for support. If we ostracise that person we condemn not just them but their families too.

The key is open and honest communication both about their convictions and their restrictions. We believe that a person able to turn their life around is far less likely to reoffend than someone abandoned and left feeling that society wants him to fail.

Overall, our experience has been a positive one. Most are older with a good work ethic and record of stable employment in the past but in some cases unable to go back into the sector they worked within. In many cases they are just looking for a way to try and move on with their lives, earn a salary, find a stable home, and move away from their offending past like so many other ex-offenders.

Methodology

We emailed the surveys to approximately 250 employers – half received one survey, and half received the other. The employers varied in size, and covered a range of industries, including retail, food, construction, hospitality and the charity sector. We also shared the surveys via Prison Reform Trust’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. Given that both surveys were posted several times across all three platforms, participants should effectively have been randomly allocated to each version. In total, 43 people took the surveys – 18 took the standard version, and 25 took the survey with additional information. Not all survey responses were complete.

Key findings

  • Almost all employers surveyed would consider hiring people with convictions and almost half said they actively promoted hiring them. For most, the nature of the offence was an important deciding factor.
  • Most employers asked applicants to disclose criminal convictions, and used DBS checks. Some did not have a written policy on recruiting people with convictions, meaning they were not fully complying with the DBS Code of Practice. Most employers (56%) did not know that it is illegal to carry out DBS checks at a higher level than required.
  • Most employers knew that people convicted of serious sexual offences are strictly supervised; sexual offences cover a broad range of behaviours; and employment reduces the risk of re-offending for any type of offence.
  • The majority of employers said that their main concerns about hiring people with sexual convictions were other employees’ reactions (65%), customer safety (62%), and workplace safety (54%). Fewer than half said they would be concerned about reoffending, managing them, or public opinion. Only 11% were concerned about reliability.
  • Employers were much more likely to be concerned about reliability for non-sexual offences than for sexual offences. Only 35% of employers were concerned about public opinion if they hired people convicted of sex offences, but this was much higher than non-sexual offences (13%).
  • Employers were also much more likely to express concerns about employee reactions (65% compared to 39%) and customer safety (62% compared to 32%) when considering hiring people with sexual compared to non-sexual convictions. Employers were more concerned about workplace safety when considering hiring someone convicted of a violent (68%) than a sexual offence (54%).
  • More than half of employers would feel more confident hiring people with sexual convictions if they had access to management advice, or if they believed that the applicant wouldn’t reoffend. Almost half would be reassured by knowing the person would be under strict probation supervision, and over a third if they believed that other workers would accept them. For 30% of employers, knowing the offence was not ‘too serious’ would boost their confidence.

To assess whether better-informed employers might be more open to hiring people with sexual convictions, two versions of the survey were used. The long version of the survey provided information about sexual offending, supervision and support in the community and reoffending rates.

Employers who received additional information were less concerned, in some ways, about hiring people with sexual convictions. They were substantially less likely to be concerned about reoffending (21% compared to 61%), workplace safety (42% compared to 67%), and customer safety (47% compared to 78%). They were more likely to be reassured by a sexual offence not being too serious (44% compared to 13%).

These findings must be treated with caution, because employers taking the long version were more likely to report from the outset that they were open to hiring people with convictions, and actively promoting the recruitment of people with criminal records.

Report recommendations

Government should:

  1. Reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 so that rehabilitation periods are fair and proportionate and nearly all convictions are capable of becoming spent.
  2. Review the punitive effect of Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Offences Prevention Orders (SOPOs) in preventing convictions from becoming spent.
  3. Provide a legal remedy when potential employers discriminate against people on the grounds of a conviction which is spent.
  4. Consult on amendments to the Police Act to ensure that the DBS shoulder the responsibility for preventing ineligible checks.
  5. Provide comprehensive, clear and consistent information to employers about recruiting people with convictions.
  6. Ensure that schemes to promote the employment of people with convictions in the public sector are evidence-led and do not place blanket exclusions on applications from people with sexual convictions.
  7. Adequately fund projects that support people with sexual convictions to reintegrate into the community, such as Circles of Support and Accountability, and Lincolnshire Action Trust.

The New Futures Network (NFN) should:

  1. Create a workstream for employment opportunities for people convicted of sexual offences, recognising the challenges the group and employers face.
  2. Provide specific training for employment brokers about sexual offending. This should include information about what constitutes a sexual offence, reoffending rates, and supervision and support in the community, as well as how to communicate effectively with employers regarding this group, and how to counteract inaccurate perceptions of people with sexual convictions.
  3. When brokering employment opportunities, take into account the varying ages, fitness levels, work backgrounds, and skills of people with sexual convictions.
  4. Provide employers with factual information about all offending, but particularly sexual and violent offending. This should include detail on risk factors and assessment and supervision and safeguards.
  5. Promote the business and social benefits of hiring people with sexual convictions, facilitating employers meeting people from this group.
  6. Ensure that partner employers providing prison industries workshops, working with the New Futures Network and on the Ministry of Justice’s preferred supplier list have a fair approach to applicants in the community with criminal convictions.

Others:

  1. The DBS should establish a review process whereby an employer found to be requesting ineligible checks is required to provide more detailed information for future standard and enhanced checks.
  2. Organisations involved in employer engagement or employment support (for example: the Department for Work and Pensions; Information, Advice and Guidance providers in prisons; and members of the Employment Support Retraining Agency and Recruitment and Employment Confederation) should have an evidence-based approach to people convicted of sexual offences.
  3. Organisations such as the Employers Forum for Reducing Reoffending and Business in the Community should encourage businesses to share their experiences of hiring people with sexual convictions, including examples of best practice.
  4. Employer networks should work with probation to improve employers’ understanding of supervision and support for people with sexual convictions in the community.
  5. The National Probation Service and the College of Policing should develop guidance for probation and police to increase their awareness of the impact of disclosure of a sexual conviction on employment prospects. This would help practitioners make proportionate decisions about disclosing information to employers, balancing the risk of harm with the rehabilitation needs of those they are supervising.

This report was part of a joint project between Unlock and Prison Reform Trust

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