Establishing the right terminology for referring to offenders and reformed offenders is a complicated matter but it is something I am commonly asked by Human Resources experts.
In recent years the term “offender” has become perceived as particularly offensive to some and particularly misunderstood by many. I believe that this is largely due to the commonality of the prefix “sex”.
On 30th June 2012 I conducted an experiment on google news search. Firstly I searched the term offender from UK news outlets over the previous 7 days and then I conducted the same experiment by omitting the term “sex offender”.
Out of 39 pages of returns with the word offender, only 22 pages (almost half) did not refer to “sex offenders” yet this group only accounts for a tiny percentage of the offender population. This only serves to widen misunderstanding and propagate the negative stereotype.
If you happen to make the error of using the term “offender” in a pub, then just count the seconds until somebody mentions sex-offender.
However there are practical problems about removing the term from language.
Firstly the title of the only UK legislation which specifically protects ex-offenders is called the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
Secondly the Daily Mail etc will carry on regardless.
Thirdly any attempt to put a positive spin on a term will be seen as disingenuous by many or potentially disrespectful to victims.
Unfortunately the term “sinner” has too many biblical connections but there is something positive about it. There is an acceptance that we are all sinners in the same way that we all fart, that all of our farts smell, that some are worse than others and that all farts are impermanent.
I can’t imagine getting away from using the term “offender” because it is so stuck in our language but for me the best compromise is to (where possible) use the term “people with criminal records” and although it’s a mouthful, it accurately describes a person within a broad group with a single thing in common.
I think you have to judge everything based on your personal taste. And if that means being critical, so be it. I hate political correctness. I absolutely loathe it. Simon Cowell
Whatever your opinion on political correctness (or Simon Cowell), if you’re like me then you’ll find yourself struggling to find the right term to describe a group of people to maintain your professionalism or convey compassionate intentions effectively.
In my experience there is no group of people more concerned about political correctness than the Human Resources professionals who I work with (gee I hope it’s still OK to refer to HR Pros) and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked for the politically correct term for ex-offenders or former prisoners.
This article by Ian Glennie is the best use of words that I’ve found to describe that group of people who at some point in the past have been convicted of criminal offences.
The Language of Justice #2: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Service User … Prisoner, Probationer, Beggar Man, Thief. Follow the link below
It takes a very good recruiter to really overcome stereotypes and the picture of ex-offenders which is in the mind of inexperienced recruiters is overtly negative. Most people don’t think of Princess Anne or Stephen Fry.
Here is a more accurate picture that is painted by Zoe from the Greater Manchester Probation Team on Russell Webster’s Blog.
It’s a useful background resource for HR professionals to use in their Diversity Training.