The retail sector's approach to ex-offenders needs a rethink

The retail industry employs more people in the UK than any other private sector industry, providing 4.9 million jobs across around 374,000 businesses in roles ranging from customer service and warehousing through to buying,

So imagine wanting to get into this huge and vibrant industry but getting knocked back time and again because you’ve honestly declared that you have a criminal conviction. Five years into the Ban the Box campaign only three retailers have signed up to open out their opportunities to people with a criminal conviction through their mainstream recruitment channels. 

Ban the Box calls on UK employers to give ex-offenders a fair chance to compete for jobs by removing the tick box from application forms that asks about criminal convictions. This removes the damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation that candidates say the tick box puts them in. They feel that if they tick the box they’ll be thrown on the scrapheap but if they don’t they could be found out later and lose their job anyway. 

The flexiblity of Ban the Box
Ban the Box can be flexible to meet the employer’s recruitment needs. It still allows employers to ask about convictions later in the recruitment process, fairly weighing up any risk against the circumstances and the role so there’s no excuse that it can’t be done in any organisation.

Walgreens Boots Alliance – a huge international retailer – was one of the first companies to sign up following a prison visit that convinced Executive Vice President, Global Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel Marco Pagni of the need to act. He expected other companies would follow their lead and more than 110 have done so across every major sector. Retail is severely lagging behind.

So what’s stopping some of our biggest employers, many of them with entry level jobs and high staff turnover, taking a chance on an ex-offender?

Mostly retailers are concerned with what their customers and staff might think and that’s an understandable concern. The companies that have successfully tackled this have been open and honest with their existing staff. They’ve offered training and prison visits and they’ve created opportunities for staff to meet ex-offenders and see that they’re just people too. 

There is still a huge stigma attached to the idea of employing someone who has been found guilty of a crime. Retailers have the power to challenge that, along with the misconceptions about the types of people who have criminal convictions. The truth is, people with criminal convictions are just like the rest of us. They’ve made a mistake and been caught. They’ve been punished – be that with a fine, community order or time in prison – and they’re looking to put that behind them and move on with their lives.

Employers who are making a difference
Employers like Barclays, Boots, Costain, the Civil Service, Fujitsu, Virgin Trains and a hundred more recognise the value people with criminal convictions can bring to their organisations and have opened up their mainstream recruitment processes through Ban the Box.

Others, such as Timpsons and Greggs, have made themselves so widely known as places where ex-offenders are welcome that they don’t feel the need to sign up. But they’re enthusiastic about the business benefits of their inclusive approach. 

At Greggs, the average six-month retention rate for people with criminal convictions is 83%, with 33% of these employees moving into management roles.

Boots UK recruits about 100 people with convictions from prison and the community each year to cover the busy Christmas period in their warehouses – read more in our impact story. One of Boots’ key suppliers, Ricoh UK, sees a direct financial saving of £390.10 for each person they successfully recruit directly through prisons and Ban the Box.

A number of retailers do have schemes in partnership with Business in the Community or other voluntary sector providers to provide job opportunities directly to disadvantaged groups and some of these include people with criminal convictions. However, if they haven’t signed up to Ban the Box they are still missing out on a much larger potential group of candidates who would otherwise come through their mainstream recruitment processes.