In the media

Cracking the justice recruitment challenge using different thinking

By Sally Bibb, Richard Hughes

Police Professional

28 June 2022

This article was first published in Police Professional

Finding good people who stay is something that many sectors are currently struggling with. ‘Our people are our greatest asset’ is a phrase that has taken on new urgency and this rings true across the justice system right now. Five-thousand new prison officers are needed, 20,000 police officers are being recruited and the Probation Service and the judiciary and magistracy are recruiting record numbers. In addition to this, greater diversity across these roles is critical.

Prisons Strategy White Paper
The December 2021 Prisons Strategy White Paper states “we are committed to commencing a large-scale recruitment campaign for up to 5,000 additional prison officers in private and public prisons by the mid-2020s and introducing a retention framework which will support governors to identify and tackle local issues and enable targeted national support”.

As the saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.

Recruiters need to think differently about how they are recruiting, with a vast shortage of workers tactics such as paddling faster, sprucing up the shop window (websites) and making a tough job sound appealing is not cutting it. There may be some success in attracting more people, and maybe even some good candidates, but the trouble is it’s potluck that the right candidate will be selected for the job unless the employer understands what ‘right’ means.

Selecting a person who thrives in a role
“You can’t teach someone to care” said journalist John Humphrys in a Radio 4 interview with the, then, Chief Nurse of England, Jane Cummings following the 2013 inquiry into the deaths of patients in the Mid Staffs NHS Trust. He was right. There are some things people can learn but caring is an innate trait that can’t be picked up via training.

The NHS didn’t have a rigorous approach when selecting candidates who were naturally suited to the job. Instead, a competency-based approach was used to pinpoint what people ‘can’ do and have done before, but not whether they are the kind of person who thrives in a role. The latter is a differentiator between an ‘okay’ candidate and an excellent one.

The same was true in five private prisons. The Director of Prisons was struggling to find people who were good at the job and stayed the course. No matter how much the wording of the job advert was changed, or which personality tests were carried out, the same type of candidate was being attracted – those who perhaps had the wrong kinds of motivations, instead of those with the strengths needed to be a rehabilitative prison officer.

Both professions knew what ‘good’ looked like, but struggled to translate that into the specific strengths and deeper motivations that lay behind outward behaviour.

The Stafford inquiry’s recommendations included ‘stronger health care leadership’. The leaders of the ten leading NHS University Trusts already knew that strong health care leadership was key. When they had the right Ward Leaders, patient care and outcomes were good. So why weren’t the right people in place?

The challenge that faced them was that they had no evidence-based insight into what kind of people were the ones who, in addition to their clinical competence, were the right fit, who loved their job, were excellent at it and who instilled trust.

They used a competency framework that listed all the characteristics that were purportedly those needed by Ward Leaders. But it wasn’t based on any evidence-based insight into real people who excelled at the job. It was easy for candidates to learn how to give a ‘good’ response and assessors found that all the candidates seemed very similar. It was neither an effective nor useful process.

A study was carried out of exemplar Ward Leaders which revealed that they shared a number of strengths including being good at tuning into other people, motivated by making a difference and getting a buzz out of developing others. From neuroscience, we know that these are strengths that can’t be taught.

Neural scientist Dr. Harry Chugani used the analogy of roads. He said that a person’s strengths are like a four lane super highway of the brain – the connections that are fast and efficient are those that are used often. The connections (or synapses) that are used less often are like a minor road that is unfamiliar, difficult to navigate and not an enjoyable experience.

People can spend a lot of time learning the ‘behaviours’ that are associated with strengths. But they’ll never be brilliant at them or be energised by them and of course, when stressed, people tend to revert to their natural selves.

Strengths-based selection
The Director of Prisons, just like the Chief Nurses, also realised they needed to dig deeper to understand the kind of people that made superb prison officers. His hunch was the assumptions they were making were off. He was right. Once they gathered the evidence as to what exemplars were actually like, the light bulbs went on. It became clear exactly why some people who they thought would make great hires didn’t work out and why others turned out to be great prison officers. They started to attract people who wouldn’t have thought of a career in the prison service and retention of the recruits who were selected on their strengths was higher.

Having introduced strengths-based selection, one London Trust monitored key metrics and reported a reduction in avoidable harm, improved compliance with care processes, an improvement in key workforce metrics such as vacancy rates and turnover, and 9% more nurses from BAME backgrounds appointed. As important as quantitative metrics was the Matrons' confidence in the approach and desire to use it. They wanted to go home at night knowing that they need have no concerns about ‘worry wards’.

Lessons for the broader prisons estate
Legitimacy in nursing is impossible if patients and their loved ones don’t feel that sense of trust in nurses. Legitimacy in prisons comes from being able to detain people safely, securely and fairly. The same is true in policing where legitimacy is based on public trust and the belief that police officers act in the best interest of the public.

There is urgency to fill vacancies on prison landings, to maintain safety, order and control as Covid restrictions start to ease. The risk is that, without clear insight into what great looks like, some unsuitable people will be recruited and they won’t last. Hospitals introduced the new approach without interrupting the flow of new recruits being brought in.

Employers in high-risk environments are catching on to the strengths-based approach to selection.  Relying on people who are not a good fit for the job has a potentially terrible impact on patients, prisoners or citizens. It also costs the employer in time, money, angst and erodes trust.

For HMPPS, a good start would be to invest in an evidence-based strengths profile that explicitly highlights the strengths that ‘stand-out’ officers and staff, who thrive in the role, have in common. These may be different in the male and female estates and for the different cohorts of prisoners. But, without this knowledge, effective recruitment into these demanding and important roles will effectively be a lottery. Evidence based insight into what it takes to be good at the job is the foundation stone from which an effective advertising campaign, selection process and induction process stems.

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