On most job applications, there's a little box that says: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Check Yes or No." Countless candidates have been denied employment because they checked "Yes." Countless more have been fired because they lied and checked "No."
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There's usually a little space to explain the circumstances of the conviction, but do hiring managers and recruiters even read beyond the checkmark? For most white-collar and many blue-collar positions, they generally do not.
We're conditioned in the U.S. business world to say "no" to ex-offenders. Nearly 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed a year after they are released, according to "Back to Business: How Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Job Seekers Benefits Your Company," a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
As it turns out, the main obstacle between employment and applicants with criminal records is usually hiring managers who lack information.
The Benefits of Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated
Myths abound as to why it's "unsafe" to hire someone who has committed a crime at some point in their life.
"The common myths are that people with criminal histories are more likely to be troublemakers, if not commit another crime on the job, leading employers to open themselves up to negligent hiring lawsuits," says Megan French-Marcelin, Ph.D., policy research manager for the ACLU. "The fact of the matter is research has shown time and time again that not only are employees with criminal histories more loyal – leading to higher retention, lower turnover, and minimize[d] costs associated with recruitment – but they are also no more likely to commit a crime on the job than any other employee."
French-Marcelin cites research from the National Workrights Institute which found that, of the 90,000 EEOC complains filed each year, only 400 were negligent hiring liability suits. Very few of those negligent hiring suits were related to criminal convictions.
"That said, several states are moving to limit negligent hiring to better reflect EEOC guidelines on hiring people with criminal records, as well as protect employers who follow those guidelines from liability," French-Marcelin adds.
Doubling down on stereotypes and denying opportunities to former criminals doesn't help employers or employees. Workers with criminal records have repeatedly demonstrated commitment to their employers. For example, U.S. Army enlistees with felony records were 33 percent more likely to be promoted to the rank of sergeant, according to the ACLU report. Similarly, a continuing study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Health Resource Center that tracks 500 employees with felony records showed that 73 of 79 employees with very serious criminal histories remained employed five years later. Of the six employees who left their jobs, only one was terminated.
In an age of increased job hopping, this level of commitment is highly valuable.
"The risk is very, very low compared to the benefits," says French-Marcelin. "Outside of less turnover and better retention, hiring employees with criminal histories benefits the business, the community, and the economy at large."
In French-Marcelin's estimation, businesses gain "dedicated employees and access to talent previously excluded only because of prejudice"; communities gain economic advantages as more money circulates and more people leave public benefits in favor of employment; and the overall economy benefits from lower unemployment and higher GDP.
The Importance of Education
Even with the consistently low unemployment rate hovering around 4.5 percent in the U.S., many industries suffer from labor shortages. Can we really afford to be so judgmental about the 70 million Americans who have criminal records?
When you consider that inmates often have access to in-depth technical training and college education that can help them fill the nation's talent gaps, the answer to that question seems clear.
"I think we are seeing innovative programs, particularly in tech, that could raise the skill level while providing steady employment," French-Marcelin says. "The key to that is in reach. Correctional education is key and can help support job readiness without weeks of training once someone is released. I think what I would like to see is businesses partnering to bring training programs into prisons. Edovo is doing this by supplying programmed tablets to prisoners."
Tips for Hiring Managers
In the meantime, it's up to companies to take steps to ensure their recruiters and hiring managers give ex-offenders a fair shot when they apply. The ACLU report makes the following recommendations:
Provide anti-discrimination and implicit bias training for all staff and managers who participate in hiring decisions.
Set clear objectives for fair hiring and recruitment efforts.
Consider conducting regular statistical analyses to determine whether criminal record screening policies are having an adverse impact on black and Latino job applicants.
Have hiring decisions for applicants with criminal records made by a senior manager or a group of managers.
Keep the applicant's record confidential.
Require hiring managers to document the selection criteria they used.
Train the human resources staff on facts about negligent hiring claims. The way to defend against such claims is to conduct appropriate background checks and review evidence that mitigates the applicant's conviction history.
Monitor recruitment and hiring results and adjust practices when necessary.