When prison transformation and HR certification align

Jonathon Woolfrey CPHR
Partner, Talenting

An HR professional talks about how changing the recruitment of WA prison wardens led to internal transformation, and HR certification

Most people spend their lives trying to avoid prison. The job of Jonathon Woolfrey CPHR was to make it a more attractive destination.

Jonathon Woolfrey, the managing director of Talenting, was tasked with designing, planning and implementing a prison recruitment project for the Western Australian Department of Corrective Services. It was this initiative, Project 260 – A Prisons Workforce Capacity and Capability Project, that would become his case study to achieve HR certification.

For experienced HR practitioners who are already at the top of their field, AHRI’s Senior Leaders Pathway (SLP) offers a direct route to certification. By submitting a case study of a significant project they’ve undertaken recently, they can get their skills and knowledge officially recognised while leading the way for the profession.

“It's a great step forward for the maturation of the human resource profession and really improves our reputation amongst other professionals out there in the business world,” Jonathon says.

Indeed, the impact of his prison workforce project is proof of the transformative power of a dedicated HR professional. Working closely with the recruitment team, Jonathon redesigned the selection process to help identify a more diverse breed of prison officer.

“We tapped into the inherent value in what a prison officer could do. Our slogan was 'Transforming lives and ensuring community safety',” explains Jonathon.

It turns out people actually want to participate in how their society deals with these larger issues. “They want to help their community,” says Jonathon. “They don't just want to throw away the bad eggs, so to speak. And that fitted perfectly with what we wanted to achieve.”

The challenge

Before Jonathon came on board, the Western Australian Department of Corrective Services was experiencing a significant strain on its workforce.

Employment costs were exacerbated by overtime and employee stress-related factors that created workforce inefficiencies in excess of $30 million per year.

The plan was to shift away from a traditional authoritarian-type of prison officer and towards those who had a keen interest in rehabilitation.

“We wanted to attract people from diverse backgrounds, not just people that may have come from traditional backgrounds in prison officer roles,” he says.

They put the message out early and in many different mediums. Channel Seven’s Today Tonight ran a segment, they took out ads in local community newspapers across the state, and the word was put out to community groups, including those for Indigenous Australians.

“We supported that with information sessions run by serving prison officers so that they could talk people through what the work actually looks like rather than what people see on TV,” Jonathon says.

“We developed a sense of interest in the role, while also debunking some myths.”

Project outcomes

As planned, the applications they received were from a diverse range of backgrounds, including people who worked for retail organisations and those who ran their own small businesses.

“Someone who worked for Bed Bath N' Table joined our ranks to serve in an adult male prison,” Jonathon recalls.

Working under tight timelines – and acting within the constraints of government bureaucracy and accountability – the project led to cost savings of around $4.8m and a more efficient and effective recruitment process.

Formal applications for prison officer roles more than tripled, with 1900 applications assessed across the state. Average hire cost dropped to $2,600 compared to an interstate benchmark of $7,000.

“We smashed traditional timeframes and hit some pretty lofty targets whilst contributing to cultural change. It made all of us who were involved feel very proud,” says Jonathon.

HR certification – recognition

Jonathon says he'd definitely recommend AHRI’s HR certification program to other HR consultants looking to set themselves a clear and transparent standard in the way they operate – in a way that directly benefits your career as well as your profession. “It demonstrates to the broader professional community that I meet a standard set by the peak body for human resources,” he says.

But it wasn’t just recognition that Woolfrey saw as significant, the Senior Leaders Pathway process itself was useful. It allowed him to go back in detail and truly comprehend Project 260, both for what it represented and what it taught him.

“I had to work through that whole process: look at the context, the business drivers, what my role as a HR professional was there, how we engaged with stakeholders and look at the evaluation and outcome of that process,” Jonathon says.

“Often we are rushing from one thing to the next. We don't sit back, evaluate and look at the success and learnings. So it was a really good opportunity for me to reflect on what HR can do for an organisation.”