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Is Hiring Ex-Offenders a Good Idea?

With the labor shortage a hot topic on the 2018 National Safety Survey, it's no surprise employers are taking another look at how they fill their applicant pools.

Employers grappling with the dearth of job applicants all too often ignore entire segments of our population as pools of potential applicants. Among them are people convicted of crimes who are returning to society following stints in prison. However, there is evidence they can provide real value to employers and be accepted by the other employees they work with.

Criminal reform legislation moving right now through Congress aims to ease the way for hiring ex-offenders. Called the FIRST STEP Act, it was passed by the House in May and but is expected to face tougher sledding in the Senate. Among other things, the legislation would provide $250 million over five years for new inmate education and-rehabilitation programs, including job training. It also would require risk assessments be made for prisoners being readied for release, and create programs tailored to meet these inmates’ needs.

If enacted, it would only directly impact the estimated 184,000 inmates now in the federal prison system, a small number when compared to the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated today. The hope is that with the program’s success the states will soon follow the federal example.

The obvious question for an employer is whether or not hiring ex-offenders is a good idea. Research seems to say the answer is yes, and they will be able to fit in with other members of your workforce. The real question for employers willing to take the chance is how to evaluate and select these candidates.

Among managers and HR professionals alike, a demonstrated consistent work history was the leading factor establishing their willingness to hire a worker with a criminal record, according to research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

“It’s time to put an end to the stigma that holds back inclusive hiring and retire outdated employment practices,” declares SHRM’s president Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. “With unemployment falling below 4%, employers must think differently about both jobs and the people who can fill them. A criminal record should never be viewed as an automatic disqualification for employment.”

Factors that increase the likelihood of workers with criminal backgrounds being hired include demonstrated consistent work history, references, job training, and a certification of rehabilitation, SHRM research has found. Less likely to impact hiring decisions were monetary incentives for employers, such as tax deductions.

SHRM recently collaborated with the Charles Koch Institute to conduct surveys that found a majority of workers in all roles are willing to hire and work with those who have a criminal record.

“The key to reducing recidivism and improving public safety is finding employment for people,” stresses Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Koch Institute. “If individuals with a criminal record can be considered for employment based on their talent and skills, the benefits for the business—and society—are far-reaching. HR professionals are well positioned to provide counsel and generate a tailored set of best-practice principles that will benefit both the business and the individuals seeking a second chance.”

Valued by their Co-Workers

Top reasons for hiring workers with criminal records cited by employers include a desire to hire the best candidate for the job regardless of criminal history, making the community a better place, and giving individuals a second chance, the research discovered.

At companies that have hired workers with criminal records, employees rate the quality of the ex-offenders’ work as being comparable to those without a record. The survey found that 82% of managers and 67% of HR professionals believe that the quality of hire for workers with criminal records is about the same or higher than that for workers without records. HR professionals also reported that the cost-per-hire is similar for those with and without criminal records.

Yet, there is also some ambivalence about hiring found within this group, with 41% of managers saying they are neither willing nor unwilling to hire individuals with criminal records. For HR professionals, that figure was 47%. This finding might stem from the recognition that hiring decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the skills and experiences required in jobs and the skills of specific job candidates, SHRM observes.

Other barriers include employer concerns about legal liability, customer reactions and regulations that prohibit hiring or make it difficult to hire. Although some states and cities have restricted what employers can request from applicants concerning their criminal records, 46% of HR professionals said their company requires job applicants to indicate their criminal history on an initial employment application.

Employers can pursue strategies that help reduce the risks associated with hiring ex-offenders by partnering with well-established and reputable organizations that work with ex-offenders in your area. One of these is HOPE for Prisoners Inc., a nonprofit with branches nationwide that facilitates reentry and reintegration services for men, women and young adults who are exiting various segments of the judicial system.

The program also boasts an excellent track record, claiming that only 6% of people who go through its program return to prison. In addition to providing training in job skills, HOPE works closely with local and state law enforcement agencies in developing a mentoring program it says is a key component of its success.

Jerry Goodstein, professor at the Washington State University Carson College of Business, who also has done research in this area, says employers have told him about the advantages of recruiting from this potential pool of future employees, as well as some of the drawbacks.

“Without question, there are challenges, and not all ex-offenders are ready to make the transition to full-time employment. But several employers I’ve spoken to have praised the willingness of ex-offenders to take on tough jobs.,” he notes.

“Hiring managers, in particular, spoke of the gratitude shown by ex-offenders they hired. Ex-offenders often work as hard, or harder than other employees, managers said, as a way to show appreciation for being given a second chance and to demonstrate their value to the organization.”

SHRM was frank in admitting that it is up to every organization to decide if and how it will approach hiring workers with criminal records. However, in many cases, these important conversations have not even taken place. “Employers who choose to pursue this talent source need to understand how to manage both real and perceived risks of this hiring practice and must communicate their policies and practices to their employees,” SHRM states.

HR professionals have an opportunity to create a dialog among decision-makers within their organization, Taylor says. “Many people with criminal records are ready, willing and able to work. It’s right—and encouraging—that many American employers and workers are willing to give them a second chance.”

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