In the US, one in three adults, or around 70 million people, have some form of criminal records, while 20 million Americans have been convicted of a felony. These records often serve to shut otherwise qualified candidates out of all but the least-skilled and lowest-paying jobs. Black and Latino men, who make up a disproportionate share of the prison and ex-offender population, suffer the most from this barrier to employment. The inability to get a good job leaves many former prisoners with few options for escaping a life of crime, and studies have shown that gainful employment for ex-felons is one of the most effective deterrents to recidivism, which means employers play a key role in helping reintegrate former prisoners into society.
With unemployment below 4 percent, more job openings than candidates, and many US employers struggling to find the workers they need, the stigma attached to criminal backgrounds in employment now stands to harm not only individuals and communities, but also businesses. “It is morally and economically bad for our country if we do not start removing barriers that prevent returning citizens from a shot at a better life after they have paid their debt to society,” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and former secretary of education Arne Duncan write in an op-ed at the Chicago Tribune. “Business should be at the forefront of solving this challenge. Frankly, it’s in our best interest to do so.”
Dimon and Duncan point to several initiatives going on in the Chicago area and around the country to create employment opportunities for ex-convicts and people at risk of being swept up in the criminal justice system:
First, Boeing and a number of other organizations are partnering on Heartland Alliance’s READI Chicago initiative. This two-year program is trying to reduce gun violence by providing returning citizens and others susceptible to gun violence with employment, job training and support services. Programs like this can help reduce recidivism rates, decrease neighborhood crime and promote economic opportunity.
Second, targeting intensive counseling and workforce development skills at high-risk populations can create a pool of high-performing, job-ready employees. Companies such as construction firm F.H. Paschen, food manufacturer Pullman Sugar LLC and Deloitte in Chicago have not only accepted, but embraced this approach. Now, we need better data that explore how this approach improves the productivity and job performance of returning citizens. We believe it will show that returning citizens can be role models for other workers.
Third, we must build on existing efforts to help employers rethink their human resources practices and help industries access skilled and reliable talent. The National Employment Law Project and the Safer Foundation are leading an effort to help growing industries such as health care understand the value of training and hiring returning citizens, and trying to get others to do the same.
Attitudes are finally changing toward this heavily stigmatized demographic. Some states have moved to bar employers from asking candidates about their criminal records through “ban-the-box” laws. Last year, Glassdoor announced that it would not longer run job ads for employers who refused to consider candidates with criminal records, citing the disparate impact of these policies on racial and ethnic minorities. At the same time, employers are increasingly willing to consider job applicants with criminal records “if they have good references, a solid performance record and a certificate of rehabilitation and are trained in skills the employer is seeking,” according to a study released last month by SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute. SHRM’s Kathy Gurchiek explained the study’s key findings in a blog post:
In fact, two-thirds of managers and three-fourths of HR professionals have hired people who committed misdemeanors or substance-related felonies such as DUIs. Fewer report hiring people convicted of violent or theft felonies. And more than two-thirds of HR professionals who have hired people with criminal histories think their quality of work is as high as or higher than the work of employees who don’t have a criminal record. …
But while managers and HR professionals are willing to hire someone with a criminal history, there is a lack of clarity around their organizations’ stances on this issue, said Trent Burner, SHRM-SCP, vice president of research at SHRM. Only one-third of HR professionals said their company has a formal policy about hiring someone with a criminal record, but a majority of managers and nonmanagers think such a formal policy exists.
Other studies in recent years have also found that ex-offenders are just as committed to their jobs as employees without criminal records—if not indeed more so. Unfortunately, many re-entry programs dedicated to employing former prisoners fall short of their goals when it comes to helping them find steady, long-term jobs and reducing recidivism.