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Formerly Incarcerated Are an Overlooked Source of Talent

A man and woman shaking hands in a restaurant.

With millions of U.S. jobs going unfilled, employers looking for workers would be wise to expand their recruiting and hiring efforts to include people with criminal records. That message was driven home during a session at the recent 31st Annual Forum on Workplace Inclusion, held in Minneapolis.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is a leader in the effort to provide second chances to people with criminal backgrounds. SHRM created a pledge that more than 1,000 individuals, companies, associations and nonprofits have signed as of April 2019, promising to give a second chance to qualified people with criminal records. The Getting Talent Back to Work website gives employers resources to learn about and recruit from this large group of potential talent.  

An estimated 650,000 people are released from prison every year, and many struggle to find jobs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported May 3 that the nation is experiencing the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years and employers are searching desperately for new hires. 

Jacquelyn Carpenter, business development director of Twin Cities R!SE in Minneapolis, pointed to Minnesota's downloadable "Employers' Fair Chance Hiring Guide" as a resource for hiring, onboarding and training people who were formerly incarcerated.

"As employers focused on other talent pipelines," the guide notes, "this talent source continues to increase and remain largely unrealized in the world of work." In 2017 alone, more than 100,000 Minnesotans were under some form of community supervision; the state's Department of Corrections estimated that about 1,000 Minnesotans would be released from prison that year. 

The guide suggests that employers use the "nature-time-nature" test to gauge whether a formerly incarcerated person is suitable for a particular job:

  1. Consider the nature and seriousness of the offense or offenses for which the job applicant was convicted. Identify the risks presented by the job and search applicants' history only for convictions with a direct relationship to those risks. For example, screen potential chief financial officers for embezzlement or screen candidates whose job would involve driving for DUIs.
  2. Consider the amount of time that has passed since the applicant committed the offense or completed sentencing, as well as other mitigating factors such as evidence of rehabilitation. When possible, consider setting a cutoff limit or "look-back period."
  3. Consider the nature of the job held or sought, including its essential functions and the circumstances for performing the job, such as the level of autonomy the person would have and the work environment.

The guide suggests employers use a "relevance screen" to limit information not pertinent to the job that could come from a background check. Organizations such as the National Workrights Institute can offer information on what that involves.

[Take the SHRM quiz "Hiring Individuals with Criminal Records"]

"It's time employers learn how they can do things differently" when hiring the formerly incarcerated, Carpenter said. She acknowledged that represents a "scary unknown" for most HR professionals. "Demystify the process."

She suggested employers consider being flexible with formerly incarcerated applicants and employees when possible, so that those needing to attend court hearings, for example, can take time off from work. And employers may want to allow employees to donate paid time off for those who need it for such instances.

Changing Attitudes

Employers play a big part in changing the mindset toward people with criminal records, said Emily Baxter, author of We Are All Criminals (We Are All Criminals, 2017), and one of the session speakers. She has served as director of advocacy and public policy at the Council on Crime and Justice in Minnesota, and as assistant public defender at the Regional Native Public Defense Corp. 

Her book weaves criminal justice statistics and statutes with photographs and anonymous personal stories from people who have broken laws but were not apprehended. Offenses ranged in severity from public urination to smoking and selling pot to burglarizing a liquor distribution center. 

"We have all violated the law, but only a small percentage have been caught and accused," Baxter said.

Some of the people she interviewed were not ashamed of what they had done but were shaken by the realization of what could have happened if they had entered the legal system. There are 44,500 state and federal statutes that can dictate conditions people must follow after they are released from prison, including what they can do for a living, where they live and whether they can vote.

"I'm not suggesting that we forget that harm has been done, and when harm occurs we must respond to it," Baxter said, "but … we must have a set of core values that the consequences be fair, just, rational, reasonable, merciful."

More Employers Explore Second-Chance Hiring

The idea of recruiting and hiring people with criminal backgrounds—known as second-chance hiring—is gaining traction among policymakers, said business community leaders and worker advocates who spoke at the recent SHRM 2019 Employment Law & Legislative Conference.

In fact, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December 2018. It reduces sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons and improves programs to reduce recidivism, such as those promoting workforce readiness.

And a nationwide study commissioned by SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute found that, while people with criminal records face additional scrutiny during the hiring process, many employees, managers and HR professionals are open to working with and hiring people with criminal histories.

Scott Cross, who attended the Minneapolis conference, is HR manager at Pieper Electric in Milwaukee, which deals in electrical construction. 

"Construction has always been one of those areas where we don't expect [applicants] to come to the company squeaky clean," he said. The people his company hires who have spent time in jail typically are found through word-of-mouth, but he says he's trying to find ways his company can formalize initiatives around recruiting and hiring people with criminal records.

He came away from the session hoping to get others to think about what could happen if they found themselves in the criminal justice system and was inspired to encourage his employer to partner with community groups working with the formerly incarcerated.


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