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Workers Expect Employers to Hire People with Prior Convictions

Two businessmen shaking hands in an office.

​Job seekers with criminal records, particularly those who were once incarcerated, often have trouble securing employment.

The National Employment Law Project estimates that nearly 700,000 individuals are released from incarceration each year. Those who re-enter the job market experience discrimination in the recruiting process, making it more difficult to return to a normal life.

While businesses may remain ambivalent about hiring these workers, a recent report by Indeed showed that employees are becoming more open-minded about working alongside people with prior convictions.

In a survey of more than 1,000 workers from jobs site Indeed:

  • 92 percent said that they are comfortable working alongside a co-worker who has a nonviolent criminal record.
  • 91 percent said that providing fair job opportunities to individuals with a criminal record is essential to society.
  • 73 percent would prefer to work for a company with fair-chance hiring practices.

"We are encouraged to see that employees are overwhelmingly supportive of fair-chance hiring practices and even say that a company's practices in this area would influence their decision to work there," said Abbey Carlton, vice president of social impact for Indeed.

[SHRM Foundation resources on hiring people with criminal history: Getting Talent Back to Work]

Nearly 70 percent of employees would still feel comfortable working alongside an individual who had multiple nonviolent incidents on their record, the survey showed. And 66 percent agreed that they'd feel comfortable working with someone with a single, isolated incident on their record, even if it was violent.

Even multiple violent incidents in a worker's past didn't significantly change respondents' level of concern: 54 percent said they would still feel comfortable around this co-worker.

The findings mirror a recent survey of about 1,100 workers by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the SHRM Foundation showing that:

  • 79 percent would feel comfortable working for an employer if a few of their colleagues had a nonviolent criminal record.
  • 57 percent said they would be proud to work for an organization that publicly addresses the stigmas that people with criminal records face.
  • 52 percent believe employers should strive to help people with criminal records secure jobs.

"It's clear that expectations of employers are changing," Carlton said. "Employees want action and authenticity, and they're willing to leave a job to find a workplace that fully embodies their values."

Do Employers Feel the Same Way?

The Indeed report indicated that companies are still less inclined to hire people with prior convictions.

Just 33 percent of respondents said that their employer currently offers employment to job seekers with a criminal record, despite Indeed data showing that searches for fair-chance work rose by 32 percent in the past year.

Many companies do not offer employment to job seekers with a criminal record due to perceptions that co-workers' safety may be compromised and fear of objection within the organization. Stuart McCalla, a managing partner at leadership-development firm Evolution in San Francisco, said these stigmas often cause employers to fear people with prior convictions—especially those who were once incarcerated.

"I have spoken to many people who were formerly incarcerated, and many talk about the surprise that one faces when disclosing their personal history," McCalla said. "There usually comes either awkward silence, a shallow sense of sympathy or a voyeuristic set of questioning that has nothing to do with the person."

The lack of opportunities for individuals with prior convictions particularly impacts Black people, who comprise 38 percent of the incarcerated population, despite representing only 12 percent of U.S. residents.

"Incarceration rates are nearly six times higher for Black Americans than white Americans," Carlton noted. "We can't talk about fair-chance hiring without acknowledging those injustices."

However, some employers do see the value in people with criminal records: The Indeed report noted a 10-percent increase in job postings that explicitly indicate they adhere to fair-chance hiring practices over the past three years.

"This suggests more and more employers are becoming aware of the benefits of these practices," Carlton said.

Tips When Conducting Background Checks

Background checks can influence a company to avoid hiring job seekers with criminal records. Searches using phrases like "no background check" increased by 75 percent on Indeed in the last few years, per its report.

Tracy Vrchota, director of compliance for HR consulting firm Accurate Background in Irvine, Calif., said that businesses can develop a policy that lends itself to equitable hiring for disadvantaged populations in several ways:

Limit background checks. Businesses should run a background check only after determining whether the applicant meets the job criteria, and even then, it could be done after a conditional offer has been made.

Consider the law. Upon determining that a candidate is a good fit, companies should consider the candidate's criminal history in compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidance as well as state, local and federal laws.

Not every position is created equal. It is important to remember that job seekers with prior convictions cannot work certain jobs. For example, employees with direct access to fungible assets may not meet the requirements of the position if they have recent fraud or theft convictions for a defined period or as required by law.

"In leveraging criminal-record background checks, companies can make informed hiring decisions that will better protect their organizations and customers," Vrchota said. "That said, businesses must ensure they have a well-documented, carefully crafted screening policy … that focuses on the job and the candidate rather than the criminal record."


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