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Ask HR: How Should I Approach Hiring a Candidate with a Criminal Record?

​Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

I'm a hiring manager at a medium-size business. The hiring committee and I are very impressed with one candidate, but they have a criminal record. How should I approach this? I think they'd be a great fit.Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I applaud your willingness to employ someone with a past criminal conviction, but I also understand your hesitancy. However, individuals with a conviction need not be painted with a broad brush, and each case deserves its own examination. People who have made mistakes and paid the penalty deserve a fair chance to bring their much-needed skills back into the workplace. When done right, they can represent a valuable resource for untapped talent.

As with any hiring candidate, you must do your due diligence in performing appropriate background checks and following guidance. For those with a criminal conviction, you have a few approaches available to you.

Let's first look at any state regulations about using criminal records in employment decisions. State regulations outline guidance on the use of arrests and convictions for employment decisions. Many states also have "ban-the-box" regulations, which prohibit employers in 36 states and more than 150 cities and counties from asking criminal-history questions on employment applications, so these individuals are assessed based on their job qualifications first. So depending on where your business operates, applicable regulations may vary.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's "green factors" can provide insight on determining if a candidate's criminal history may negatively impact their work or the safety of others in your organization. The green factors consider the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct, time that has passed since the incident or completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job held or sought.

You aren't alone in your thinking. Research has revealed that 85 percent of people report willingness to work with someone with a conviction. Additionally, 82 percent of hiring managers have shared that the quality of workers with criminal convictions is as high or higher than that of workers without records. I'll say this: It is important to provide avenues for individuals with conviction records to successfully re-enter society after they have paid their debt. It benefits your organization to find and utilize hidden talent. Creating better opportunities to these deserving individuals provides them with better options to contribute positively to society.

None of us should be judged solely on a bad choice we've made and been permanently penalized for. So don't be deterred by the criminal history. Your hesitancy should encourage you to dig deeper to understand this candidate fully. It could potentially be a win for your organization, that individual and society at large.


The CEO hired his eldest son as a president for our company. His son hardly comes to work and is always on (so-called) business trips. He even used a company credit card to pay for personal expenses. I know because I am from accounting. What can I do to bring attention to this? —Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Great question but a difficult situation! While your outrage may be warranted, I encourage you to maintain your objectivity and avoid personal judgment of the circumstances or individuals involved as you navigate this challenge. Keep in mind, the expenses may have a business relation that you are unaware of, or it may be a simple misunderstanding by the president. 

You will first want to carefully re-examine company policy and procedures. If your company has a policy, verify if it clearly outlines who needs to approve business expenses and what is and isn't reimbursable. Typically, the request for reimbursement could be denied if guidelines were not followed. The president may not be aware of the policy's specifics, so if you reject the request, be sure to provide guidance.  If no policy exists, this could be a good time for HR or management to draft one.

From there, any accounting irregularities with business expenses should be communicated to top-level executives, as it is in the best interest of the organization. Given the level of his position and nature of the relationship to the CEO, it is prudent to bring your manager or the CFO in the loop. Be prepared to submit all the facts including supporting documentation and reference material. Focus your concerns on the potential negative impact this activity may present to the company in terms of financial and brand liability, employee morale, and overall reputation. Advise of any criminal liability this practice might trigger.

Ideally, the manager or CFO will communicate directly with the president regarding permitted expense reimbursements guidelines.  If directed by your manager or CFO to reimburse the expense, regardless of whether it meets tax guidelines, you can request that one of them execute the approval. 

At this point, I encourage you to speak with human resources about the situation. It may also be appropriate to involve the company's attorneys in any discussions, in part to protect yourself against future retaliations or lawsuits.

Ultimately, if the organization as a whole is complicit in unethical practices, you may be better off seeking alternative employment. Going forward, maintain an awareness of what is in the best interests of yourself and the organizations you join, and you'll always know when to take a different path. Good luck. 


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