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Recruiting ex-offenders, from a business leader with the inside track

 

Krista Brown is a professional businesswoman with a firm handshake and a wealth of experience in recruitment. In 2008, Krista set up Persona HR, a recruitment firm providing security staff for events. Since then the company has grown to a workforce of 400, who have staffed events including V Festival, London Fashion Week and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

But aside from its success, there’s something that sets Persona HR apart from other agencies in the same field. Krista is an ex-offender, and it’s her colourful past that determines the way she runs her business.

“You look at my record, and you’d think I was some sort of prolific offender,” Krista explains, “my DBS is six pages long!”

But like many ex-offenders, each of Krista’s convictions needs to be understood in context, starting at the very beginning with her experience of the care system.

“The system is meant to protect you – and I think it’s better now. But not when I was in it. The system that was meant to protect me ended up exploiting me.”

At 16, Krista was pregnant and just a couple of years later received her first conviction for fraud: stolen goods.

“I was young and thinking of my baby. I received 18 months’ probation for buying fifteen items of baby clothes which turned out to be stolen goods. Thirty years later that’s still on my record. And I know if an employer saw that they would jump to the worst conclusions.”

This is where Krista’s journey with the criminal justice system began, and in 2004 it hit rock bottom when Krista was given a prison sentence for a drugs offence.

“For me, prison was horrible. But it was the beginning of something different. I knew things needed to change and I had to make difficult decisions to make sure my life would look different once I was out.”

When Krista was released she sought work straight away, returning to roles in security.

“In my late teens I worked in recruitment, and so I started to think about whether I could combine this with my knowledge of events security. I was respected on the doors; I brought something different. I was able to provide women, for a start! So I thought, why couldn’t I do this myself?”

With determination and charisma, Krista built Persona HR and in doing so has carved out a very different path for herself, and offered a lifeline for so many others. Almost all of Persona’s employees have faced some kind of adversity and, crucially, 60% of Persona’s employees are ex-offenders.

“Often people caught up in crime are using skills which could be making a positive rather than a negative contribution to society. At Persona, we’re all about seeing those skills and giving young people a chance to put them to good use by being productive.”

For Persona, this approach creates a diverse workforce and gives its founder the opportunity to shape an impressive team. 

“I love home-growing my own talent. It means I know that all of my managers are on the same page. They’re all disability-confident, race-confident, ex-offender confident. Not just because I train them to be, but because they’re a diverse group that have come from all sorts of backgrounds.”

Krista advocates for other businesses to follow in her footsteps, and knows that this has to start with the recruitment process by taking a Ban the Box approach.

“We don’t ask about criminal convictions on our application forms, because we we’re looking for the right skills and character, and we make it clear that we employ ex-offenders. That means at interview, we establish a level of trust, giving all candidates the opportunity to disclose anything they think we need to be aware of.”

As some of Persona’s contracts require security staff, there are a number of roles that are regulated. Anyone applying for these roles must have a license from the Security Industry Authority, which requires a DBS check. In these instances, Persona has sight of the DBS check; however this will rarely impact on a hiring decision because applicants have been already been approved by the regulator.

Krista knows that her approach to recruitment will have its critics, but she would urge them to look at the evidence.

“At Persona we’ve had more than 500 ex-offenders on our books throughout the years, and we’ve never had an incident. Nationally 48% of adults reoffend within one year; and during my 8 years in business, less than 2% of people with criminal convictions have reoffended.

That’s why I always allow my candidates the opportunity to explain. Because so often crimes are committed because of a difficult circumstance, or the cards you’ve been dealt. Through Persona, I want to empower people to lead a life they can be proud of.”

Persona joins 87 other employers signed up to Ban the Box, who collectively employ more than 720,000 people, and each have their own success stories to tell. Why not join them?