Hiring ex-offenders and moving beyond barriers of stigma

It’s not feasible for all organizations to employ ex-offenders, but those that do may realize a variety of benefits

Have a job opening you are trying to fill in your organization? Would you consider hiring someone with a criminal record? If not, you are not alone. As I have learned through studying employer hiring of ex-offenders over the past few years, employers are often reluctant to hire candidates with a criminal history for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, firms are concerned about being held legally liable for crimes ex-offenders may commit that could potentially harm employees, customers and the business. Given the stigma associated with having a criminal record, businesses are also concerned about protecting their perceived public image and reputation. There are practical barriers as well of course; ex-offenders may not have the education or skills employers are looking for, or have parole-related commitments that make it difficult to work regular hours.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a wide range of reasons businesses may actively choose to hire ex-offenders. For example, in the construction industry, ex-offenders can help meet the demand for hard-to-fill jobs. Other businesses highlight the importance of giving offenders a second chance, helping them rebuild their lives and reintegrate into society. Some organizations also view hiring ex-offenders as a way to contribute to their local communities. Stable employment for ex-offenders reduces the likelihood that they will commit additional crimes and potentially be re-arrested, which contributes to safer communities.

Many employers can reduce the risks associated with hiring ex-offenders by working with organizations, such as Pioneer Human Services in Washington state, that provide such candidates with critical services and skills training to prepare them for employment. Yes, there are challenges, and not all ex-offenders are ready to make the transition to full-time employment. But a number of employers I’ve worked with have praised the willingness of ex-offenders to take on tough jobs. Hiring managers, in particular, spoke of the gratitude shown by ex-offenders they had hired. Ex-offenders often work as hard, or harder than other employees, these managers said, as a way to show their appreciation for being given a second chance and to demonstrate their value to the organization.

If your organization has not hired ex-offenders in the past, and doesn’t face restrictions due to licensing requirements, what steps can you take if you do want to consider hiring ex-offenders? A good starting place is examining your firm’s hiring practices. Consider removing from job applications questions that ask individuals whether they have a criminal record and the nature of the criminal offense. These questions often lead to immediate exclusion of ex-offender applicants before hiring managers can even consider other background information related to experience and skills acquired before, during and after incarceration.

19 U.S. states, including Oregon, have passed “ban the box” legislation that prevents businesses from including questions related to criminal history on job applications. The Washington Fair Chance Act is Washington state’s bipartisan version of this legislation, which is currently being reviewed in the House (HB 1298) and Senate (SB 5312). Employers may still look into whether an individual has a criminal record, but later in the application process. Another step is to use information obtained from criminal background checks on a more person-to-person basis, taking into account considerations such as the seriousness of the crime and the length of time since the crime was committed.

If your organization does employ ex-offenders, what can you do to help decrease stigma? Consider sharing with others your successes and challenges. Many of the firms I have spoken to in my research would like to communicate more about their experiences hiring ex-offenders, but don’t know how or where to start. Locally, Dave’s Killer Bread – a Portland-based business that is a recognized national leader in the hiring and retention of ex-offenders – has hosted a series of “Second Chance Summits” that bring together organizations from business, government and nonprofit sectors with an interest in hiring ex-offenders. You can register your organization and consider sharing your stories at a future conference, or even take the pledge in support of changing perceptions and inspiring others to become second chance employers.

When push comes to shove, it is not feasible for all organizations to consider employing ex-offenders, but those that do so may realize a variety of benefits. An area that I will be researching further is identifying the “success factors” that are important to employers and ex-offenders. For example, partnering with organizations like Pioneer Human Resources to support skills training needed for ex-offenders may help them get hired as well as retain their positions with the company longer. With a little bit of investment and an open mind, more employers may realize the value of hiring ex-offender candidates, both for the business and the individuals, as well as their communities.

Jerry Goodstein, PhD, is a professor at the Washington State University Carson College of Business, teaching strategic management, organizational design, leadership and business ethics at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Goodstein has served on the editorial boards of Administrative Sciences Quarterly and the Academy of Management Journal, and is a past associate editor for the Journal of Management. He currently serves as an associate editor for Business Ethics Quarterly. For more information on this research, Goodstein can be reached at jgoodstein@wsu.edu.

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