Virgin Trains has announced that it plans to hold recruitment fairs at prisons across the UK in the hope of attracting talented candidates among a group of people that are almost always overlooked. According to the BBC, the company has already held one recruitment fair at Addiewell Prison in West Lothian, Scotland, and aims to do so throughout the UK quarterly, after it was impressed by the “calibre” of candidates that were attracted through this event and its ex-offender programme.
Kathryn Wildman, who works as a lead recruiter for Virgin Trains, says, “This isn’t just about helping society and giving people a chance to turn their lives around. It’s hiring the best people no matter what their background is.”
“It’s all about giving hope.” Wildman states. “They have done their time, paid their penalty. Now we have to give them a chance. You can’t put a price on hope.”
The company first pledged to employ ex-offenders in 2011 when Sir Richard Branson wrote a letter that was published in the Financial Times. In it, he wrote that prisons held “a large number of potential superstars who get ignored by employers because of their criminal record.” He concluded that “It makes sense for UK companies to recruit these individuals and to make use of their skills and enthusiasm.”
Over four years later, Virgin Trains has employed 25 ex-offenders. It has committed itself to this programme with the aim of ending the “revolving door syndrome” that is reoffending. This could well work, since statistics from Ministry of Justice research carried out in 2013 show that individuals who have a job on release are much less likely to reoffend (18%) than those who don’t (43%). Only one in three offenders find work in their first year of release, and ministers in the UK believe providing prisoners with jobs is crucial to preventing them from reoffending.
Although Sir Richard Branson’s programme is much-needed, the number of ex-offenders employed by his company in the past four years seems rather low (at just 25). Despite Branson’s claims that his programme is successful and should be rolled out by other companies under their diversity and agenda strategies, the relatively low figures don’t push to convince sceptics.
However, another company that has been employing ex-offenders for much longer than Virgin Trains is the Timpson Foundation – the key-cutting and shoe repair store. 10% of its workforce has a criminal record, and its CEO, James Timpson, says that he is aware of only seven people, out of 750 employees, who have reoffended. But Branson says that he too hopes that the coming years will see at least 10% of Virgin’s workforce – across all Virgin businesses – being made up of ex-offenders. He also notes that “Where it is not required, we do not screen job applicants for criminal records, and I’m quite happy we don’t. So, Virgin businesses may already employ far more than the 25 people that are currently in Virgin Trains’ specific ex-offender employment programme.”
Realistically, many managers will be reluctant to employ people who have been in prison, let alone to employ them directly from prison as Virgin Trains does, despite Branson’s endorsement. Some might believe that employing ex-offenders will tarnish their company brand – but it could actually have the opposite effect. Corporate social responsibility (companies giving back to the local community) has become a crucial part of company strategy across all industries, and in light of this, other big brands have also been seen to make unconventional recruitment choices (in 2015, Starbucks made headlines for having a homeless member of staff who, with Starbucks’ help, became a manager and got his own home). There may also be issues of trust at play, as well as concerns that despite having been given an opportunity to better themselves, individuals may reoffend anyway. In response, Branson insists that “everybody deserves a second chance in life.”
There are arguably pros and cons of hiring of ex-offenders, and company executives are encouraged to weigh these up. Hiring ex-offenders may be an unrealistic goal for roles that require a certain standard of security-related clearance but, as Virgin Trains and Timpson have found, hiring ex-offenders for a variety of other positions is not only be possible, but also a potentially fruitful option.