Hiring Job Seekers with Criminal Histories

Weigh the risks and rewards of employing ex-offenders.

By Mark Feffer Sep 26, 2016
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Davon Miller was studying computer engineering at National College in Charlottesville, Va., when he was convicted of distributing cocaine and unlawfully possessing a firearm. "I was trying to work my way through college, but there weren’t any jobs," Miller recalls. "In my community, it was easier to make a living with guns and drugs than to find work." He served two years in prison for his crimes.

Following his release in 2009, Miller was ready to start over, particularly after learning what his conviction might have cost him: 45 years behind bars. "That was the wake-up call for me," he said. "I’m not built for that kind of life." 

After six months of job-hunting, he took a position at a local Burger King. Three years later, he landed a job as a cook in an Italian restaurant. The open kitchen environment helped him showcase to his managers how hard he worked to turn out timely orders, keep his station organized and lead other team members.

Today, Miller is the sous chef and kitchen manager at Charlottesville’s Threepenny Café, and he’s taking business and real-estate courses at a local community college. It has been a long journey to rebuild his life—and one that is still unfolding. Despite a growing reputation in the local restaurant scene, Miller was able only recently to rent an apartment. He spent six years looking while he lived with his mother.

Given a workforce facing unprecedented skills gaps and a country where tens of thousands of state and federal inmates are being released back into their communities every month, Miller’s story is worth bearing in mind. Many people with criminal histories are eager to work but have a hard time finding an employer willing to give them a chance.

Companies are understandably concerned about the safety of their workers and customers as well as their own assets and public image. But today, many HR professionals are finding that the best approach to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds is not so different from the one they use for everyone else: to evaluate each candidate on his or her merits.

That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind or forgoing background checks; rather, it’s about giving candidates with criminal backgrounds a chance to be included in the selection process, carefully assessing the nature of their crimes and the time since conviction, and balancing overall risks against potential rewards.

The Road to Re-Entry

In 2014, 636,000 U.S. inmates were released from prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. At the same time, the use of criminal background checks in the workplace has become nearly ubiquitous. "I think it’s become an expectation that companies will run a check at some point in the [hiring] process," says Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners in Morrisville, N.C. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago, she says.

Meanwhile, so-called ban-the-box legislation, which prohibits employers from asking candidates about criminal convictions during an initial screening, has been adopted by the federal government, 24 states, and numerous counties and municipalities. As a result, more than 185 million people in the U.S. live in either a ban-the-box or "fair chance" jurisdiction, according to the National Employment Law Project. "Fair chance" legislation requires employers to consider factors such as the job-relatedness of a conviction, how much time has passed since the conviction, mitigating circumstances and evidence of rehabilitation when making hiring decisions.

All of these developments increase the likelihood that, at some point, you will be considering an applicant’s criminal record when attempting to fill an opening. You may even be breaking new ground: According to a 2009 survey by the Johnson & Johnson-Dartmouth Community Mental Health Program, 66 percent of employers have no formal policy regarding the hiring of candidates with criminal records.

Davon Miller

There’s no denying that the stakes can be high for employers that bring on workers with criminal histories. To cite just one example, in 2001 Cathy Sue Weaver was raped and murdered by a department store contractor who had been hired to clean the air ducts in her home. Weaver didn’t know he was a twice-convicted sex offender.

"Everyone deserves a second chance but not at the expense of innocents such as my sister," Weaver’s sister Lucia Bone told HR Magazine in a 2014 interview.

Moreover, many of the statistics surrounding people with criminal histories are grim. More than two-thirds of the prisoners released by 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years, according to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than 75 percent were arrested within five years. Among violent offenders, 71 percent were arrested within five years.

Good Workers Wanted

Statistics like these and stories such as Weaver’s can make employers leery. Yet many HR leaders, corrections officials and support organizations make strong arguments about why, in some circumstances, hiring a former convict can be positive for both the employer and the individual.

"People don’t get up and say they’re going to start hiring ex-offenders," says B. Max Dubroff, SHRM-SCP, a consultant at Einfluss LLC, an HR advisory firm in Albuquerque, N.M. "But they need talent. When you eliminate this portion of the population, you miss out on talent."

That point is borne out by executives who say they’ve found people with criminal histories to be exceptional contributors. "When I was at another company, I had a candidate for a help desk position who had a conviction," recalls an HR executive at a national media company who asked not to be identified. "He was 18 and in a car when someone with him robbed a convenience store. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. … He didn’t hang out with those people anymore. He turned out to be a great employee who was promoted several times."

The executive tries to keep an open mind and to use hiring practices that are fair and aligned with business needs. "I start an interactive dialogue just before the offer stage about anything they’d like to share with me," he says. "If they were convicted of aggravated assault, weapons charges or financial theft, we probably won’t hire them. But just about anything else, we’re willing to listen."

Many candidates describe job interviews proceeding smoothly until the question of their conviction is broached, says Christopher O.L.H. Porter, a management professor and Kelley Venture Fellow at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

"The minute you’ve initiated the question, you’ve involved biases," Porter says. Because of ban-the-box laws or company policy, some managers may not learn of a conviction until the interview stage.

Overcoming bias is often the biggest barrier to hiring applicants with criminal convictions, says Mark Drevno, founder and executive director of Jails to Jobs, a nonprofit in Lafayette, Calif., that helps people with criminal backgrounds prepare for the job market. "We’re conditioned to be hypervigilant," he says.

It’s a sensitive enough issue that even companies included on lists of "offender-friendly" employers are often reluctant to discuss their staffing practices for fear of alienating customers or damaging their public image. 

Reasons to Hire...

Sensitivities aside, there are many reasons to consider hiring individuals with criminal convictions. Let’s start with dollars and cents: Programs at nearly every level of government offer financial incentives for organizations that hire people re-entering the community after serving prison time. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor offers the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to organizations that hire ex-felons within a year of their being convicted or released from prison. The department also makes bonds available through state agencies that guarantee honesty for at-risk, hard-to-place job seekers for the first six months of their employment.

At the state level, organizations such as the California Prison Industry Authority provide job and other training and certifications to people with criminal histories. For instance, the state’s Joint Venture Program—which pairs select inmates working in prison-run facilities with participating companies—offers discounts on workers’ compensation insurance, state tax credits and additional savings since the state picks up the tab for employee benefits. Counties and municipalities, too, offer programs to encourage employers to hire workers with criminal histories.

One businessman who takes advantage of such programs is Tracey Syphax, who had been in and out of jail several times before founding his own design and construction company in Trenton, N.J. Syphax has used an on-the-job training program in Mercer County, N.J., which reimburses employers for up to 90 percent of a new employee’s wages while he or she is being taught basic job requirements.

After Syphax was convicted on drug charges in 1989, he made a vow "not to live like that anymore" and made good on that promise following his 1993 release. "[I was] lucky that I had a trade—I was a roofer," he says.

Syphax was hired by a family friend as a laborer for a roofing company and worked his way up to foreman. In 1995, he started his own business, and today he is president and chief operating officer of Phax Design and Construction. President Barack Obama honored him as a White House "Champion of Change" for his work helping people with criminal backgrounds navigate the path from prison to re-entry into the outside world.

Another reason to keep an open mind is that applicants with criminal histories may be qualified for tough-to-fill roles. Both state and federal prisons offer programs to help inmates learn job skills. "Re-entry starts in prison," says Krissi Khokhobashvili, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "It’s a process that begins months and years before someone goes home."

Finally, equal opportunity considerations come into play. Making a blanket exclusion based on criminal history could disproportionately affect black or Latino candidates, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spokeswoman Justine Lisser. One out of every 3 black men and 1 in 6 Hispanic men are expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetimes, compared with 1 in 17 white men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The statistics tell a similar story for women.

...And the Challenges Involved

Of course, hiring someone with a criminal history can present real challenges. Some individuals may have little or no work history; others might have problems finding housing or dependable transportation. 

Here, again, there are a host of programs that can provide support. "There are so many community and faith-based organizations out there that will help with things like housing and transportation, and they’re just itching to connect with employers who will give re-entering prisoners a shot," Dubroff says.

Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland is a prime example. The organization runs a program focused on preparing former prisoners for careers in hospitality and stays involved after participants complete the initial training.

"We keep working with them to make sure they’re moving forward by helping with child care issues, transportation issues and the like," says founder and CEO Brandon Chrostowski, who was jailed for fleeing from police during a drug-related incident. Among other things, the experience taught him about "the error of a society that treats those of us who have been incarcerated as lifelong pariahs," he says. The institute’s graduates have a recidivism rate of less than 1 percent.

Patience, flexibility and clear communication are crucial, says Dubroff, who hired a number of applicants with criminal convictions when he was the HR director of Oklahoma grocery chain Buy For Less. "Tell them the good and bad expectations about the job," he says. "Treat them like anyone else, but understand they’re coming from an environment you and I have had no experience with." For example, you may have to clarify basic expectations such as punctuality, he explains.

Brandon Chrostowski | Photograph by Michaelangelo Photography

Dubroff recalls hiring a worker who was enthusiastic during his interviews and performed well during his first two weeks on the job. But then he began to slip in small ways—showing up late and not dressing as neatly or working as hard as he had been.

"These were all little things, and he didn’t break any rules," Dubroff says, but the employee’s manager decided to face the problems head-on. "The manager said, ‘We’ve seen what you can do’ and worked with the employee to develop an improvement plan." Four months later, the worker was chosen to take on a managerial role.

Hiring applicants with criminal histories requires thoughtful consideration. Employers and advocates for these individuals both maintain that the key is to evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis.

"I’m not saying every felon comes out of jail with the right mindset," Miller says, "but a lot do." Despite his optimism, he’s keenly aware of how much his own past continues to affect his future: "I’ve still got to make sure that, whatever I go to school for, they’ll hire convicted felons." 

Resources for Employers

​•  Regional  workforce development boards offer training and support to individuals with criminal histories and their employers.

• State and county departments of corrections programs match skilled job seekers with criminal convictions to employers looking for those skills. 

• The federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit is available to employers hiring job seekers from certain groups that consistently face barriers to employment.

• The Federal Bonding Program provides fidelity bonds that guarantee at-risk, hard-to-place job seekers for the first six months of employment at no cost to the applicant or employer.

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia. 

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