Employers should give job seekers with criminal records a second chance

As the unemployment rate hovers at 4 percent, American businesses continue to experience a tightening labor market. There are 7 million job openings in the U.S. right now, and hardly enough skilled workers, or people to fill them.

The fact is, companies need more workers. And it’s time we stop overlooking valuable yet vulnerable talent pools, such as those with criminal records.

There are 2.3 million Americans behind bars. Every year, nearly 700,000 leave to reintegrate into society. All too often, these ex-offenders looking for a second chance at life are met with an abundance of barriers, namely unemployment barriers. Within a year of being released, 75 percent will remain unemployed.

Those who have served their time, demonstrate a willingness to work and are qualified for the job, should not be re-sentenced to joblessness. This is just cruel. And it is short-sighted to exclude them from workplaces that have a tremendous need for workers -- especially in a time when the U.S. is experiencing a skills shortage.

In partnership with the Charles Koch Institute (CKI), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is calling on business leaders to consider qualified job candidates based on their skills, not their criminal records. Through the Getting Talent Back to Work pledge, we are urging American businesses to consider giving ex-offenders a second chance and to adopt inclusive practices that do not discriminate against those with criminal records.

The movement follows on the heels of the First Step Act, passed by Congress and signed into law in December and is a necessary next step toward true criminal justice reform.

Hiring people with criminal records is a win-win for business and society. Studies show that having a job after incarceration reduces recidivism substantially, making communities safer. It’s also good for the economy as nearly $87 billion in GDP is lost each year from excluding ex-offenders from the workforce.

So, if it’s good for society, and it’s good for business, what’s stopping employers from considering ex-offenders as potential employees?

SHRM’s own research shows that employers are open to hiring those with criminal records, but they don’t. They are too worried about legal concerns and whether these individuals will be accepted in the workplace.

Here’s the reality: A majority of workers are willing to work alongside those who have a criminal record. Employers simply need to take a chance on this willing and able talent pool. And employers’ legal concerns are more a matter of setting workplace policy rather than law.

Already, a diverse coalition of organizations — together representing more than half of the American workforce — have pledged to consider qualified job candidates based on their merit, not their mistakes. And I call on other business leaders to join us as we take this step to give those deserving of a second chance the dignity of work, and drive toward better, more inclusive workplaces.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.