Viewpoint: Give Second Chance a Chance

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. August 6, 2018

Dave’s Killer Bread, a Second Chance Employer and the inspiration for the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, has benefited tremendously from the “attitude of gratitude” that employees with criminal backgrounds, who are ready to change, bring to the job (Photo courtesy Dave’s Killer Bread).

​Each year in the United States, 700,000 men and women are released from prison and re-enter society, where many want to find jobs. Yet despite U.S. employers' growing need for workers, formerly incarcerated applicants face a huge obstacle in achieving gainful employment: criminal background checks. 

At the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition in Chicago, SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, made it clear that second-chance employment—hiring employees with a conviction history—is a SHRM priority and initiative. 

​Corbett GordonIn collaboration with the Charles Koch Foundation, SHRM recently surveyed managers and HR professionals on their attitudes toward hiring candidates with criminal pasts. Survey results show increasing awareness and understanding that a criminal background should not disqualify someone from employment. 

However, as Taylor notes, "Willingness to hire in theory doesn't necessarily mean willingness to hire in practice." 

So what are the obstacles that prevent otherwise open-minded HR professionals and managers from hiring someone with a criminal past—and what would convince them to give these applicants a second chance? 

Negligent Hiring Liability 

In a previous SHRM article, I explained that companies often put a "box" on job applications where candidates must indicate if they've been convicted of a crime. Employers use this and criminal background checks because of their fear of being sued for negligent hiring or retention. However, veteran management attorney Corbett Gordon said, "In my 35-plus years of practicing employment law, I never litigated a single negligent hiring or retention case based on someone with a criminal background. 

"For years, we management attorneys counseled clients not to hire second-chance applicants. I have apologized before and do so again for my part in this misguided effort. 

"If an employer screens for history relevant to the specific job and hires the best-qualified candidate, that's not negligence. The person's criminal past is not relevant, and it's unfair to consider it." 

At Dave's Killer Bread (DKB) baking company, maker of the top-selling organic bread in the U.S., 40 percent of the workforce have criminal backgrounds. Dave himself spent 15 years in prison before getting his second chance. Registered insurance agent and former underwriter Adam Harris has handled insurance for the company for a decade now. 

"There's never been a problem regarding employees with criminal pasts. In fact, its Second Chance program has saved DKB money on premiums, since it shows a well-managed, responsible employer, which underwriters like." 

Fear of Violence, Crime or Misconduct 

Many employers avoid hiring applicants with criminal backgrounds believing they present an unusually high risk of committing acts of violence, theft or other misconduct. There isn't much evidence to back this up. 

"During my employment-law career, I litigated and advised on numerous cases involving workplace misconduct, including sexual assault, harassment, violence, theft, embezzlement and just about any other behavior you might cringe to imagine," Gordon said. "With only one exception [embezzlement], those cases involved bad actors without criminal records." 

Gretchen Peterson, DKB's chief human resource officer, said, "Our formerly incarcerated employees aren't just 'nonproblems.' They're role models in terms of performance, attendance and teamwork. They have an especially strong incentive to deliver value because they've seen the alternative, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, they deliver." 

Sex Offenders 

For many employers, candidates who are registered sex offenders are automatically rejected. However, this blanket ban may be unfair and misguided. It fails to take into account jobs or preventive measures that can essentially eliminate the risk of sexual assault or harassment. Moreover, it mistakenly assumes that a registered sex offender is a predator. 

The Rev. Violet C. Little serves a congregation of homeless men and women on the streets of Philadelphia. She shared a story about one of her congregants, a homeless woman. 

"When you are a homeless woman, going to the bathroom at night is a huge problem. Your options are never good. 

"One night, one of my congregants awoke and needed to relieve herself. She quietly went behind a bush and did so. Unfortunately, a police officer saw and arrested her. She ended up with a conviction for indecent exposure and was required to register as a sex offender. 

"As a homeless person, she already has a huge obstacle to finding gainful employment. Now she carries this additional burden, which makes finding employment almost impossible." 

The Second Chance Tour 

Recently, I attended a Portland Human Resource Management Association event showcasing the Oregon Second Chance Tour. Participants included companies that actively seek to employ people with criminal pasts, individuals who have been given second chances, legal and other experts, and organizations that help employers find employees who have been released or are eager to find gainful employment following release. 

Genevieve MartinThe stories were moving, the data was compelling, and the impact on the 150 HR professionals attending was powerful. 

"With the support of our SHRM members throughout the country, we can make the Oregon Second Chance Tour a 50-state second-chance tour," Taylor said. 

For readers who would like more information about how second-chance employment can benefit their organization or guidance on next steps, Genevieve Martin, executive director of Dave's Killer Bread Foundation, is happy to help. She can be reached at

Jathan Janove is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (Amacom, 2017). He was recently named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018.



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