#SHRMInclusion 2020: Overcoming Criminal Record Bias and Finding a New Talent Pool

One in three working-age Americans has a criminal record in some form, and the barriers to employment associated with that history are experienced disproportionately in Black and Latinx communities.

At the Society for Human Resource Management’s Inclusion 2020 conference, taking place virtually from October 19-21, Dr. Elizabeth Speck, founder and principal of MindOpen Learning Strategies, and Tarik Greene, Deputy Executive Director of M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, gave a presentation urging employers to tap into this underutilized talent pool and adopt best practices to increase fair chance hiring and build a more inclusive organization.

Greene and Speck stressed that criminal history is not an either-or, good-versus-bad dichotomy, with individuals with criminal records on one side and those without such records on the other. Rather, criminal history strongly reflects existing structural inequities.

For example, they noted that while Black and white Americans use and sell drugs at similar rates, Blacks are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses. While a number of states and localities have adopted ban-the-box laws that prohibit employers from inquiring into criminal history at the job application stage, those laws are only a first step toward breaking down biases and fully including individuals with criminal backgrounds in the workforce.

This form of inclusivity is good for business and creates loyalty as well, Greene and Speck emphasized. At one retailer, employees with criminal records had an annual turnover that was 12.2% lower than the rate for those without a criminal history. In addition, a study at a health care organization found that of 79 employees with serious felony convictions, 92% were still employed after five years.

Hiring is just the first step in overcoming criminal record bias, noted Greene and Speck. After bringing an individual with a criminal record on board, organizations must commit to practices that will foster a culture of inclusion for these individuals. To that end, Greene and Speck offered a series of dos and don’ts.


    • Objectify people or feed into the commercialization of incarceration.


    • Use dehumanizing language like “ex-con” or tolerate jokes about prison. Allowing this kind of rhetoric in the workplace stigmatizes individuals with a criminal background and sends a message that the organization is less than fully inclusive.


    • Get pulled into online criminal record searches or spread rumors about coworkers. This applies to all employees and managers, not only HR professionals. While curiosity is normal, internet searches often provide little to no context for a particular result and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.


    • Make assumptions about Fair Chance employees’ abilities, career interests or qualifications (e.g., don’t assume that an individual needs extra assistance in understanding professional norms or completing projects on the basis of that individual’s criminal history).


  • Ask an individual with a criminal record what they did (outside of a background check during the hiring process that complies with all relevant laws) or what prison was like. As with any other personal question, such inquiries are intrusive and can bring trauma to the surface that people prefer not to dwell on in the workplace.


    • Assume that all employees have business-related talent and potential.


    • Maintain professional boundaries as with any other coworker.


    • Use non-stigmatizing, people-first language, such as “returning citizen” (or simply “person” without further qualifications) and encourage others to do so as well.


    • Learn the facts about criminal records and your company’s background screening partnership.


    • Demystify policies around criminal background checks so that employees are confident they can trust and feel safe around all their coworkers. HR can play a key role by communicating how the company evaluates applicants’ criminal histories during the hiring process in order to strike a balance between fair chance hiring and minimizing risk to the organization and its employees.


  • Follow employees’ lead surrounding what, if anything, they want to share. Be inspiring and encouraging without being nosy.

Greene and Speck emphasized that the principles behind the above list of dos and don’ts could be applied to the handling of any aspect of an individual’s identity, not only criminal history. Broadly speaking, the aim is to treat people as individuals, respect boundaries and strive to make everyone feel included in the organization.

Organizations can be classified on a spectrum of fair chance hiring, Greene and Speck stressed, with resistance to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds at one end and active strategizing to recruit and hire these individuals at the other end. Most organizations, they asserted, likely fall in the middle.

Many may be open to fair chance hiring in theory, but in practice, they do not actively seek out individuals with criminal records. Other organizations may be considering proactive recruiting efforts but have questions and concerns about the practicalities or struggle with buy-in from leadership. But wherever they find themselves on this spectrum, any organization can make positive changes that increase inclusiveness.

Finally, Greene and Speck challenged attendees to identify one step they would take to move their organizations further along on the fair chance hiring spectrum. Some of these steps include:

  • Partnering with local organizations that help formerly incarcerated individuals in finding employment;
  • Signaling openness to fair chance hiring on job postings; or
  • Examining the role of background checks in the hiring process.

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