I could have a criminal record—and perhaps you could, too. Nearly 77 million Americans, or one in three adults, have a criminal record.
I don’t because my knuckleheaded mistakes happened within the bubble of a college campus, where the police may be more inclined to issue warnings than to make arrests. Many are not so lucky. Only one in three Americans age 25 or older have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. And while offenses may result in warnings on college campuses, similar behaviors often result in formal criminal records elsewhere. Our criminal justice system has a disproportionate impact on communities of color—this moment calls for a sense of urgency.
For far too many Americans, our criminal justice system closes doors forever and prevents companies from hiring the talent they need. It’s time for change.
This can make it difficult, or even impossible, people to work in a given field, especially one that requires an occupational license. Having a record reduces the likelihood of a job callback or offer by as much as 50 percent, according to the NAACP. In the land of the free, this is unacceptable. Those who paid their debt to society should not be subject to a vocational sentence of life-without-equal-opportunity.
Fortunately, employers and job seekers can take simple steps to create the lasting change we need.
Employers: Go beyond “Ban the Box”
For employers, providing equal opportunity for people with criminal records is not only the right thing to do; it’s also good for business. For proof, look no further than MOD Pizza, a fast-growing pizza restaurant chain that thrives despite stiff competition from major brands with household names. The secret sauce? MOD Pizza pays living wages and actively recruits ex-convicts and felons, many of whom have gone on to become store managers and brand ambassadors. Founder Scott Svenson, reflecting on his commitment to providing equal opportunity, stated he has “discovered that it’s also a more powerful business model if you give people something to work towards that is more than just a paycheck.”
To follow this example, start by simply eliminating bias from the hiring process. Fortunately, several states, counties, and cities have adopted “Ban the Box” initiatives, which provide job applicants with a fair shot at employment by removing conviction history from job applications and delaying background checks until later in the hiring process. While there is growing nuance about how effective Ban the Box laws are at improving employment outcomes for people with a criminal history, there is no question that providing hardworking people with pathways to success is the right thing to do.
And this is only the beginning. Once employers eliminate bias in hiring practices and scrub unnecessary constraints from job listings, announce it. Let current and prospective employees know. Platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and my company Jobcase offer great communities through which you can spread the word. Employees and customers are likely to welcome your support. More tangibly, you may even be eligible for tax credits at the state or national level, such as through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit incentive program.
Job Seekers: Be proud, prepared, and persistent
For court-involved job seekers, it is important to leave past mistakes in the past and move forward in life with confidence. Regret is acceptable, but shame is not. Leave it behind and move forward with pride.
After a decade of building a platform used by millions of people, one thing that has become obvious to me is that attitude is altitude. Enter your job search and work life with the confidence that you are building a better future and are ready to add value for employers. Don’t let the sea of “no’s” that is so representative of the modern job search dampen your spirits. It happens to everyone. If you’ve made it through court actions, you can make it through a job search. You’ve got this. Be proud.
You do need to be prepared. Every job search starts with organizing and refining your documentation. Build a résumé that promotes your best self. Place your volunteer work at the top if your work experience is lacking. Highlight your skills. Come prepared with references and court paperwork to share on demand. Keep in mind: Part of preparing for your job search is acknowledging that you will need to work through today’s incredibly tight job market. Fortunately, there are many online resources to help you along the way. Social networks will share job openings and local insight into how to approach hiring managers. Leverage these. And when you find an opportunity, you’ll be ready to capitalize on it because your materials will already be completed. You’ve got this. Be prepared.
Most importantly, be persistent, both in your applications and in your networking. Getting a job can be a numbers game, involving submitting multiple applications per day and following up on each one diligently until you get to a “yes.” Polite persistence is key to success. And let’s be honest: everyone needs a little help from their friends, too. You must network. Most likely, you know more people who can help you along your career path than you realize. Remember, many job openings are never posted. Share your résumé with friends, family, teachers, clergy, or others, and ask if they can offer any help. Know of a specific open position you want? Even better. Figure out who you know that can help. Give them a specific task to advocate for you or introduce you. Polite persistence triumphs. You’ve got this. Be persistent.
I was not always enlightened on this subject. For me, a turning point came when I had the opportunity to participate in a “Shark Tank”-style pitch contest in a maximum-security prison years ago. In the process, I met some amazing people who put their past behind them, built the foundation for a better life, and were poised to become exceptional employees. All they needed was a second chance to succeed.
Ultimately, where would any of us be if we had not been shown a path to success? If we had not been given the opportunity to move on from the mistakes of years past? We can do better. Amidst the one-two punch of skyrocketing unemployment and horrific systemic racial injustice, we have the opportunity to be the change. Let’s widen the employment funnel. And let’s make the future of work one in which bias toward prior mistakes does not condemn you to a future of exclusion.
Fred Goff is the founder and CEO of Jobcase, an online platform that helps millions of working people find community support, self-improvement tools, and jobs.