The Many Pros and Fewer-Than-Expected Cons of Hiring Ex-Cons
Prison reform and recidivism rates are hot topics right now, with discussion flourishing everywhere from presidential roundtables to executive boardrooms. With the tight labor market on hiring managers’ minds -- the unemployment rate is hovering at 3.9 percent -- attention has turned to the 626,000 people released from prison every year.
This topic is sparking passionate debate in offices across America, with human resource management, security professionals, corporate counsel and other decision-makers debating the topic from different departmental angles. There are countless anecdotes supporting either side; the N.Y.-based bakery that earns $20M in revenue while only hiring the “unhirable.” On the opposing side: the Detroit man with domestic violence and home invasion convictions who attacked his supervisor following an argument.
As a global background check and identity screening company, we’re constantly asked our opinions on this controversial topic. Here are the things to keep in mind while having the debate:
1. You’re not making this decision in a vacuum.
Compliance will always be at the heart of this conversation. No matter your personal opinion about integrating convicted criminals back into the workforce, there are a variety of state and federal laws governing this kind of decision. To protect yourself from discrimination claims, get up-to-date on your rights as an employer and their rights as a citizen, including ban-the-box, the EEOC, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the FCRA. Here are a few of the highlights:
If your policy is strictly against hiring ex-offenders, you need to rethink it. The EEOC requires companies to perform individualized assessments rather than simply disqualifying anyone with a criminal record. The “bright-line rule” makes blanket statements -- I won’t hire anyone with a felony conviction -- a violation of the EEOC’s guidance on the use of background check and criminal history data in employment decisions. Individualized assessments must be part of your hiring and background check program. What does that mean? You’re required to allow candidates to provide evidence that an offense does not relate to the position, and as an employer, you have to take the gravity of the offense, the amount of time passed and the nature of the job into consideration.
The purpose behind individualized assessments is to treat each candidate as an individual. Along those same lines, you might be subject to repercussions from the EEOC if your candidate has been gainfully employed since their conviction but you chose to bar them employment due to their criminal history.
In addition to federal regulations, state laws come into play, too. New York’s Fair Chance Act prohibits most employers from inquiring about criminal records prior to making an official job offer. The Illinois Human Rights Act bars the use of arrest information in employment decisions. This isn’t an exhaustive list -- talk to your legal counsel when outlining your company’s policy to make sure you’re not overstepping your rights.
2. Recidivism is a risk and a reality.
The rate of repeat offenses following release varies widely from study to study, but a percentage of offenders will certainly return to prison at least one more time. Statistics show that the majority of reincarcerations occur due to technical parole or probation violations, and the rate of recidivism increases exponentially the longer an offender is unemployed following release from prison.
Perhaps you’re the type of business owner who wants to leverage your position for social good; a five-year study of offenders released from the Indiana Department of Corrections found that across multiple crime categorizations --violent, non-violent, drug or sex offenses -- offenders would likely reoffend if not employed following release.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean employers should start hiring former criminals en masse. At the end of the day, your dedication is to your company’s well-being, and the position for which you’re hiring should factor into your decision. Whether it’s the aforementioned bakery, MOD Pizza, or a bread manufacturer in Oregon, there’s a common theme among businesses that have gained a reputation for hiring ex-offenders: they’re recruiting into entry-level positions. A study by Northwestern University found that people with criminal convictions were no more likely to be let go for misconduct, and were less likely to quit. The one exception was for sales positions, where people with criminal convictions were 28 percent more likely to be fired for misconduct if they had a criminal past.
Find the right position for the right person; you probably don’t want to hire an applicant with felony fraud convictions from two years ago to be your accountant, but they might make a great receptionist. If you’re willing but wary, you should still go to reasonable lengths to protect yourself.
3. Hiring convicts expands your talent pool considerably.
Almost all convicted individuals -- 95 percent, to be specific -- will be released from prison. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of non-working men aged 25 to 54 have a criminal record. As the labor market becomes even more competitive in coming years -- by some estimates, 43 percent of the labor force could be supplied by gig workers as early as 2020 -- hiring managers will see a drastic reduction in the availability of a traditional workforce. It’s imperative that businesses get policies in place now to prepare for the eventual need for new talent sources. For some companies, that might mean freelance work; for others, it might mean dipping into a pool of non-traditional candidates.
Hiring ex-offenders may benefit your bottom line, too. Even at entry-level positions, onboarding an employee costs approximately $4,000. Due to the scarcity of jobs available to them, ex-offenders are less likely to leave a job: Turnover for employees with criminal records is 13 percent lower than those without.
4. This isn’t a free pass. You have a right to know.
Opening your doors to ex-offenders doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean you close your eyes to all transgressions. Compliant background checks should always be part of your hiring practice, and you need to work with a company that will deliver results that don’t overstep your rights as an employer. Built-in individualized assessments put the variety of offense and the length of time since the conviction into perspective and give hiring managers the opportunity to consider the circumstances surrounding an individual’s criminal past. Companies have the right to screen their applicants, to know about criminal offenses that relate to the job, and to make choices that keep their people and their resources safe. Work with a trusted screening partner who will guide you through the specifics and keep you remain compliant.
The formula for hiring an ex-offender is complex. Like most debates that divide the country, there are no easy answers. Find the balance between the safety of your team, your brand’s reputation and your need for qualified talent. Decisions will continue to be situation-specific, but partner with the right screening company and keep clear, consistent company policies in place to protect yourself while providing opportunities to those who may need it most.