How To Tap Into The 70 Million Job Candidates You’re Overlooking

Most employers summarily pass up a huge chunk of the U.S. workforce. That’s a social justice issue, and it’s also a competitive disadvantage.

How To Tap Into The 70 Million Job Candidates You’re Overlooking
[Photo: Shane T. McCoy/United States Marshals Service/Wikimedia Commons]

Innovative businesses pride themselves on finding a single solution that solves two seemingly disparate problems. But there’s a glaring one that has yet to be addressed on a large scale. Some 70 million working-age Americans have criminal records, making it difficult to find jobs. Meanwhile, employers are struggling to hold down turnover and stem the costs–both financial and cultural–of an expensive, inefficient, bias-ridden hiring process. So-called “fair chance hiring” is an opportunity to tackle both these issues, but with the exception of several noteworthy organizations and criminal-justice reform advocates pushing for change, few employers know what it is.


Until recently, I was one of them. The idea behind fair chance hiring is exactly as it sounds: that as an employer you’re willing to give a fair chance to ex-offenders. Get it right, and you’ll tap into an enormous pool of qualified, diverse talent with a wide range of experiences–applicants with personal and professional backgrounds you’ll rarely encounter by fixating on elite credentials. Still, putting fair chance hiring into practice can be daunting and confusing. Here’s how I’ve learned to do it successfully.

Related: When The Gap In Your Resume Is Time Spent In Prison

Be Clear And Consistent About Disqualifiers

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect workers from employment discrimination based on criminal history. However, the Equal Opportunity Commission has outlined circumstances under which it may enforce Title VII when convictions are used as a proxy to screen out protected groups, particularly people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated. That’s one reason the National Employment Law Project (NELP), an advocacy group, recommends assessing candidates case by case, particularly with regard to:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense or conduct;
  • the time that has passed since the offense or conduct and completion of the sentence; and
  • the nature of the position sought.

If you can’t reasonably assert that someone’s conviction should keep them from the nature of the work they’re applying for, you could be out of compliance in some states with stricter standards than those in place at the federal level (like California, where employers are required to account for the above three factors). For example, if a person has a recent history of embezzlement, a finance role might not be a good fit. If they’ve been convicted of identity theft, it likely doesn’t make sense to hire them onto your the HR team. However, if someone has a minor drug charge from five years ago and they’re applying to be a customer service rep, ask yourself how that’s relevant for the role.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be consistent about disqualifiers, though–quite the contrary: The clearer your rules, the more open you can be to assessing different applications thoughtfully–and the broader and fairer your candidate pool will become.

Related: The Job Site Wants To Help People With Criminal Records Secure Good Jobs


Don’t Go It Alone

There are a few organizations that can help you put in place a fair chance hiring program and even connect you with qualified applicants for jobs. Defy Ventures, The Last Mile, and 70 Million Jobs have educated my own team on how to work with fair chance candidates, helping us build empathy and respect for people who are often unfairly overlooked. Almost every community has nonprofits that help people transition out of the prison system, so don’t hesitate to use those resources.

Offer Training And Set Clear Expectations

Depending on the job requirements or your work environment, you may need to give a bit of extra training and support to fair chance employees. In prison, most inmates don’t have access to the internet, so helping people get comfortable with new technology is a huge way to break through barriers. Similarly, providing very clear expectations around work responsibilities and office etiquette can make sure everyone’s on the same page and set up for success. This additional effort pays dividends; according to the ACLU, fair chance employees are typically retained at higher rates, which can significantly lower your overall recruiting and training costs.

Set Up An Internship Program

One of the most successful fair chance initiatives I’ve worked on has been an internship program. It lets us assess whether a given career path is the right fit while giving the candidate a chance to build skills and earn a fair wage in the process. Several high-potential candidates have moved to full-time roles at my company after joining as interns.

Never Forget There’s A Person Behind Every Job Application

For fair chance employers committed to social justice, there’s a temptation to shout your efforts from the rooftops. But while you should certainly advertise that you’re open to considering ex-offenders, think twice before identifying fair-chance hires internally (let alone prodding them to talk to the press).

My organization’s culture tends to encourage fair chance employees to talk about their personal histories if and when they’re comfortable; we want all our team members to bring their whole selves to work. But it’s always smart to follow their lead. Revealing who they are–even when the goal is to commend and inspire–could create a stigma or sense of “otherness.” Inform managers so they can help support their employers, but always leave it up to the individual to decide how and whether to discuss their experiences.

Some of our best employees have a conviction history, and we’d be a weaker organization without them. With the perspectives that ex-offenders bring, companies can better understand their customers, become more diverse, and ultimately reach stronger business outcomes. If your hiring process is set up to quickly dismiss people with criminal histories, you’re already missing out on the talents of a 70 million-strong workforce–a competitive disadvantage if ever there was one.


Robert Gill is director of people operations at Checkr, a background screening platform.