One talent shortage solution: Applicants with criminal backgrounds

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WASHINGTON — If you want to hire talented, dedicated employees, it may require thinking inside the box — specifically, the kind with bars.

Panelists at the Society for Human Resource Management Legislative Conference this week called on HR professionals to make a concentrated effort to hire people with criminal backgrounds. Given the current shortage of skilled workers, the panelists said, employers can’t afford to ignore this group of potentially talented people.

“There are 2.2 million employees at Walmart — that’s the same number of people incarcerated in the United States,” said Genevieve Martin, executive director of Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, during the panel. “That’s the amount of people who are wishing they could do something more fruitful with their life than sitting in a cell.”

Emily Dickens, SHRM chief of staff, kicked off the panel by announcing the organization’s new Getting Talent Back to Work Pledge, which she said “will close the skills gap, help you hire highly skilled talent and reduce the stigma surrounding people with criminal histories.”

By signing SHRM’s Getting Talent Back to Work Pledge, employers are promising to make an effort to look past biases and hire the formerly incarcerated. Employers interested in participating are given access to educational resources provided by SHRM via their website.

Refusing to hire applicants with a criminal history is, in most cases, breaking the law, the panelists said. According to the EEOC, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects ex-convicts from job discrimination when their offense isn’t related to the job in question. Additionally, 11 states have Ban the Box laws, which prohibit employers from asking about an applicants’ criminal background during the applications process.

“Not only can you hire people with criminal histories, you should be doing it already,” said Heidi Mason, attorney at Innova Legal Advisors PC and Portland’s SHRM chapter president. “[Ban the Box] doesn’t mean you can’t ask about their history at all; just not at the time of application.”

In states with Ban the Box laws, employers can only run background checks on applicants after making a conditional offer of employment. While Mason agrees criminal history should be discussed before the background check, she says it should be done tactfully and strategically. Doing otherwise can deprive an organization of a talented team member, she said.

“It’s all in the name of fairness,” Mason said. “Get to know them first, and find out why they may be the best fit for your organization.”

Employers can broach the subject of criminal history once they’ve decided an applicant has potential and they’ve advanced in the interview process, Mason said. If the applicant raises the subject early in the process, she said, employers should tell them they appreciate their commitment to transparency, but they’d like to learn about their skills first.

“You have to remember people with criminal histories are scared to be asked that question,” Mason said. “If you let them know you’re not disqualifying them, hopefully it puts them a little at ease.”

When it’s time to talk about criminal history, questions employers can ask include: the severity and nature of the crime, length of sentence, and contact information for a parole officer. If the applicant’s past offenses are unrelated to the job they are interviewing for, employers can’t disqualify them without creating a potential discrimination lawsuit, Mason said.

“Conviction is a sliding scale; you have the ability to exercise judgement,” Mason said. “An obvious consideration is not hiring someone convicted of abusing small children to work at a preschool. But a person having the exact same conviction and working in a morgue by themselves is much more reasonable.”

An audience member asked the panel if hiring an ex-criminal would cause their insurance rates to skyrocket. Julie Olson, president at Olson Benefit Group, said insurance rates are unlikely to be significantly affected if the employee’s criminal record doesn’t pertain to their role at the company. But she does recommend relaying the situation to brokers, who can help mitigate any problems.

“The more information you give your broker, the better job they will do explaining the concept to the underwriter to help you get the most favorable result,” Olson said.

Someone with a criminal past isn’t necessarily more apt to commit indiscretions at work, the panelists said. Joe Phelps, chief human resources investigator at Johns Hopkins Health, says his organization has hired 2,292 ex-convicts since he started. Of those hired, only one became problematic, he said.

Employers interested in learning more about hiring people with criminal histories can access tools and information provided by SHRM. Organization representatives encourage employers to reach out with questions.

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