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Reducing the Barriers to Employment for Jobseekers with Criminal Records

This year, over 700,000 people will be released from prison and will need jobs to rebuild their lives. Johnny C. Taylor, the CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advocates that formerly incarcerated individuals should not be “re-sentenced” by employers and should instead be given a second-chance and allowed to rejoin the workforce without facing bias.

Johnny C. Taylor

CEO, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

What is the leading barrier for formerly incarcerated individuals to secure employment following release from prison? Is there a way for employers to combat this?

Research shows there’s still a lot of stigma around hiring people with criminal records, locking hard-working individuals out of the job market. The reality is that 40 percent of male applicants and 70 percent of female applicants with criminal records report not receiving callbacks for job interviews.

Fortunately, we are making strides to reverse this trend. Last December, President Trump signed the First Step Act, which aims to lower sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons, improve programs to reduce recidivism, and increase workforce readiness.

It won’t happen overnight. But if more organizations commit to inclusive, fair hiring, we can break down the barriers for people with criminal records while accessing untapped sources of talent and expanding the national workforce. 

How can second-chance hiring be beneficial to employers?

Employers who hire individuals with a criminal record may find that they turn into top performers. A 2018 study by SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) found that 82 percent of managers and 67 percent of HR professionals believe that the quality of workers with criminal records is about the same or higher than other employees. These individuals are often grateful for a chance to rejoin the workforce and can boost productivity and improve company retention rates.

Second-chance hiring not only opens a door to a huge untapped labor pool, but it can also provide financial incentives for businesses. For example, the Department of Labor offers the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to organizations that hire individuals with criminal records within a year of being convicted or released from prison.

Hiring second-chance applicants is shown to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. Formerly incarcerated individuals are much less likely to go back to prison if they’re employed and equipped with resources to help them grow and stay in their jobs.

What can employers and employees do to combat the stigma for formerly incarcerated individuals?

While important steps have been taken to reduce the stigma around hiring employees with criminal backgrounds. We still need to reframe the narrative. SHRM and CKI found that 41 percent of managers and 47 percent of HR professionals were unsure how they felt about hiring individuals with criminal records, with their main concerns being legal liability, customer interactions, and regulations that would make it hard to bring on workers with a record.

Hiring and onboarding isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. It’s crucial for HR departments to have ongoing training when working with employees who have a criminal record. Organizations should also be knowledgeable in discrimination laws and fair hiring practices and communicate to employees and the public about the company’s commitment to second-chance hiring.

How can companies continue to improve their workforce through the creation of a second-chance workplace mentality?

When working with a formerly incarcerated job candidate, managers should be transparent in their hiring process and provide avenues for them to ask questions and share their concerns—whether it’s transitioning back to work or adapting to a new environment.

Returning to the workplace can be a shock, and individuals coming out of prison may have a difficult time adjusting at first. Honest and fluid communication between management and staff, investments in training and development programs, and a buddy system can help new employees adapt and succeed.

For a formerly incarcerated individual, barriers to employment are more challenging and often differ from someone who may not have a criminal record. What are some resources formerly incarcerated individuals can utilize to start the job search process?

Many states and local municipalities offer workforce development programs that provide training and support for people with criminal histories as they transition back into society and the world of work. Some programs offer training to help new hires master certain skills before they start the job. Additionally, many local community and faith-based organizations have re-entry programs that assist with housing, transportation, and other services.

How can programs like the Getting Talent Back to Work Pledge help enact change in the hiring process? How can individuals and companies alike get involved?

We’re long overdue for a paradigm shift toward fair and inclusive hiring that extends to formerly incarcerated individuals. Getting Talent Back to Work helps address the disconnect between employers and individuals with criminal records by empowering HR professionals with information and tools needed to confidently evaluate applicants with criminal records and make educated decisions.

Additionally, SHRM and hundreds of other organizations are promising to give second chances to qualified people with criminal records. We encourage other organizations and individuals to consider signing our pledge and help businesses that are struggling to fill positions tap into a talent pool that is ready to get back to work.

Not everyone who applies for a job deserves that job. But everyone deserves the dignity of work. HR professionals have a timely opportunity to spark important discussions about second-chance hiring with their company, peers, and employees. Let’s start the conversation now.

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