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More employers are considering hiring people with criminal records

A shortage of workers—and shifting attitudes—are creating more opportunities for people with criminal records.

More employers are considering hiring people with criminal records
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]

As the unemployment rate remains at or near historic lows, among the top concerns of business leaders is where to find new pools of talent from which to draw. A new survey from recruitment and staffing services firm Adecco USA found that companies in many industries are looking at new pools of talent they may have never considered, including people with criminal records.

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In the survey, released in July, 49% of companies said they were “loosening” requirements because they were unable to find enough qualified candidates. Twenty-one percent of respondents said they were no longer drug testing candidates, and 35% said they would hire a temporary worker with a criminal conviction in their past if their skill set applied to the job.

“This isn’t something employers would have considered when unemployment rates were 6%, 7% or higher. So, it’s really a dramatic shift that we’ve seen within the past 24 months,” says Amy Glaser, SVP at Adecco Staffing. And it’s not just among temporary workers, she says. “We’re also seeing it in full-time employment. Employers are, again, reducing the level of screenings.”

Shifting legislation—and attitudes

Though this shift will by no means eliminate the challenges formerly incarcerated people encounter when seeking employment, there are a few signs that things could be starting to change. In December 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law, creating a number of modest criminal justice reforms, including sentencing reform for people sentenced at the federal level (which make up a relatively small part of the 2.1 million people in the U.S. jail and prison system).

These changes mean thousands more inmates will be eligible for an earlier release, in addition to the nearly 700,000 that are released every year, says Emily Dickens, corporate counsel and chief of staff with the Society of Human Resource Management.

According to guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012, companies cannot have blanket restrictions against hiring people because of a criminal record. Maurice Emsellem, Fair Chance program director at the National Employment Law Project, says they must conduct an individualized assessment. In other words, you need to look at the person and what they’ve done to turn their lives around and determine if their past truly affects their ability to do the job.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act also governs companies that conduct background checks, requiring that information be accurate and, if a person is denied a job because of information in the report, the worker is entitled to a copy of the report.

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The EEOC guidance has been the framework for many of the “ban the box” laws passed at the state and local levels, Emsellem says. These laws prohibit employers considering an arrest or conviction record before first determining whether the employee is qualified for the job. The Fair Chance Act, a federal “ban the box” bill that would prohibit the federal government and federal contractors from asking about the criminal history of a job applicant prior to a conditional offer of employment, was passed by the House of Representatives in July.

But beyond the legalities, talent-strapped companies that aren’t giving these candidates a chance are missing out. “Seventy million people have an arrest or conviction record that will show up on a criminal background check—that’s one in three people,” Ensellem says. If you leave them out, you’re undermining your ability to recruit quality workers, he adds.

This has been the experience of Pat Swisher, founder of Enviro-Master Services, LLC, which specializes in hygiene for commercial restrooms. Swisher himself spent 18 months in prison in the early 2000s for tax evasion. “It gave me an appreciation that a lot of bad things happen to good people,” he says.

Swisher says that when people get out of prison, the odds are stacked against them. He is an advocate for hiring people with criminal convictions in their past—he calls them “second-chancers”—and encourages franchisees to do the same. When hiring for the corporate office, he vets candidates himself, which includes an in-depth interview and personality test. Two of the people with felony convictions that he has hired have become franchise owners. “Anybody can screw up, but these guys, they really are offered a good opportunity, [and] do not take it for granted because they know how hard it is for them to get another opportunity,” he says. Swisher says nearly 10% of the company’s workers—69 people across 78 franchises—are second-chance employees.

“Convicted felons and those who have served time in jail or prison also have been conditioned to living in very stressful environments and constantly being uncomfortable,” wrote entrepreneur Chris Cavallini in a previous piece for Fast Company. “This gives them a considerable advantage in the workplace when it comes to taking on new challenges, operating under pressure, and stepping out of their comfort zone.”

Changing minds

Some high-profiles programs and initiatives have been created to encourage employers to give people with criminal records another chance. In 2015, the Fair Chance Pledge encouraged companies and higher education institutions to support people with previous convictions.

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In January 2019, SHRM launched the Getting Talent Back to Work initiative in partnership with Koch Industries, which encourages employers to hire people with criminal histories. The website has information that addresses common concerns, such as interviewing and screening guidance, risk management, and support.

Programs and pledges are one thing. Getting people with convictions back to work is another. After Cheri Garcia was arrested several times for drug-related offenses, she got clean. In 2016, she founded Cornbread Hustle, a staffing agency for second-chancers. Garcia uses her growing network to find the best possible jobs for her clients and says that she sees attitudes changing, especially since Kim Kardashian began her high-profile prison reform lobbying efforts.

Garcia, who has placed former inmates in jobs ranging from manual labor to a high-level IT post at a medical startup, says that companies need to provide support for these employees and focus on engagement. “Second-chancers” are loyal if they feel they are “a part of the family,” she says. If not, it can be tough to keep them. Cornbread Hustle has moved its location from a co-working space to a renovated church that provides a place for its candidates to spend time and get support. Many are in recovery from substance abuse or other issues and need that sense of community, she says.

Garcia says that this sort of work is the “most rewarding thing in the world because you do have an extension of your family.” And, as companies worry about finding and retaining talent, focusing on people who need a second chance could be just the solution employers need.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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