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Should job applicants have to disclose criminal convictions?

Kate Allen, Managing Director, Allen Associates

Even for the plucky jobseeker, sending off an application is nerve-wracking at the best of times. Once that ‘send’ button is clicked, there’s no going back.

Now, all the eager candidate can do is wait patiently to find out where they stand.

Suddenly, a new message lands in your inbox: an application has been made for the vacancy at your company. At a glance, it’s easy to see the candidate has the skills required for the role. A scan through their qualifications shows they’ve achieved the credentials asked for in the job ad.

There’s just one little, square-shaped problem.

The candidate has ticked the box. Unfortunately for them, it’s not the proverbial one. Right at the bottom of the form, under what was (and still is) a strong application, they have admitted to a criminal conviction. How do you proceed?

If you’re like 16% of employers surveyed by Working Links, you would reject the candidate outright - and who could blame you? From a business perspective, taking on an employee with a criminal history is considered a risk, no matter how long ago the crime took place. Perhaps you’d be more accepting, and invite them for an interview? The same data shows 75% of employers would proceed with the application, but couldn’t help discriminating against the candidate at a later stage.

But is it fair to judge a candidate on their past, when our legal system is designed to redeem, reform and rehabilitate criminals? Isn’t the concept of being forced to declare your past the very thing that has prevented people from moving forward with their lives?

According to Bristol council, there’s no question as to whether a criminal conviction should be disclosed in a job application. In April this year, they became the first local authority in the country to ‘Ban the Box’ in their job application forms, ensuring that candidates with spent convictions could rebuild their lives as the system intends.

‘Everyone applying for a job at the council should be given the same encouragement and opportunity irrespective of their background,’ said Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol.

However, while banning the box itself can help employers to recruit without bias, the new policy adopted by Bristol Council does allow for successful candidates to be questioned on their criminal history once a candidate is past the first hurdle. At this stage, the council retains the right to withdraw the job offer. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

The decision comes on the back of the ‘Ban The Box’ campaign, spearheaded by Business In The Community and supported by charities such as Unlock, a UK-based organisation which works with companies throughout the country to create opportunities for people with past convictions by removing the requirement to disclose criminal history at application stage.

In the retail sector, Boots have championed the campaign with their supply chain, giving those who are eager to change the chance to gain valuable experience. However, they aren’t alone: multinational law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP have shown that regulated industries can help people with past convictions by popping the criminal record question only after offer of employment.

Truthfully, it isn’t hard to understand why a tick of the ‘criminal convictions’ box tends to draw a knee-jerk response. Many assume that the individual in question has served time for a violent act and quickly base their judgements on this belief. In reality, 68% of all sentences handed down by courts are fines, with 76% of convictions being for “summary offences”, which means these situations were less serious, and dealt with by the Magistrates court. In fact, only 7.9% of offenders are given custodial sentences.

While clear headway is being made to ensure those with convictions can move on, it’s a culture shift that we can’t expect to happen overnight. However, with around 10 million people living with criminal convictions in the UK, it’s a debate which can’t be left for another day.

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