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Breaking the mould in customer service

By Elizabeth Akass, Editor, Engage Business Media

Census Life, a not-for-profit social enterprise and part of Census Group, explains how it provides opportunities for people involved in the criminal justice system to change the direction of their life, whilst providing its partner businesses with trained, dedicated, and loyal staff.

At present, around 11.7 million people in the UK have a previous criminal conviction – just over 17% of the population. This is often the barrier preventing these individuals finding employment and becoming working and contributing members of society, and this number is rising. There are approximately 84,000 people in prison in the UK, an increase of over 50% in the last 25 years, costing the taxpayer significantly. It has never been more important to provide opportunities to people to help them break the cycle, change the direction of their lives, and reduce stigma towards them by employers.

Richard Rowley, Managing Director at Census Life, introduces the organisation further. “Very simply, what we do is provide opportunities for people that are designed to deliver sustainable social and economic integration,” he says. “We’re really proud to be one of the largest employers of people in prisons, and currently we operate contact centres in 13 prisons across England and Wales. Our innovative approach has seen us win national and international awards over the last 18 months, including the Queen’s award for enterprise and the European Contact Centre and Customer Service Award in the ‘Giving Something Back’ category.”

“We currently have 250 people working for us in our contact centres.” He notes that they only make outbound calls and therefore do not see the personal data of anyone they are contacting. “Our employees in the prisons work in a real-life commercial environment, delivering contracted work for real customers with targets to meet. We’ve provided employment and training for 7,000 people in prison, and we’ve helped over 300 find employment on release either as part of our homeworker network, or with our partners in the community.” He emphasises that Census Life’s vision is very clear: “Every person should have the opportunity to create a better future for themselves.”

The idea for this initiative began in 2013 when Census Life’s CEO was working for a large-scale contact centre operation and was given the task of introducing retrospective CRB checks for existing staff. Consequently, one campaign lost 70% of its team overnight, leading to the termination of the contract by the client. “This highlighted a significant problem to our CEO who realised she had to let high-performing, well-trained employees go just because they had a previous criminal conviction.”

He continues: “We started to think about specifically offering opportunities to the people that society often overlooks. Our approach is very simple and unique. We employ people on merit, on the basis they’ve got the skills and the attitude to do a great job, and we really want other employers to do the same and to break the mould with their recruitment practices.”

Rowley explains that evidence has shown that if someone has a job, a place to live, and someone to care and check in on them, they are far less likely to reoffend. Reoffending alone costs the UK £18 billion a year, so the economic benefits to society are clear. There are significant social benefits to be gained as well. He says: “The knock-on effect of the justice system is incredibly wide-reaching. For each person that is sent to prison, the impact is felt by 50 people around them. Children and families are affected, with inter-generational offending for years to come. This is why the work that we, and other organisations in this sector, do is so important. We provide the chance for people to take an alternative path.”

There are also significant benefits for companies employing from this pool of people. Contact centres are notorious for having high turnover rates, which can be a strain on resources in continually needing to hire and train new individuals. “Our colleagues can be part of the solution; they want to work, and more importantly, they want stability and progression within their existing role. They don’t want to keep moving roles, and their loyalty shows in increased retention rates,” Rowley says. “For a lot of employers, this must be music to their ears.”

Nicola Whitbread, Operations Manager at Census Life, shares her own personal experience of working for Census Life, showing how successful this approach can be. She says: “Census Life first started to help me when I was in prison; I worked in a call centre whilst still in custody. I learnt some basic customer service skills and worked in a real-life working environment.”

“A company magazine came around asking if anybody wanted to be employed upon release.” She notes that everyone who works in Census Life’s call centres are offered employment on release. “I contacted my manager to put my name forward, and the CEO gave me a call and offered me a job in head office.”

“I took the opportunity with both hands, and Census Life helped me find local accommodation and get a deposit as this required me to relocate. They helped me by paying me weekly rather than monthly, supporting me to get clothes that I needed so I didn’t look out of place in the office, and training me on the equipment I would be using,” she says. “They also gave me a lot of personal support. For example, bank holidays and weekends are quite a long time to someone who’s relocated to a new area and doesn’t know anybody. Just my colleagues giving me a call or text over the weekend to check in and make sure I was OK, that was enough to help me complete my job.”

“I can’t stress enough how much this job has changed my life. I’ve been out of prison now since April 2018, and I haven’t reoffended. I’m clean from any substances, and I’m not on any medications anymore. I’m a PAYE employee; I have a car; I’ve been on holidays; I’m rebuilding relationships with my family, and more importantly, it’s made me a different person and given me a new chance at life.”

Rowley agrees that this is a joint effort between Census Life and the employee. “We can certainly provide employment opportunities for our colleagues when they leave prison, but to do so we place a real emphasis on adequately preparing them for the world of work,” he says. “The hard work really is down to them. Whilst working for us in prison our colleagues are developing a work ethic, some of them for the first time. The work environment is exactly the same as they would encounter in the community, working on live campaigns, focusing on delivering a quality service, and achieving targets.”

“They often feel that, in some ways, they’re on the outside looking in,” he continues. “When all they want is to be part of society and be accepted. For some, not everyone, they just need somebody to care enough to give them a chance. We firmly believe in second chances, which is why over 90% of our colleagues have a previous criminal conviction.”

Moving forward, Rowley says that Census Life is continuing to grow and develop further. “we want to provides routes to employment for colleagues leaving prison. You’ll see us developing academies in the community to facilitate that transition once out of custody. We’re already talking to businesses and charities, and importantly our colleagues themselves, about how and where we deliver this. To get this right, we need to consult and actively listen to the very people we’re trying to deliver this for.”

They finish by emphasising again how important it is for this change to become more widespread for broader positive effects. “The work that we do gives people the chance to build a different future. One with fewer victims and a safer society, which ultimately benefits every single one of us,” Rowley says. “Imagine how it must feel to be accepted again by society – that’s a life-changing moment.”

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