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On giving job candidates with a criminal record a second chance


March 24, 2020
3.24.2020 2020-03 blog-hiring-ex-offender

In 2017, Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo wrote on LinkedIn that one-third of Americans have a criminal record — 70 million people, using the Governor’s definition. He went on to state that “employers that do hire formerly incarcerated individuals end up reaping the benefits: loyal employees with higher retention rates, tax benefits, and increased economic mobility for their staff.”

That’s quite a claim. But is it possible that individuals with records could actually deliver such benefits, particularly at a time when finding qualified candidates is such a challenge?

Yes. And there’s evidence to support it.

Making the grade in the US military

Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, using the U.S. military – the nation’s largest employer – as a testbed, found that ex-felons were no more likely to be dismissed for misconduct or poor performance than other enlistees. In fact, they were more likely to be promoted to higher ranks.

Individuals convicted of a felony may not enlist in any branch of the military according to the U.S. federal legal code. However, a recruit with a felony may request a “moral character waiver” which may be granted after a background check that considers the recruit’s age at offense, the circumstances of the crime, his or her individual qualifications, references, and a personal interview.

Recruits with felonies who were granted a waiver were found to be “no more likely to be discharged for the negative reasons employers often assume” including doing a bad job and exhibiting bad behavior. In fact, the report stated, “Contrary to what might be expected, we find that individuals with felony-level criminal backgrounds are promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than other enlistees.”

Results further validated

The Harvard-Amherst study isn’t alone in its assessment. Canadian Big Data firm Evolv crunched numbers and found that “criminals can make better employees than anyone else.” The firm calculated that employees with criminal backgrounds are 1 to 1.5 percent more productive on the job than people without criminal records. Such productivity “could result in tens of millions in profit and loss gain,” said the company.

Why the surprising results?

Evolv speculated that perhaps employees with records may feel a sense of loyalty and/or gratitude to a business that would see beyond their mistakes and provide them with an opportunity. Is that enough to persuade prospective employers? Evolv’s CEO Max Simkoff said, “…I tell them their own data is showing this—if they want to save $10 million a year, they should make the change. But what they do with the data is ultimately up to them.”

Sociologist Jennifer Lundquist, one of the authors of the Harvard-Amherst paper, speculated that people with criminal records may want to “go the extra mile” for businesses offering them a chance to get beyond their pasts. “Our main argument is that the ‘whole person’ criteria is something we think employers should explore as a possibility.” Otherwise, employers “may be losing out by just banning ex-felons altogether who turn out to be pretty good employees when given that chance—and when properly screened.”

“The screening process clearly works, there’s no question,” Lundquist noted. “But I also suspect there may be something else going on here, which is the interesting social question.” She hypothesizes that criminal record holders may do better than those without a record and outperform their peers because they want to pay back an employer – in this case, the military – that offered them a second chance.

The uphill battle

Those who have a criminal record know the tremendous obstacles that may block their path. A conviction for a felony will remain on a person’s record for years (until which point the offender is eligible for, seeks, and is granted an expungement); such stigma may influence employers to immediately and automatically be suspicious of, afraid of, and intimidated by an individual who has been incarcerated. Individuals who have served time may have permanently lost the right to vote (10 states restrict some people with a misdemeanor conviction). An ex-felon may not be able to avail themselves of government benefits including public healthcare programs. Some regulations expressly prohibit certain types of jobs for persons who have a criminal record. And a convicted felon may find that even locating a place to live may be fraught with roadblocks, exacerbated by not being able to find a job to earn an income.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, faced with such impediments, two-thirds of released prisoners re-offend and are arrested within three years of release; within five years of release, three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested.

Excellent reasons to consider hiring an ex-offender

Each year, more than 630,000 individuals are released from prison, more than the population of many cities. As many as 100 million Americans have criminal records. Of course, employers should conduct an individualized assessment of each job candidate as recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); those hiring should refer to relevant Ban-the-Box requirements (and their associated adjudication practices as applicable), and also acknowledge that legal or regulatory requirements may be in play to prohibit hiring individuals with specific criminal convictions within industries including healthcare, financial services, energy, and other fields.

In addition to giving a fair shake to an applicant who has a record, a few incentives and additional facts may be worth considering:

  • Substantial tax credits are available for hiring ex-felons, such as the

    Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit. Some states even provide partial wage reimbursement, additional tax credits, and other training funds for employers who hire ex-felons.

  • Employers who hire felons can also be eligible to obtain a free fidelity

     bond funded by the federal government to protect them against employee dishonesty or theft.

  • Ex-felons may be less inclined to quit on you. The harsh reality is they are left with far fewer options than employees with clean records. So many employers that hire former law-breakers have lower turnover than with conventional hires. According to the 

    Partnership for Safety and Justice, “In general, formerly incarcerated people are as reliable as other workers.”

WHO-HD TV in Iowa reports that the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women recently hosted a job fair. Gov. Kim Reynolds invited employers to learn more about hiring ex-convicts.

With the state’s unemployment rate at a low 2.5 percent, many businesses must adopt a new frame of mind to find employees, including looking in novel sources such as prisons.

“We have roughly 5,000 that get out every year. We have 30,000 on parole or on probation,” Deputy Director of Iowa Workforce Development, Ryan West said. “So it’s a big group of folks and anytime we can get them employed, to help employers, it’s good for the state of Iowa, it’s good for the economy and it’s a public safety issue quite honestly too.”

In a recent article in USA Today written by David Plouffe and Mark Holden — one a former Obama staffer and the other an employee of Koch Industries — “Shutting people with criminal records out of the workforce costs the United States up to $87 billion in lost gross domestic product every year. Individuals who can’t make a living legally are more likely to continue breaking the law and are likely to go back to prison, causing costs to rise even higher. Needless, preventable cycles of recidivism strain government resources — and make our communities less safe.”

Based on the recent studies and articles cited above, individuals who have been convicted of crimes in the past may, going forward, excel given the opportunity. Duly considering job candidates solely on their qualifications rather than focusing on a past transgression may prove to be in a company’s best interest. At a time when finding good employees without criminal records is a significant challenge, perhaps focusing on the potential positives of such a hire may prove surprisingly beneficial.

Release Date: March 24, 2020

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