Case study: Giving ex-offenders a Fresh Start

Logistics business Clipper has found a relatively untapped talent source in ex-offenders, as part of an effort to recruit from marginalised groups

The organisation

Clipper is a logistics company headquartered in Leeds specialising in the retail sector. It was founded in 1992 with only a single driver, but today boasts a workforce of more than 5,200 spread between 37 sites. It is an independent company with a fleet of more than 300 vehicles, and handles logistics for such household names as Asda, Halfords, John Lewis and New Look.

The problem

According to the latest available Ministry of Justice statistics (March to June 2018) there are 92,500 people in prison in the UK. As of 31 March 2018 there were 262,758 people on probation in England and Wales alone. But only 17% of ex-offenders manage to get a job within a year of release, and reoffending costs the UK economy up to £15 billion a year.

It’s a problem many are campaigning for the government and employers to tackle. Business in the Community’s Ban the Box campaign has for several years called for the removal of the tick-box for criminal records on application forms. And the Supreme Court ruled in January that the way offenders’ criminal records are disclosed to employers infringes on their human right to a private life, with the ruling standing to affect many people with historic and minor records.

At the same time employment levels are at a record high, the workforce is ageing, and Brexit is causing ongoing uncertainty about future access to labour from abroad. Which means looking to previously untapped talent pools is not only the ethical, societally-minded thing for employers to do, but makes good business sense too.

This is exactly what Clipper has done with its Fresh Start programme, part of which focuses on ex-offenders. “Fresh Start taps into a number of marginalised communities, like the physically and mentally disabled cohort, long-term unemployed, ex-offenders, veterans and so on,” explains Clipper’s group HRD Richard Cowlishaw.

Further reading

Collecting criminal records during recruitment not GDPR-compliant

Ex-offenders: An untapped talent pool?

BITC calls on more employer to 'ban the box'

The method

However, when Cowlishaw approached his colleagues on the board about this idea it was met with some reluctance. “There was a sharp intake of breath when I mentioned the possibility of employing ex-offenders. Because, stereotypically, they may be seen in a judgemental way as less desirable. So I needed a strategy for persuading my colleagues at the board that this wasn’t quite as perhaps perception had it,” Cowlishaw recounts.

He did this by partnering with charity Tempus Novo, which works out of HM Prison Leeds and specialises in helping ex-offenders gain employment and stay away from crime. The charity invited Cowlishaw to tour the prison and it was an eye-opening experience.

“I went round every wing of this prison. A number of people talked to me about life in the prison and their aspirations for when they got out,” he says. “So I listened, I connected, and I let my guard down a little bit. It inspired me to say ‘not everybody that’s in prison is bad’. It’s a stereotype and a misperception that once a criminal, always a criminal. I needed to change that mentality with people in my organisation.”

Cowlishaw points out that this misperception is a problem in most businesses. Tempus Novo was able to help by engaging several of Clipper’s other directors in prison visits, which had the same inspiring effect on them.

“[They said] ‘actually there’s some mileage in this. Richard’s right – there are a lot of good people in here that want to turn their lives around. We could capitalise on this,’” he reports.

It was decided that Clipper would take things slowly and employ two ex-offenders at a site in Leeds in January 2018. Tempus Novo handled all of the recruitment processes such as vetting, paying for their transport and getting them interview-ready. Because Clipper operates logistics for the retail industry, Cowlishaw felt it was only right to inform customers of the trial.

“I think ethically that’s the right thing to do. Overwhelmingly these customers, along with all other subsequent customers, have fully embraced this initiative,” he says.

Clipper was careful to also communicate the move to its workforce through the employee forums on each site. It was important to be clear that there are some types of ex-offender that Clipper won’t employ.

“There are certain categories of offender that we won’t engage, sex offenders being one. Because from an industrial relations point of view I think people would legitimately have an issue with that,” explains Cowlishaw. “So there are certain categories we don’t feel able to accommodate within our organisation. But you can count those on the fingers of one hand rather than being so prescriptive.”

Encouragingly, he didn’t receive any kickback or employee relations issues and neither did any of the management teams. Within six weeks of the ex-offenders starting, the general manager from the Leeds site phoned to praise the two new recruits and ask for more.

The result

A year on, as of January 2019, Clipper employs 51 ex-offenders. Not only has it changed these individuals’ lives, it’s also proved a business success. “We’ve affected 51 lives but I’ve got 51 good recruits. It’s a win-win,” says Cowlishaw.

Turnover for this cohort is lower than Clipper’s national average, something Cowlishaw believes is all down to a strong sense of gratitude.

“People from that cohort are absolutely delighted to be given that second chance, a fresh start. I think there’s a loyalty because someone has believed in them. My personal belief is that they’re not going to bite the hand that feeds them. There’s not many organisations out there at the moment that are embracing the opportunity to recruit ex-offenders,” he says.

Feedback from operational managers has been good; the ex-offenders are reported to be loyal, dedicated and hard-working. “They don’t necessarily say the same about all workers!” Cowlishaw jokes.

“I think they are invested in Clipper, they’re paid exactly the same as every other colleague at the same level, and I am looking forward to the day – and it won’t be far away – where I am seeing people from the ex-offender community promoted into managerial roles. Be that team leader, supervisor or group HR director.”

Cowlishaw, the executive team, and the PLC board are committed to continuing to employ ex-offenders. Cowlishaw is the business’ sponsor and champion for it, contacting sites that haven’t employed any ex-offenders yet to discover the reasons for it.

“I believe part of my job is to continue to promote – not just in Clipper but more widely – the opportunities to business that employing ex-offenders can bring,” he says.

While Clipper is ahead of the curve when it comes to employing from this talent pool, that could soon change following rulings such as the recent Supreme Court decision. Although the ruling on its own won’t bring immediate changes, organisations would perhaps do well to take a leaf out of Clipper’s book and take a much more considered approach to people with past convictions.

Cowlishaw’s advice to organisations interested in employing ex-offenders is twofold: take a leap of faith and do due diligence. “Once you get over that stereotyping barrier go for it,” he says. “Or, before you do that, as part of your due diligence go and see an employer who’s already actively engaged ex-offenders. And where possible in the early stages, while organisations are learning culturally how to embrace and engage ex-offenders, partner with a charity that supports this. Because they’re experts in it.

“[And] my door is always open.”

This piece appeared in the March 2018 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

To find out more about recruiting ex-offenders visit the government's Unlock Opportunity portal