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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Fairness and Justice

Businesses Benefit by Hiring People with Criminal Records

In 2019, Zach Moore was a new software engineer at a San Francisco-based tech company. He showed up to work early, walked around the neighborhood, and cleared his head. Incarcerated at age 15, Zach learned how to quiet his mind while spending 22 years in prison.

For decades, he worked on himself and helped others through countless self-improvement programs. He attended college, served others as an addiction counselor, and learned how to code — all while incarcerated in California. Since coming home in 2018 and becoming a software engineer, Zach continues to help others, visits prisons to show incarcerated people what is possible, is a leader within his team, and has been promoted twice within the company.

Zach is one of 600,000 Americans returning home from prison each year and one of 70 million people in the U.S. who have some kind of blemish on their criminal record (“record” for short). That means 1 in 3 U.S. adults worries every time the background check rolls around when they apply for jobs. In reality though, research confirms that hiring people with records is good for business.

Unemployment for people with records hovers around five times that of the U.S. population — even worse for Black and Latinx people who have left prison. Despite this, the future of employment for people with records in the U.S. is looking up. Companies like JPMorgan Chase, Slack, and Zach’s employer, Checkr, a background check company, are practicing “fair chance hiring” also known as “second chance hiring”. Checkr defines the premise of fair chance hiring as, “everyone, regardless of their background, has the right to be fairly assessed for a role they are qualified for.”

Business leaders such as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, are prioritizing fair chance hiring and influencing others to do the same. Companies across the nation are joining the fair chance movement, including those in the Second Chance Business Coalition, made up of 40 cross-sector companies committed to expanding the practice within their companies. 

These business leaders don’t just embrace fair chance hiring out of the goodness of their hearts. Employees with records are more loyal and companies that hire them see higher retention and lower turnover, saving money in expensive recruiting costs. 

Additionally, surveys of executives who practice fair chance hiring in the U.S. found that employees with records often have higher productivity and promotion rates than their colleagues without conviction histories. In fact, a study of the U.S. military found that enlistees with a felony record were promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than their peers, and were no more likely than people without records to be discharged for negative reasons.

An added benefit — companies that hire people with certain records can qualify for tax breaks through The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), the U.S. government’s incentive for “employers who invest in American job seekers who have consistently faced barriers to employment”. 

We need more business leaders to practice fair chance hiring — to change lives, businesses, and communities for the better. Giving opportunities to people with records enables them to financially stabilize their families and communities. Fair chance employment is one way that employers can make sure the markets in which they work prosper, which leads to a better environment for business. 

To be sure, companies must consider risk when hiring people, with or without records, for jobs. Fair chance hiring does not mean that companies should hire any candidate with any record for any position. Employers should use the U.S. government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s guidance when evaluating candidates with records. Among other things, employers should use the “nature-time-nature” test to consider the nature of what comes up on the background check, the time that has passed, and the nature of the job the candidate is applying for. 

Given our culture’s stigma against people with records, it is understandable that people wonder whether those with violent convictions are a safety risk. According to the advocacy organization Prison Policy Initiative, people convicted of violent offenses are actually among the least likely to be rearrested. Their rearrest rates are 20% lower than all other offense categories combined. Using data to correct misconceptions is critical to advancing inclusive hiring practices.

We often stigmatize people who are involved in the justice system, but most of us probably don’t want to be judged for the worst thing we’ve ever done. 95% of people sitting in prison right now will return home. They have families, dreams, and a future. When asked what he is looking forward to, Zach says, “I’m excited about the simple things…feeling safe and supported, getting a dog, earning my next promotion…continuing to build and grow, and settling down somewhere.”

We need not run away from our pasts, but instead, embrace them as an asset of great depth as we navigate the present and future. Our lived experiences make us who we are. Those who have experienced incarceration have a unique perspective to offer the world and workplace. If you’ve ever hit “rock bottom” you know that it takes a tremendous amount of tenacity and resilience to build yourself back up — qualities that make for a hard-working employee who’s been given an opportunity.

People with records deserve a meaningful opportunity to provide for themselves and loved ones, and never fall into the justice system again. Likewise, our country’s businesses deserve to flourish in thriving communities with loyal, qualified employees like Zach, contributing to their company’s mission and bottom line. 

This author is employed by Checkr, and this op-ed is written in her personal capacity.

Photo credit: “S-Design1689” via shutterstock

Interested in fair chance hiring but not sure where to start? The Second Chance Business Coalition has many resources for companies looking to implement fair chance. Looking for engineers? Slack’s Next Chapter and Columbia University’s Justice Through Code provide top fair chance talent for engineering roles. Looking for fair chance talent more broadly? The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) is the largest reentry employment provider in the country. Interested in an advisory firm to help build out your fair chance hiring program? Envoy’s Fair Chance Employment practice partners with companies and associations to expand recruitment and retention of candidates impacted by the justice system.