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People with criminal records are a huge untapped talent pool

A new survey of hiring managers and CEOs finds that most people are willing–even eager–to hire formerly incarcerated people, but no one is putting in systems to make it happen.

People with criminal records are a huge untapped talent pool
[Source Image: CSGdesign/iStock]

America’s unemployment rate is down, clocking in at just under 4% according to a Bureau of Labor report in June. That’s left many employers in a crunch to find new talent.

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One easy way to change that? Hire more people with criminal records. It’s a solution that most employers, managers, and employees would embrace, according to a recent poll by the Charles Koch Institute and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

“We did the poll because we often hear from those with criminal histories that one of the biggest challenges to finding employment is the stigma of a criminal record, and the reluctance of employers to hire people who have been incarcerated,” says Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow for criminal justice reform at the Charles Koch Institute in an email to Fast Company.

[Source Image: CSGdesign/iStock]

Many of these people actually exist in a pool that’s not included in the official BLS unemployment statistic: About 8% of the country suffers from chronic under-employment—meaning they want to work but can’t find full-time gigs or have given up looking for a job altogether. So if companies are open to hiring people with criminal records, they need to make that clearer, both to job applicants and human resources managers who might be creating application systems that inadvertently discriminate against those candidates.

After all, within the workplace, the willingness to work alongside former felons is definitely there. According to the poll, 80% of corporate executives, managers, and non-manager employees reacted positively or neutrally to the idea. And that rose to 90% among corporate execs and hiring managers, perhaps the two most important groups in this situation.

Still, about half or more of the surveys respondents in all job categories weren’t aware of any official policy around that type of action. “It was interesting that so many people expressed a desire to extend second chances (which comports with what I hear anecdotally) and yet so few could cite a formal policy at their company,” Reddy says. “It is possible that a formalized policy–one that is emphasized in HR trainings and built into a company’s culture–could help turn the good intentions of people into a reality.”

Some companies have inadvertently created barriers to hiring qualified candidates. Since 2003, the fair employment practices initiative All of Us or None, which grew out of a group called Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, has promoted a national “Ban-the-box” campaign for companies to do away with the check box on their applications that asks if an applicant has ever been convicted. The problem with the box is twofold: Former convicts get discouraged that they may not get a fair shake, and hiring managers may also wield bias, holding that check mark against them.

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Per the CKI report, around half of HR workers say their companies still require this check-the-box measure, despite that fact that people who have served their time or accepted the penalties for doing so are theoretically supposed to get a second shot at rejoining society. (There are obvious exceptions where the specific type of crime might create a conflict of interest, but that’s what background checks and interviews are for.)

The Charles Koch Institute, named after its eponymous billionaire founder, is a nonprofit libertarian public policy research group (Koch also has devoted huge sums to anti-environmental causes). To that end, Reddy predictably stresses that he believes that reforms to fix this issue, particularly the box-elimination one, should occur on an employer-driven level, not through more laws or mandates.

To create actual recruitment efforts, companies have to consider changing the way they think as much as how they act. One main finding from the report’s summary provides a good starting point: “Most managers and HR professionals report that the ‘quality of hire’ for workers with criminal records is as good or better than that of those without records.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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