Imagine being one of the estimated 12 million Americans with a prior felony conviction. Or even one of the roughly 65 million who have an arrest or conviction record that would show up on a routine criminal background check. Now imagine trying to get a job.
As employers, one of our greatest fears is hiring an individual who is unfit for the job, especially someone who could threaten the safety of our workers, customers, or the public at large. The risks are great. But those risks certainly aren’t only created by people who have a prior criminal record. In other words, employers who think the measure of a safe worker is the absence of a criminal record are fooling themselves. Great workers, in fact, can be found throughout the population. And while you can’t justify hiring a felon for EVERY job, employers are wise to carefully consider their available opportunities.
Some companies have discovered an under-utilized source of good workers: ex-offenders. There is still some bias against these applicants, but the growing experience of employers who are smart about taking a chance shows that these may be some of their best hires.
There’s some strong anecdotal evidence that hiring ex-offenders can pay off. FastCompany reports the case of Dave Dahl’s Dave’s Killer Bread (DKB) company. Dahl, a former felon himself, grew his family’s bread company from $3 million a year to $70 million partly based on an effective hiring and training program for ex-offenders, who now make up one-third of his workforce of 300. DKB’s CEO John Tucker believes businesses should hire felons more often.
There are many, many similar stories of companies like this.
Follow the Math
In a society where one in four adults has a criminal record and 8.6% have a felony conviction, simple math dictates that if you are an employer conducting background checks, it is only a matter of time before you encounter an applicant with a criminal background. Then you face the tough decision whether to hire that ex-offender or not if he or she is otherwise qualified.
This issue is becoming more prevalent as the job market heats up and the competition for qualified people increases. Further, employment law has increasingly pointed to the importance of giving applicants with a criminal background a shot at a job based on an individualized assessment (see the EEOC Guidance on this point).
When you couple the math with a burgeoning economic recovery plus the guidance from employment law, at the very least you should start questioning whether your hiring policies are counter-productive about hiring ex-offenders. We recognize that this poses a significant dilemma for employers.
On one hand, the EEOC requires us to treat everyone the same, but assess them individually in regards to their criminal background. On the other hand, workers, customers, and the public expect us to do all we can to protect them. This means keeping potentially unfit or unsuitable people out of positions where they might cause harm.
It is a balancing act, but employers looking to gain a competitive advantage with some of the jobs in their workforce should ask themselves if taking some risk hiring ex-offenders might be more than offset by the rewards.
Can Hiring a Felon Create a Better Citizen?
In the past, employers have been conditioned to take the least risky path with regard to potential employees with criminal backgrounds. Yet in a perverse paradox, the data tracking recidivism cites gainful employment as the number one factor deterring reentry into the criminal justice system. In other words, employers can potentially make a big contribution to social stability by hiring ex-offenders.
The actual relationship between employment and recidivism is complicated, but the core idea that employment reduces re-offending is strong, a case where data and intuition coincide. One recent study concluded that lack of “employment is the primary predictor of recidivism” although the relationship is affected by other factors like age and level of education. Other research finds that “parolees’ employment upon release from prison helps to extend their time crime-free in the community.”
So hiring an ex-offender is a good thing for the society, but how can it help the employer?
Employers’ Benefits in Hiring Felons
Not everyone with a conviction is a good risk – you still have to do your background research and carefully assess your risk profile – but hiring someone with a criminal record could be the right thing for you to do, both financially and socially. In fact, employers may have many tangible and intangible incentives to hire ex-offenders. Serving time puts a person into “the system” in a unique way that can actually make some positive differences for an employer.
As an employer, you may not be alone in watching the performance of an ex-offender employee. Many of them are on parole, meaning there is regular contact with an officer of the law who will be monitoring their re-introduction into the community.
In many states there are training programs in prisons intended to give offenders the skills they need to succeed in the outside world. A part of your due diligence in evaluating an ex-offender for a job is to find out whether he or she participated in a program that could be useful in the job role you are offering. One promising private program is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program that provides in-prison education about business — it’s for a small number of lucky inmates, but it’s got a strong track record.
Loyalty and engagement
More than one employer has found that ex-offenders can be exceptionally loyal employees. Hawaii Business found a number of cases where these hires turned out to be dependable, motivated employees. People who had spent a good chunk of their lives in jail turned out to be hard-working and responsive when they got a chance.
When the employee appreciates the chance of having a job, they are less likely to quit. The lower turnover rate this reduces business costs substantially.
The potential for tax credits
The Work Opportunity Tax Credit is a Federal program that offers employees a tax credit worth from $1,200 to $9,600 for hiring a person from a targeted group. One of the groups is ex-felons. There’s some paperwork to go through, but the tax credit helps mitigate the risks of hiring ex-offenders to go along with the positive benefits you can find.
Not every ex-offender is going to fit the job you have. Your due diligence obligation is not going away if you put a felon on the payroll. But the general thrust of employment law encourages you to look into the facts behind every individual before you reject them on the basis of criminal history. By accepting the possibility that an ex-offender might actually be your better hire, you might be making the choice to improve society, your workforce and the bottom line.