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One of the highlights of the recent ATC was an on-stage interview between SMAART Recruitment Director, James Witcombe and SMAART Recruitment co-founder, Stu Holmes (pictured above).

Holmes was Witcombe’s boss for ten years before Holmes left SMAART in 2015.

Holmes left SMAART because his substance abuse led to untenable behavioural problems at work.

Following his departure from SMAART, Holmes admitted he lived a life out of control, which culminated in his incarceration for nine months in 2020 for armed robbery.

Holmes got his life back on track in prison by getting clean however his joy at being released from prison was tempered by the reality that even with his extensive skills as a recruiter (Witcombe called his former boss “the best interviewer I have ever worked with”) he was facing a very difficult road to rejoin the workforce.

Witcombe had stayed in contact with Holmes and wanted to help him.

In late 2021, when the market for recruiters was going crazy, Witcombe was asked by a client whether he could find them a recruiter for a six-month contract. Witcombe knew Holmes was a great skills-match for the role but would the client accept a contractor with a criminal record?

Witcombe took a deep breath and recommended Holmes, disclosing his criminal record but providing his full personal endorsement. The client said he needed to check but returned with the good news.

Holmes started his contract in November 2021 and successfully completed the assignment in May 2022.

Subsequently, Holmes founded The Green Collar, an organisation that runs programs for ex-offenders who are looking for assistance finding a bridge back to employment. The Green Collar Brigade is the related non-profit volunteering group that offers general labouring services, primarily comprised of those who have completed The Green Collar Program.

(You can listen to recent podcast interviews in which Holmes shared more details of his story: Episode 63 of Pete Watson’s Recruitment Journeys and two October 2023 episodes of Narelle Fraser’s Podcast).

The message that Holmes wanted the audience of 400 talent professionals to hear two weeks ago on the ATC stage was one of fairness for ex-offenders in hiring practises.

There is widespread misunderstanding about criminal records in hiring practises and policies.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has an excellent free booklet On the record: Guidelines for the prevention of discrimination in employment on the basis of criminal record that I recommend you familiarise yourself with.

The most pertinent guidelines for recruiters are the following:

  • The relevance of a job applicant’s or employee’s criminal record should be assessed on a case-by-case basis against the inherent requirements of the work he or she would be required to do and the circumstances in which it has to be carried out. A criminal record should not generally be an absolute bar to employment of a person.
  • Employers should create an environment that will encourage an open and honest exchange of criminal record information between an employer and job applicant or employee.
  • Employers should only ask job applicants and employees to disclose specific criminal record information if they have identified that certain criminal convictions or offences are relevant to the inherent requirements of the job.
  • Advertisements and job information for a vacant position should clearly state whether a police check is a requirement of the position. If so, the material should also state that people with criminal records will not be automatically barred from applying (unless there is a particular requirement under law).
  • If an employer takes a criminal record into account in making an employment decision, in most cases the employer should give the job applicant or employee a chance to provide further information about their criminal record including, if they wish, details of the conviction or offence, the circumstances surrounding the offence, character references or other information, before determining the appropriate outcome in each case.

Hiring ex-offenders can turn into a competitive advantage in a tight labour market, with U.S. Rubber Recycling in California finding such success with hiring ex-felons that the company’s CEO created a specific program, Bounce Back, to formalise his company’s approach to recruiting, onboarding and retaining people who desperately want to avoid returning to their former life. Now over half of U.S Rubber Recycling’s factory employees were formerly incarcerated.

Stu Holmes was lucky compared to most former inmates – he had somebody on his side, a mate who was in a position to help him. And that mate, James Witcombe, took a chance by putting his professional reputation on the line to get him his first job after leaving prison – and it paid off.

As recruiters we are in a position to help formerly incarcerated people regain confidence and the most important thing in having them not lapse into old habits – a steady job with a predictable income stream.

Please take that opportunity when it presents itself.

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