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Cooking Up A Feast With Ex Offenders

23rd November 2015 Paul Andrews

COOK has been employing ex-offenders for approximately 12 months, and leads the way towards encouraging other companies to look at what a person can offer, rather than their past.

Sometimes, a person’s background can hold them back throughout the rest of their lives. Whether it’s because of time spent in prison, growing up in a poorer neighbourhood or not attending university, many people can face barriers when trying to get back into work. This is particularly true for ex-offenders, who often come up against extreme prejudice when trying to integrate themselves back into society, particularly when it comes to finding work. But the importance of steady employment cannot be underestimated, in fact working was found by the government to be a significant factor in reducing instances of re-offending.

But, employing those from disadvantaged backgrounds is now becoming less of a taboo, and more and more companies are now choosing to look beyond a person’s past and see the skills that they can offer instead. Some of these companies include COOK, a family-owned business specialising in premium frozen ready meals, Timpson, and Ernst and Young, all of whom actively employ ex-offenders.

Rosie Brown, People Director at COOK, recently spoke at an event called ‘Discovering Potential’. Organised by employee engagement specialists Best Companies, the event was supporting a government-led campaign entitled ‘See Potential’, which encourages employers to look past a person’s background and focus on their hidden talents when it comes to recruitment. 

“Why we do this is really important,” said Rosie, speaking at the event in London. “And we do it because we think it is one of the biggest single ways we can have a positive impact and help create a more inclusive and compassionate society.”

COOK has been employing ex-offenders for approximately 12 months, and is helping to lead the way towards encouraging other companies to look instead at what a person can offer, rather than their past. At a time when skills gaps are arguably the biggest challenge facing many businesses, it’s vital that employers adopt a more flexible talent acquisition strategy.

So read on for our top five lessons to be learned when it comes to implementing a new recruitment scheme.

1) There is no silver bullet

In other words, if you choose to make a change within your business and wish to start offering second chances to ex-offenders, then there is no quick fix. Things can get tricky, partially due to the fact that there is no set way to go about it, and you have to be committed to being ready to take on the challenges.

COOK found that the best place to start, given the lack of any existing channels, was to search for local community groups and prisons. However, the company also discovered that communications can be extremely slow. If you really want to make a difference with an ex-offenders’ employment scheme, you have to work hard, bide your time and overcome the hurdles. It’ll be worth it in the end.

2) Empower the teams on the front line

One of the biggest issues employers are bound to encounter is the reaction from existing employees. Although there may well be resistance at first, what’s important is that it is discussed widely and a level of trust is built up. Transparency is key.

An important step that COOK took was to humanise those ex-offenders who could be working for them. They took a group of kitchen workers to visit the prisons, allowing them to work first hand with people and encourage them to become more engaged with the project. Getting your current employees actively involved with the work you are doing can really help them to overcome those pre-instilled prejudices that could be in place. Not only that, but also knowing that they were included in such an innovative and modern project will help them to feel included in the business, rather than pushed out. 

3) Know where to turn for expert support

When setting up a project that enables you to employ ex-offenders, one of the main government channels that you will encounter will be the Department for Work and Pensions. It is essential that employers work actively with these bodies in order to ensure that the proper processes are followed. 

There will inevitably be times when the correct processes cannot necessarily be adhered to, and that is when it is essential that businesses collaborate with the DWP on a case-by-case basis, in order to ensure that people are being helped in the best ways. An example of this was a woman who worked at COOK for three days a week but was also experiencing issues at home. She needed to be admitted to a women’s hostel but in order to be accepted she had to sign on to benefits, which she couldn’t receive because she was working. This example highlights the difficulties that companies may face, and that they may be beyond your expertise, which is why it is essential to keep in contact with the right departments.

4) No exceptions to company values

All potential employees, regardless of their background, should still have to go through the company’s recruitment system; there cannot be one rule for some and a separate rule for others. All candidates must go through the same process, whether that involves one-to-one talks, group interviews or tasks to complete.

Whatever the core values of your team are, you should strive to ensure that these are adhered to at all times. If you treat your employees like family, then work hard to keep the people happy and relationships alive. Having people working side-by-side, regardless of backgrounds, builds a local community, and shows just how much of a societal difference that these schemes can make, with the benefits stretching further than you think.

5) Remember why you started

The journey to starting a scheme such as this one won’t always be plain sailing; there will be bumps ahead and difficulties that present themselves. But the important thing is to remember why you started the project in the first place. Offering second chances to those with disadvantaged backgrounds can transform so many lives; not just those who are being given the opportunity, but also those who work alongside them. Pre-held prejudices will be overturned and feelings of pride will encourage others to become more involved with helping those in need of a break. 

Implementing a new employment scheme is never going to come without its challenges. Not only is there red tape to cut through, there are pre-existing prejudices on both sides and training barriers to overcome, but with careful planning and consideration there is no reason why you can’t expand your recruitment to include people from all walks of life.

Forward planning, careful thinking and a strong commitment to your cause is all you need, and you’ll soon start to see the benefits ripple out from your business.



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