Commentary: How 'second chance' hires can boost the labor force, keep youth on track

Commentary: How 'second chance' hires can boost the labor force, keep youth on track

A group of men learn job skills in 2019 with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, an organization that focuses on a holistic approach for healing and reintegration after incarceration, including job training.

A group of men learn job skills in 2019 with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, an organization that focuses on a holistic approach for healing and reintegration after incarceration, including job training. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

America's businesses are facing an unprecedented labor shortage, a drag on economic growth that risks derailing the expansion. Yet we also have a pool of millions of willing workers who are unemployed or substantially underemployed - those with a criminal record. Bringing these prospective employers and employees together in a profitable and sustainable way is an economic imperative.

Our work focuses on the models developed by pioneering business owners who opened their doors to workers in need of a second chance: those with a history of incarceration, addiction or other mistakes of the past. The most effective models incorporate processes for determining which candidates are truly ready for employment and then providing accommodations to help maintain employment. Their experience, and the handful of formal studies, all point in the same direction; "second chance" hires are highly dedicated workers who appreciate the opportunity they've been given and are extraordinarily loyal to their employer. The resulting combination of low turnover and high engagement delivers cost savings and productivity improvements.

"Ban the box," a policy that prohibits employers from asking upfront about criminal records, is often proffered as a remedy. However, this policy has had mixed results, unintended negative consequences and has not been tested through a full business cycle. Our own work suggests that the optimal solution relies on an employer who approaches second chance hiring with a conscious plan to support the needs associated with this demographic (e.g., a time or place to meet with a parole officer). Ban the box does little to drive this formula for success. Ultimately, second chance employers do get to the point where the "box" is an irrelevancy in the hiring process, but the key is establishing a route to that level of comfort.

For businesses that want to explore a pathway to successful, sustainable and profitable hiring of people in need of a second chance, there are a series of steps that we call, "bridging the box." For employers who want to expand their talent pool while assessing the risks of nontraditional hires, any or all of these approaches will offer benefit.

_Low risk hires: Don't immediately discard a resume because of a criminal record. Would you consider someone who made a mistake at age 18, has been gainfully employed and a contributing member of society for over five years? Many employers would, but miss the opportunity to see candidates like this if they exclude everyone with a criminal record.

_Know your felony: One of the reasons we have 19 million people with felony convictions is that we have criminalized so many activities and incentivized overcharging. A felony record may not be the grievous offense that you imagine. There are lots of things that we can rightly condemn, but that should not represent lifelong barriers to employment. Resources like the Twitter feed @CrimeADay expose the sometimes absurd breadth of the federal code, helping employers realize that a criminal record need not be an automatic disqualification.

_Connect with nonprofit partners: Every region of the country has nonprofits that work with people in need of a second chance. Local workforce boards or national organizations such as Goodwill are good places to start. Here in Chicagoland, we have a wealth of nationally recognized organizations such as the Safer Foundation, Cara and the North Lawndale Employment Network that routinely work with employers. Many smaller but equally effective nonprofits reside within our neighborhoods and in faith-based communities. Explore what services they offer to employers and how you might be able to partner effectively.

_Connect with second chance pioneers: Many areas have employers who embrace second chance hiring. Typically, they are happy to share their process. In some cases, they would even refer employers who have outgrown the available roles. These are businesses that have succeeded because they have embraced the aspirations of their employees, and they take the associated responsibility seriously.

_Review and eliminate vendor restrictions: Some employers have regulatory barriers to second chance hiring, or simply aren't yet ready to do this type of employment. These companies can still help simply by scrutinizing and loosening restrictions that may force their vendors to exclude people with records. Why should a company's internal restrictions apply to the vendor that provides landscaping, equipment maintenance or food service? Many of these restrictions were carelessly written into company policies decades ago and may no longer be justified.

_Offer amnesty: Some of the most distressing conversations I've had are with successful longtime employees who have criminal records of which their employer is unaware. They live in fear that decades-old records will come to light, triggering termination under guidelines that had been imposed years later or though the initial employer's acquisition by a new firm with different rules. For those employers who do not have regulatory barriers to doing so, offering longtime employees an amnesty is one more step toward a truly inclusive workplace.

Most business leaders I've met believe that all Americans should have the chance to succeed. "Bridging the box" offers a path to participating in the realization of this goal.



Jeffrey Korzenik is chief investment strategist of Fifth Third Bank. His forthcoming book on the business case and best practices for hiring people with criminal records will be published by HarperCollins Leadership in early 2021.

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