When Aedan Macdonald left federal prison in 2019, he was looking to start a new life.
With a garbage bag filled with government-issued sweatpants and a T-shirt, Macdonald moved from California, where he was incarcerated for four years for selling marijuana, to New York City to continue an educational program that he started while in prison.
But when he began applying for jobs, employers rarely gave him a chance.
"I searched endlessly for jobs, only to have job offers rescinded once employers learned of my criminal record," Macdonald said.
After months of applying, he was finally hired by the Center for Justice at Columbia University as a research coordinator. Macdonald eventually founded Justice Through Code, a computer science program at Columbia that prepares formerly incarcerated people for careers in technology. Today, he serves as director of the program and is an advocate for second-chance employment.
In April, recognized as Second Chance Month, Macdonald shared his story with an audience of business professionals and academics during an event at Columbia titled "The Business Case for Second Chance Employment: Charting a Path Forward with Business Schools and Corporations."
The event, sponsored in part by the Second Chance Business Coalition, of which SHRM is a founding partner, explored how organizations and business schools can educate leaders on the benefits of second-chance employment for people with criminal records—particularly those who are formerly incarcerated.
"I want you all to think about what it means to take that chance on somebody and to provide that opportunity," Macdonald said. "I've been given that chance, and I've been provided that opportunity to shine."
A 'Loyal and Effective' Talent Pool
More than 600,000 people return from prison each year in the U.S., according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. But more than half of these individuals, also known as returning citizens, are unemployed a year later, increasing their risk of recidivism.
Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon, said hiring these workers plays a role in supporting their futures and achieving business goals. His company made a commitment to hiring formerly incarcerated applicants in 2015, when it banned the box.
"We wanted to take away any biases in the hiring process," he said. "Now we're giving those individuals with criminal records an opportunity."
Vestberg said this strategy has helped Verizon forge a more talented, diverse and inclusive workforce. He called formerly incarcerated individuals at his company "very loyal, fantastically good workers."
"All our data tells us that many of these employees are extremely loyal, thankful for the company giving them a second chance and do great work," he said. "You want [workers who are] loyal, lead your brand every day [and] lead your core values every day. That's how you make money, succeed and profit."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Individuals with Criminal Records]
A 2021 survey by SHRM Research revealed that 85 percent of HR leaders and 81 percent of business leaders said second-chance hires perform the same as or better than other employees. Additional data shows that giving returning citizens a second chance can reduce employee turnover while boosting employment rates.
Damien Dwin, CEO of investment firm Lafayette Square in Miami, has been an advocate for second-chance employment for years. His company works to convince businesses to hire justice-impacted individuals.
"You have tens of millions of citizens who have been given a life sentence because of 'the box,' " Dwin said. "But this labor pool is observable, measurably loyal and effective at scale."
Go Beyond Just Hiring Returning Citizens
Erich Wilson, CHRO at steel manufacturer Schnitzer Steel in Portland, Ore., said his organization hires people with criminal records and highlights their accomplishments during monthly all-hands meetings.
Schnitzer Steel also holds monthly calls between their CEO, Tamara Lundgren, and a group of about 25 employees from various backgrounds. This strategy affords these workers, including returning citizens, the opportunity to connect with the CEO and helps her better understand their professional goals and workplace challenges.
"[These meetings] also break down the barriers that they've experienced in the past to make sure that they don't become new barriers for us going forward," Wilson said.
Vestberg called it a "growing business responsibility" for employers to upskill employees and educate their workforce on the plight of underrepresented workers. For example, Verizon has upskilling and reskilling programs that help employees learn new skills, hone existing ones and achieve their career goals.
Such programs "are becoming more important now," he said. "[Many applicants today] ask what type of [upskilling] programs you have or what training programs you have. That wasn't the case 15, 20 years ago."
[From the SHRM Foundation: Getting Talent Back to Work]
Panelists shared several actions companies can take to support workers with criminal records:
- Ban the box.
- Review internal policies and practices to ensure fairness in hiring processes.
- Offer skills training to employees, particularly returning citizens.
- Connect with organizations focused on second-chance hiring to better understand how to create a more inclusive workplace for these employees.
Dwin said businesses that hire and promote returning citizens will have an economic advantage in a highly competitive marketplace.
"People make mistakes, and we are a nation of second chances," he said. "This is an 'American underdog' conversation."