Hiring Felons: How to be a Fair Chance Employer


Hiring Felons

Persons with criminal records are among the most rejected job seekers in the world when looking for opportunities. Because of it, some companies aren’t ready to take on additional risks, so they’re easily dismissed. However, research shows that companies who have created a hiring practice to give felons opportunities had higher retention rates, lower turnovers, and employees with criminal records are more loyal. Thus, first chance hiring is a smart strategy to include in your hiring practice and can help grow your business.

If you are considering including it in your hiring process, then this article is for you.

In this post, you will learn why hiring felons is a good decision to make for your business, the benefits and challenges of hiring them, and how to be a fair chance employer.

But first, let’s dig into the definition of Fair Chance Employment.

What is Fair Chance Employment?

Fair chance employment is about providing fair job opportunities to those who have been through the prison system but are quickly dispatched from having job applications considered because they check the “Felony” box on their application.

It’s often called second-chance employment. But Harley, formerly incarcerated himself and the founder of Honest Jobs Co (an online fair-chance job site for those who have been incarcerated), said he prefers calling it fair chance hiring. Because quite often the people have never had a first chance, with upbringings that practically steered them towards the prison.

The problem exists because employers don’t want to take on additional risks.  And what happens is sort of a second punishment because they could not find work. And many would return to their former activities, which end them back in jail. 

For someone under 25, who has been in jail for less than 3 years, the statistic is around 84% that return to prison within 5 years.

This partly the fault of prison being about the punishment, instead of an opportunity for reform. 

It’s partly the fault of drugs.  But it’s also the fault of society not having a way to bring those willing back into a healthy lifestyle.

Benefits of Hiring Felons

Hiring a person that has been in the prison system could be something that you are thinking twice. However, before judging those willing to go back into a healthy lifestyle and giving them fair opportunities is smart business. The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world; this is a call for local business owners to consider fair chance hiring. 

Right now, unemployment is at record lows. And with more people attending university than ever, there is a huge absence of skill-based workers – mechanics, truck drivers, laborers, manufacturing workers. But quite often, the population who have been to prison have this exact experience. Hiring felons has huge benefits for the economy and companies. When done right, it can result in loyal, hard-working workers and lower the unemployment rate.

So, when you have severe shortages of workers, there is a chance to tap into a motivated but often disregarded talent pool.  

Since the typical employment people find after prison are low-wage jobs, usually in the food industry – offering jobs at a living wage with opportunity for responsibility and growth make for a job that these employees are grateful for, and even likely to work at for lower rate than their colleagues.

When you find an individual who is motivated to get their life back on track, and you’re providing them with that opportunity, then they will be loyal and hard-working.

Challenges of Hiring Felons

It’s not without its challenges, and many require additional support. Not all people released from prison are ready for work. If they’re not ready to show up for a job, then they won’t show up.

When drugs are involved, quite often workers are struggling to stay clean. But relapses are bound to happen.  At Clean Turn and Freedom a la Cart, they both do random drug testing to hold their employees accountable. This helps them get the employees the help they need.

It sounded like drugs were the most significant barrier to re-employment. (It’s also most likely behind the crimes that landed them in prison in the first place.) There are employment programs for those struggling with addiction, which is the best next step. 

What’s the right support?

At Clean Turn, they have a policy to allow the workers to come and tell the truth about their relapse. They are put on probation and have to requirements of attending rehab programs. If they’re successful, they’re guaranteed a position when they return.

At Freedom a la Cart, their executive director Paula Hines noted that one of their greatest insights was providing additional support. They may be struggling with issues outside of work such as trying to pay rent, trying to get custody of their kids, overcoming basic living challenges. And perhaps not understanding basic hygiene or personal care in the way that we take for granted. To this effect, they have a caseworker who meets with the workers to help support them so that when they arrive at work, they’re able to work.

How To Be a Fair Chance Employer

If you’re interested in hiring formerly incarcerated people, here are two things you need to consider:

  • Find a local group, and visit prisons. It’s important to start the discussion while still in prison. Build up the rapport to find individuals you can support immediately when they come out of prison. Find other companies, and when possible, make sure there is a support network to help these individuals with issues that they’re having outside of work.
  • If you’re not hiring directly, see if there is a social enterprise that you can hire individuals who have succeeded in their first step – especially if that social enterprise provides on-going support.  Make sure your conversation is open and build trust both ways, and you can be part of transforming one of the biggest peaks of incarceration that our country has ever seen.

I’m excited about the opportunity for social enterprises to build businesses that can provide this mix of support and mentorship in a setting that teaches how to be successful in the workplace.  It may be one of the missing keys to transforming our prison addiction and being one of the countries with the world’s highest incarceration rates.

Conclusion: The Bigger Picture

Suppose 30% of the population has a record. In that case, finding a way to help them get back into the workforce is critical for our nation, especially for young people who have only been in jail a couple of years – the rate of recidivism is high. On average, it’s 75% and in part, because the barriers to employment are so high that they return to drug-related crimes that end them back in prison.  I’ve actually heard people say, “they get what they deserve, and they deserve this punishment,” – but a system that just punishes without providing a pathway for redemption is only perpetuating the dangers to society as a whole.

For a long time, there has been a mentality around criminal justice that people have bad tendencies. But for the large majority, this is simply not true. It’s quite often life circumstances, and sometimes just a single wrong choice or misfortune that created a downward spiral.  With the right support, there is every possibility for everyone to get the second chance they deserve.

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