Should you hire an ex-offender? The easy answer is “it depends,” but in the real world you can’t just peer into your applicant’s eyes and get the answer. The employer’s dilemma is that the choice you make exposes you to potential risks of competing types.
The socially-beneficial choice is to hire ex-offenders, and right now there is a lot of pressure on employers to do just that. (Assuming, of course, there are not very legitimate reasons to exclude them based on the risks inherent in the role.) The threads in the conversation on this issue range from feel good stories about employers who have had great successes hiring ex-offenders to organized movements working to get more job opportunities for them. These mostly positive stories are backed up by the legal mandates of employment law rooted in anti-discrimination concepts.
Yet employers are still responsible for the safety of their customers and workers. To the extent that having committed a crime in the past is a predictor of future anti-social actions, ex-offenders seem to pose extra risk. If these risks materialize, the employer is potentially liable for negligent hiring or retention.
Blanket Exclusion Policies, Beware
A common response to the risks associated with hiring ex-offenders is for employers to adopt a “blanket” exclusion policy and simply reject all applicants who have a criminal history.
Unfortunately, neither hiring every ex-offender who walks in the door nor rejecting every one of them is an effective way of managing the competing risks. The better course involves making decisions on individual applicants; taking the relevant factors into account. Some of the factors in this process include:
- Avoid a blanket exclusion policy that will increase your chances of being sued for discrimination.
- Make sure the criteria you use to evaluate applicants are job-related. This means you would not automatically exclude someone for a criminal record of any kind: some offenses may not predict risks in the job in question.
- Look at the mitigating circumstances around the conviction.
- Evaluate the applicant’s history before and after the conviction: did he or she keep a job more than a few quarters or show other evidence of responsibility?
- Assess if the applicant has taken positive steps in or out of prison for training or rehabilitation.
The aim of this process is really a positive: to determine if an ex-offender applicant would be a good fit for the job. The kinds of steps listed above improve your ability to evaluate the risks of each individual applicant. You can find ex-offenders who will improve your workforce, while still being able to reject those who pose significant risks. And, you can increase your compliance with an increasing set of laws designed to ensure you really DO have such a process in place.