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4 Best Practices for Second-Chance Hiring

How to successfully hire candidates with criminal records

Two men in a factory holding a tray of doughnuts.

​Yonkers, N.Y.-based Greyston Bakery, the primary supplier of brownies for Ben & Jerry's ice cream, is at the forefront of second-chance hiring, tapping the formerly incarcerated for inclusion in its job pool.

Job candidates at the bakery have an easy application process, filling out a one-page form that asks for a name, phone number, and e-mail address. They are also quizzed about their physical abilities such as whether they can they lift a 50-pound bag of flour or sugar. Once the form is filled out, it goes onto a pile arranged in chronological order. The next time a job opening becomes available, the person at the top of the list gets a call.

Since there's no background check or reference requirement, many of those who apply have prior felony or misdemeanor convictions. Others are homeless or struggle with substance abuse. Today, between 70 and 80 of the more than 100 people who work there, baking brownies and cookies, came from the company's open hiring policy.

Greyston's program has been around since the 1980s and is changing lives, according to Joseph D. Kenner, the company's vice president of programs and partnership. "The first day at orientation is your first day on the job with full benefits. In six to nine months, once your apprenticeship is over, you get access to the union."

[SHRM's Getting Talent Back to Work toolkit]

Greyston isn't the only organization out there taking a chance on formerly incarcerated job seekers, which is a good thing considering that about one in three Americans have some form of criminal record, according to the Center for American Progress. Today, two-thirds of HR professionals surveyed reported that their companies have hired people with a criminal record, with only 14 percent of respondents saying they would be unwilling to hire such an applicant.

Here are strategies that can help organizations make the best hires with the best outcomes.

Make second-chance hiring part of your corporate culture. Second-chance hiring is less likely to work if an organization is doing it for the wrong reasons, according to Genevieve Martin, executive director of Dave's Killer Bread Foundation, which is dedicated to helping businesses adopt second-chance employment. It's not a program, she said. It's a business model.

"It shouldn't be done to be charitable or altruistic. It should be because your organization is committed to hiring the best person for a job," Martin said, adding that very little has to change from an HR process perspective when hiring a second-chance applicant.

It's also important to note that—for those companies that have hired second-chance candidates— 82 percent of hiring managers said the quality of those candidates is as good as, if not better than, someone without a criminal record, said Richard Bronson, CEO of 70 Million Jobs, a job-search site dedicated to this population.

"It turns out this group of people does incredibly well," Bronson said. "Retention especially is really where the game is won. This population knows they have fewer options so they work harder and if they find themselves in a relatively good situation, they will do everything they can to stay where they are."

Provide training and work support. Greyston ticks this box by working directly with local nonprofit Westchester Jewish Community Services to get new hires set up with whatever they may need. "We have someone working with our new employees as part of the orientation process," Kenner said. "You get introduced to her on your first day. Housing, child support, dealing with social services, transportation, mental health—we want all our employees to know that if they or their families are in crisis, we want to help them out. It's wraparound support. For us, the biggest issue has been housing. We've had employees living in cars, and in that case it's not uncommon for them to feel ashamed of what they're going through."

Employers can use existing employee programs such as employee assistance or wellness offerings. They can also connect with local and state resources to help employees make the transition more easily.

Establish mentoring. Fewer than 3 in 10 companies have a formal mentoring program, but research has shown that it can improve employee retention rates and boost employee satisfaction. The practice is even more beneficial for second-chance candidates since it can help those employees feel like part of the organization more quickly and help them avoid common job pitfalls, Bronson said. "Even if it's for a warehouse position, some companies have had success in establishing a buddy system whereby a well-respected worker is given the responsibility to help the new hire acclimate to the new job and help the company maximize the chances for hiring success," he said.

Default to transparency—but keep employee details confidential. You might think that it's important to let managers and executives know which new hires have prison records, but this is a very bad idea, Martin said. "The HR team should treat that information like a medical condition. Very rarely should anyone know about it," she said.

That doesn't mean you don't talk about the initiative, though, Bronson said. While people have a right to privacy, you still need to let current employees know that you're embracing second-chance hiring and why you're doing it.

"Inevitably a workforce will become aware that the HR department is hiring those with criminal records," said Bronson. "All workers deserve a safe workplace; many will be uncomfortable with such a hiring initiative. The facts regarding hiring those with records are much different than the widely held negative biases. Educate your workforce on why you're accessing this pool of talent. Let them share ownership [and] they'll also be sharing pride."

Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.


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