Hiring Those With Criminal Backgrounds: Leading the Conversation

Despite the fact that getting a job with a living wage decreases the risk that an individual will commit another crime, society places many barriers to people with criminal records re-entering the workforce.

Many state regulations have occupational licensing requirements that prevent persons with a criminal history from obtaining a license to work. According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), one out of every four jobs now requires a professional or occupational license, including many good-paying jobs in high demand in the healthcare, construction and personal care industries. Perversely, sometimes those license restrictions are for occupations for which a person received training while in prison.

An Obama White House initiative aimed at reducing licensing requirements reported that over the past 50 years the percentage of US workers needing an occupational license to legally work in their chosen field has increased from 5 percent to nearly 33 percent.

Employer and Employee Perceptions

The perceptions of employers and employees also can present a difficult barrier for those with a criminal history to breach. A new survey by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) found that employers’ concerns about hiring those with criminal records are focused on legal liability (e.g., the risk of theft, violence or criminal activity), customer and employee reactions, and regulations. Factors that would increase HR and managers’ willingness to hire from this group, according to the report, include:

  • An applicant’s demonstrated consistent work history;
  • Verifiable positive employment references; and
  • The completion of additional education or training while incarcerated.

The attitudes of fellow employees also can be a factor. Many non-management employees in the survey said that, while they believed they could work with a former inmate, they thought a majority of their coworkers might have difficulty doing so.

And the stigma is worse for women and minorities. The NELP report showed that employers did not call back 40 percent of men with a criminal record for a job interview, but that failure to call increased to 70 percent of formerly incarcerated women. And African American and Hispanic women are 93 percent and 61 percent, respectively, less likely to be contacted by employers for an interview or offered a job than white women with a prison record.

The result, a University of Maryland study found, is that “many persons with criminal records fail to apply for jobs because they believe their criminal background precludes them from being hired.”

Trends Favor Rethinking Hiring Policies

The May 2018 jobs report showed the US unemployment rate at 3.8 percent, the lowest rate since April 2000, and the second-lowest since 1969.

In addition, the number of US job openings exceeded the number of job seekers for the first time since the data started being tracked in 2000. The June 2018 Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) reported job vacancies exceeded the number of unemployed by a gap of 352,000 in April.

Another factor affecting the job surplus is the continued retirement of the baby boomer generation. Baby boomers are estimated to be retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day. The US Census Bureau forecasts that by 2030  all the baby boomers will be retired and will comprise 20 percent of the US population.

For employers, this data means it will be harder to fill job openings unless they can find untapped pools of qualified applicants. One of those pools is the more than 70 million Americans with prior criminal records.

“Companies must no longer view a criminal record as an automatic disqualification for employment,” advises Johnny C. Taylor, President and CEO of SHRM. “Nearly one in three working-age adults has a criminal record, so businesses must be willing to hire qualified applicants from this vast pool of nontraditional applicants, or else face a competitive disadvantage.”

Facts Disprove Perceptions

The misconceptions that prevent employers from considering job applicants with criminal histories are not supported by the data, according to SHRM.

Nor are companies that hire ex-offenders primarily motivated by government incentives or by being seen more favorably by the community. In fact, the SHRM/CKI survey found that less than 8 percent of HR professionals or hiring managers considered those issues in deciding to hire a person with a criminal history. Instead, 53 percent said they wanted to hire the best person available for the job and 33 percent wanted to make their community a better place.

Once hired, former prisoners prove to be as good or a better “quality of hire” than employees without a criminal record, according to 82 percent of managers and 67 percent of human resources professionals surveyed. And the cost of hiring individuals with criminal records is the same or lower than that of hiring individuals without criminal records according to the survey.

When Arte Nathan, president and COO of Strategic Development Worldwide, served as CHRO for Wynn Resorts from 1983 to 2006, he set up a program to hire former prisoners. “A program like this takes a lot of hard work. Helping these individuals successfully transition into the workforce requires a lot of coaching and mentoring – which in turn necessitates training for managers.”

But Nathan found the effort worthwhile both for the participants and the company. “Many company leaders who have hired people with criminal histories have found that they consistently come to work, have a positive attitude and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their efforts to successfully re-enter society,” said Nathan.

SHRM’s Taylor also believes the formerly incarcerated have a lot to offer employers. “Many prisoners and ex-offenders are desperate to make an honest living and would make hardworking, loyal employees,” Taylor said. “All they need is a second chance.”

He also noted that a growing body of research shows that hiring workers with criminal records increases employee retention at a company and reduces turnover. “Although many employers are often hesitant to hire ex-offenders,” said Taylor, “they can expect a high degree of loyalty from these applicants for giving them an opportunity when others have not.”

Changing Governmental Landscape

In recent years, efforts to reduce the barriers that keep individuals with criminal records from successfully re-entering society have gained momentum. These initiatives include all levels of government, from municipalities to state legislatures and agencies to the White House. Eleven states and more than 30 municipalities, have passed “ban the box” laws to limit when private employers may ask prospective employees criminal history questions during the hiring process. Many of the nation’s biggest cities have passed broad “ban the box” laws, including:

  • Chicago;
  • Los Angeles;
  • New York City;
  • Philadelphia;
  • San Francisco; and
  • Seattle.

Some jurisdictions make it illegal for employers to ask applicants such questions until the interview stage while others ban the practice until a conditional job offer has been made. The goal is to prevent employers from treating all criminal convictions as a sort of “Scarlet Letter.” Some of these laws also delay when employers may conduct criminal background checks.

In May, President Donald Trump convened a White House summit on prison reform. A key focus of the summit, said Trump, was helping former inmates to find a path to success “so they can support their families and support their communities.”

In his remarks, the president stated that as many as three out of four individuals released from prison have difficulty finding work. “It is not merely a waste of money, but a waste of human capital,” said Trump, “to put former inmates on public assistance instead of placing them into a steady job where they can pay taxes, contribute to their country, gain dignity and pride that comes with a career, love waking up in the morning and going to a job.”

The summit’s goals echoed earlier White House pronouncements. In his State of the Union Address, the president said he was fully committed to helping former inmates get a second chance. Later he declared April “Second Chance Month” to “celebrate those who have exited the prison system and successfully reentered society,” and also to encourage expanded opportunities for those willing to work hard to turn their lives around.

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