Moving Beyond the Box: When Fair Chance Hiring Means Advancement Not Just Employment
When people with criminal records are employed and can earn steady wages, it means more than just a drop in recidivism: It means the ability to stay free and survive in society. Fortunately, perceptions of fair chance hiring are improving: In a recent survey, more than 53 percent of HR professionals said they had interest in hiring people with records, compared to 37 percent in 2018.
But when the goal is economic advancement, not all jobs are equal. It’s one thing to “ban the box,” or avoid questions about criminal records on job applications; it’s another to ensure that jobs lead to long-term careers and self-sustaining wages. To achieve economic advancement, and counter racial segregation in the labor market, people with records need to have full access to all employment opportunities in the labor market, not simply entry-level positions without career advancement potential—or “static jobs.”
JustLeadershipUSA, a decarceration organization, describes this as the “ABCDE” of career progress:
All workers and learners deserve to progress beyond the “A” stage, and people with records are no exception. They need access to comprehensive support to enable healing, health, and the education and job training necessary to move from a job to career. Ultimately, this requires employers to have a more expansive perspective on fair chance hiring, with a focus on both expanding hiring and ensuring that opportunities for upskilling and career advancement are in place from day one. The companies leading the way on this, like Checkr, are finding that the ABCDE approach benefits workers and leads to a more resilient organization.
Checkr, a tech company, was founded in 2014 to streamline background check technology but quickly discovered that standard background checks eliminated qualified candidates with past arrests or conviction records at alarming rates. Checkr’s leadership realized they were uniquely positioned to help others break down the barriers that prevent candidates with records from being considered for jobs that pay good wages.
“There was no magic bullet for the process when we started,” says Checkr CEO Daniel Yanisse. The company began with an intention and an open mind. They asked a single candidate with a record to tell their story, found them “more than qualified” for the job, and brought them on board. “It was the best decision we’ve made,” Yanisse says, “and that person is one of our most valued employees still, today.”
That single hire led to a corporate commitment to make 1 percent of Checkr’s hires people with criminal records; currently, people with records represent 7 percent of the company’s 1,200 employees. The effort extends to hiring across the organization, recognizing that entry-level positions get people on the first rung of upward mobility, but promoting career advancement helps them move on to the living-wage occupations that truly lead to economic stability.
Ken Oliver, the executive director of Checkr’s corporate social responsibility program, Checkr.org, brings personal experience to the organization’s fair-chance hiring commitment: After serving nearly 24 years in prison, Oliver found individuals and companies ready to hire and promote people with records. He got a job as a paralegal with a public-interest law firm upon release, was eventually promoted to state policy director, and then recruited into executive-level positions. He insists he is not an anomaly, and says other people with records can serve in leadership positions if given a chance.
“I reject the notion that myself or others who’ve managed some modicum of success are exceptions,” Oliver says. “The men and women who have been ensnared in the justice system are some of the brightest minds and most driven people I’ve ever met. I simply was privileged to have been given an opportunity and the support from others that allowed me to turn possibility into promise.”
Since making its first fair-chance hire in 2016, Checkr is now sharing its experiences and expertise with other companies. Through use of its background-check technology, Checkr has launched a campaign among its client network to “unblock” more than 4 million candidates from being rejected for employment based solely on an arrest or conviction record.
There are currently 77 million people facing employment barriers because of their criminal records or past incarceration.
There are currently 77 million people facing employment barriers because of their criminal records or past incarceration. Behind this statistic are people who are ready and eager for an opportunity not just to work, but to engage with the “ABCDE” of career progress: To find jobs today and become tomorrow’s engineers, business owners, construction workers, and policy advocates. Employers play a key role in providing these opportunities, and we have to ensure that fair chance hiring does not limit the aspirations and talents of this diverse population.
“Diverse” is a key word for companies to keep in mind: While fair chance hiring focuses particularly on people with records, the practice—looking at competency rather than individual characteristics to ensure that disenfranchised people can participate in the workforce—makes this a critical component of an employer’s larger diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. An expansive fair chance hiring initiative can be core to a corporation’s equity agenda—by addressing racial inequities within the population of people with records and disrupting racial segregation in the labor market.
Fair chance hiring does not inherently benefit Black and Latinx people, even though the population with records is disproportionately Black and Latinx; evidence shows that white people with records are more likely to benefit from fair chance hiring. To realize real equity through fair chance practices, it is critical that fair chance hiring also has a racial equity lens to ensure that people of color are being hired and promoted, and that it has an inclusion focus where companies “intentionally design” practices for inclusion. The highest metric for inclusion should be when the most vulnerable members of the society experience an inclusive culture. Creating a culture where people with records—often at the intersection of identities that have been disenfranchised—feel valued and included at all levels of the organization is likely an inclusive experience for all employees.
Employees with convictions are productive workers who are more likely to remain with a company than their peers without records.
To be clear, fair-chance hiring isn’t charity. As Jeffrey Korzenik details in his book Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community, hiring people with records makes good business sense for a strong economy. Employees with convictions are productive workers who are more likely to remain with a company than their peers without records. According to recent survey reports by SHRM and Checkr, executives and human resources professionals report that employees with records get along well with peers, add value to the workplace, and have high levels of retention. Companies like Checkr, committed to ensuring that people with records can achieve at all levels, should be expected instead of exceptional.
Beyond supporting clients, Checkr has developed educational resources that can help all employers implement fair chance hiring, including blogs and a fair chance playbook called The Diversity Group You’re Overlooking: How to Be a Fair Chance Employer.
Here are three steps employers can take to expand their fair chance hiring practices beyond access:
- Expand sourcing to bring in people with records at all levels of the organization. Many people with records, including those recently released from prison, have the skills, education, and credentials to contribute at all levels on the career ladder. To maximize fair chance hiring practices, employers should seek and welcome these job candidates at all levels of their respective organizations, not just in entry-level positions. Expand sourcing to connect with individuals with skills necessary for well-paid jobs in your organization. This can include making connections with institutions that provide postsecondary credentials, offer pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship training like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, provide training for skilled trades like CROP, or develop social enterprise training programs like Chicago’s Safer Foundation. Build partnerships with networks of individuals like the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network or Prison to Ph.D. Post jobs on search national platforms that can help you “match” for a range of occupations in your organization like Honest Jobs, or work with local organizations that offer similar services like Cornbread Hustle.
- Invest in talent development practices for existing employees to advance to thriving-wage jobs within your organization. Despite the increased interest in fair chance hiring, the majority of people with records are hired into entry-level positions, and companies tend to make limited investments in their advancement. Checkr, however, created Checkr University to provide all of its workers with upskilling and professional career development opportunities, including training and career mapping tools geared toward bridging the skills gap and opportunities for its fair chance talent pool. Other employers can take a similar approach and invest in developing a talent pipeline to maximize fair-chance hiring practices in their organizations. This can even build on existing talent-development practices to ensure that tuition benefits or in-house training or certificate programs are equally accessible to—and accessed by—people with records. This is not just a benefit to people with records or employees; employers see improved business outcomes when they invest in upskilling and professional development and are able to contribute to a more economically vibrant and equitable society.
Employers can also take the step to create their own pipelines of talent to thriving-wage jobs. Develop employer-led training programs, like paid internships and pre-apprenticeships, which have proved to benefit employers and offer transformative pathways equipping people with records for careers in a range of industries, from manufacturing and the trades to engineering.
- Follow the leaders with lived experiences. As employers consider policies or pilots to expand the footprint of their fair chance hiring practices, it’s important to engage the insights and expertise of employees who have experienced the criminal justice system. They understand the strengths and areas of improvement in the company and recognize where there are gaps in culture or practice that limit opportunities for employees with records. This unique intersection positions them well to help deepen practices that will promote retention and advancement for peers with records. Workers with records will emerge as leaders throughout the organization and can be engaged to shape the internal fair chance practices and also set the standards for the work moving forward.