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Applying with conviction

by Richard, editor,

I’m writing in response to Nicola Inge’s article Beyond conviction (DDN, June, page 8). The ‘Ban the Box’ campaign is an excellent idea and fully supported by online magazine theRecord and our partners at Unlock. The principle behind the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was to break the cycle of offending and re-offending by enabling people with convictions to gain employment, and led to the concept of a spent conviction.

Sadly, with the inception of the CRB, now DBS, this principle suffered a massive setback, and asking about previous convictions at the application stage became commonplace, particularly in health, social care and education – the very services that espouse a progressive approach to rehabilitation. This, in turn, led to people with convictions not even applying for jobs that require a disclosure at the application stage.

The US approach based on the equal opps agenda and its accompanying legislation is well worth emulating in the UK, for all the reasons set out in the article. And, following Gandhi’s famous dictum, it would serve people with convictions, the recovery industry and the wider society well if drug and alcohol treatment services were to ‘be the change they want to see in the world.’
If recovery services were truly committed to equal opps, they would never expect candidates to discuss their offences at interview because this never gives people with convictions the opportunity to present themselves as equal to those without convictions. This differentially discriminates against those from minorities, as mentioned above, and male applicants – often under-represented among the recovery workforce – because they are seven times more likely to have a conviction than females.

There are only three reasons employers ask about convictions on application forms: because they think they ought to, because they intend to use that information to discriminate or because they are just plain nosy. The simple fact is that an employer only needs to know about the criminal record of people they will employ, i.e. the person who emerges as the leading candidate, after the interview stage is complete. There is no need for any employer to elicit or, more seriously, retain information about a person’s criminal record if they are not going to employ them. It is only the successful candidate who ever needs to be asked. The other candidates should be able to exit the recruitment process with their privacy intact. Sadly, this is not the case with any of the treatment service recruitment processes that theRecord is aware of.

Often, employers are also labouring under the illusion that screening for convictions at the application stage is a form of risk assessment. It is not. The absence of a conviction tells you nothing about a person’s honesty or safe conduct, it only tells you that they have never been caught and convicted.

A person with a history of, say, violence or fraud, but who was never caught, can sail through the process untested, while the poor sod convicted of possessing a few grams of weed or stealing a car 20 years ago gets grilled by complete strangers in a powerful position in a non-therapeutic setting. Any therapist will tell you that this can be devastating, even relapse-inducing. Both Unlock and theRecord regularly receive mail and calls from people who’ve been treated in this way only to be told that a stronger candidate got the job, so there was never any need to put them through that part of the interview because their record was never actually relevant to the employer. And even when they are successful, they are often then faced with working alongside people to whom they have disclosed their convictions – the people who interviewed them. It might be better if such disclosures are only ever made to HR and passed to senior management, not colleagues, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

So, if recovery employers want to offer an equal opportunity and run a safe and legal service, there are just three things they need to do. Firstly, ask only the prime candidate about previous convictions. Secondly, follow that up with the appropriate level of DBS check and, thirdly, risk assess that candidate regardless of whether they have a conviction or not. There are several psychometric tests that can be used for this in consultation with a suitably qualified psychologist. If their favourite candidate proves risky, then move on to the next. It would also be very helpful if employers would state at the application stage which level of DBS check is required for that specific post. This would give the candidate an informed choice whether to proceed with an application or not.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 edition of Drink and Drug News

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