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I’ve been to prison and I’ve changed, honest. Would you hire an ex – offender to work in your business?

On 4th of March 2014, I went to prison. A category C prison for what they call “white collar crime”.

I joined ten other leaders from Business in the Community (BITC) member companies on the Prince of Wales’  “Seeing is Believing” visit organized by BITC to Brixton Prison. I learned how employment holds the key to reducing the £11bn annual cost of re-offending in the UK, we met and listened to prisoners  and we explored how business could be part of the solution.

As the economy emerges from recession, many businesses are finding it more difficult to recruit talented and enthusiastic people to help drive their growth. For digital marketing, hiring and retaining talent has never gone away and will probably remain a challenge for years to come.

In my experience, there is no shortage of people who want a job, the challenge for a digital agency is finding the right people. In our hiring at SiteVisibility we look for people who can either bring experience to our team or who share our values, and ideally both. Those values are to be Innovative, to have an (positive!) Impact in all we do, to Involve others within team and to Inspire others with your work.

As a member of the BITC SouthEast Leadership team, I wondered whether I might find someone at Brixton Prison who shares our Values.

Consider these facts from BITC:

  • There are 85,000 people in prison in the UK today. Only 43 of these people will never be released, meaning that 99.95% of the prison population will need to resettle back into the community.
  • 17% of the UK population between the ages of 18 and 52 has a criminal conviction more serious than a driving offence.
  • Currently more than one in five employment benefit claimants have a criminal conviction.
  • 60% of short-term prisoners re-offend within a year of release.
  • Re-offending costs UK approximately £11bn per year
  • Employment reduces the likelihood of re-offending by up to 50%.

Now I went to Brixton Prison with a reasonably open mind, I like new experiences and was pretty sure I would learn something. We met some of the prisoners at the famous Clink restaurant and the Bad Boys Bakery which was set up by Gordon Ramsay in 2012, two innovative and entrepreneurial ways to give offenders the valuable work experience and confidence which is necessary to get a job in the outside world.

I admit I felt it unlikely that we could actually employ an ex offender, what would our customers think? What would my team think? What would our shareholders think? What would my wife and family think? What would you think? After all, we have to work hard to earn the Trust of those important stakeholders and hiring an ex-convict has risk written all over it. I was however open to being persuaded. Would you be?

We met and talked to a number of prisoners and I can confirm they looked just like you and I. James was a Project Manager and Steve was a Finance Manager in the City, Carl is a dad of 4 kids “working away from home for 6 months”. I’m told the 10 foot thick Victorian walls of HMP Brixton also house a former Partner of a well known UK management consultancy. The stories we heard were of making a mistake, paying for it with freedom and being very aware that the chances of getting a job were now slim, with a criminal record. To many, that will sadly mean a continued life of crime. But they had hope. We were told with passion, that if someone gave them a chance, their loyalty would be bought forever. All of us wanted to be optimistic but the lingering doubts were undeniable.

Then we travelled to the centre of Brixton to visit the St Giles Trust who showed how their volunteers help to open up work opportunities and support ex-offenders back into employment and society.  We met some seriously charming and inspiring people here, obviously the pick of the bunch but all showing an apparently genuine desire to find respectful work. One said he has turned his back on the former flash lifestyle afforded by his £4k per week “business” and would do anything to earn an honest £8 an hour. If only someone would give him a chance. Would you? By now I was thinking about it.

This week is Responsible Business Week, have a think about what social issues you could help solve locally, it may take you out of your comfort zone and you may change someone’s life.

One thing we can all do today is support the BITC “Ban the Box” campaign; to give people a second chance by removing the tick box from application forms that asks about criminal convictions.

Responsible Business Week aims to inspire and equip businesses to do more to meet the world’s most pressing challenges. In doing so, they will unlock innovation and opportunity and demonstrate the positive impact of business in society. – See more here

On May 7th 2014, Peter Field, Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex supported by myself will be hosting the next of the Prince’s “Seeing is Believing” visits to Brighton.

The Prince’s Seeing is Believing is a national programme delivered by the charity Business in the

Community. The programme provides insight into the issues most relevant to communities and business throughout the UK. Since its launch in 1990, over 500 top business leaders participate every year. Through a series of unique visits delivered by Business in the Community, the programme aims to challenge, inspire and engage top business leaders. For more information, visit our website: http://www.bitc.org.uk/programmes/princes-seeing-believing

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