By Stephanie Hammerwold


Nearly one-third of the adult population in the U.S. has a criminal record. If employers are automatically disqualifying people with a record, they are missing out on a large number of potentially good employees. There is often an assumption that those with a record are untrustworthy, lazy, unreliable or otherwise not good candidates. The reality is that most people who have a criminal record are ready to work and rebuild their lives, and often a job is the thing that helps them achieve that. There are many advantages to taking a chance and hiring the formerly incarcerated.

Second Chances & Considering the Whole Candidate

When someone is released after serving time, they often face barriers to housing, employment and other services. In many ways, it is as though the formerly incarcerated continue serving a sentence well after release. If someone has completed their sentence, why do we continue to punish them?

Once we find out that a candidate has a criminal record, it can be tempting to stop reading their application and to toss them in the reject pile. Unfortunately, this means that any other skills or qualifications are overlooked. Instead of seeing a record as an automatic red flag, consider the whole candidate. Look beyond a yes to the question about criminal convictions. Once you remove the biases associated with a candidate having a record, you may find a really good candidate.

Ban the Box

Some employers have taken steps to change the way they use criminal background checks in the hiring process. This includes removing the question about criminal background from job applications. In addition, the ban-the-box movement has been gaining momentum, and some jurisdictions have already limited the way criminal backgrounds can be used in making employment decisions. Back in 2012 the EEOC issued guidance on the use of criminal backgrounds. The guidance is not law, but it is used to look at discrimination claims. The guidance states that employers should be able to show that using criminal background is relevant to the specific job.

Regardless of the requirements in your area, the EEOC’s guidance is a good place to start in figuring out how to use criminal backgrounds in the hiring process. Take each job on a case-by-case basis to determine if knowing someone’s criminal background is really necessary. If you do decide to look at job candidates’ records, consider the nature of the offense and how long ago it happened in making hiring decisions.

Tax Breaks & Federal Bonding

Hiring candidates with a record is good for business in a lot of ways. You are helping give people a second chance and tapping into a perfectly capable part of the labor pool that often gets overlooked. You may also qualify for certain tax incentives. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a tax credit available to employers hiring people from certain difficult-to-employ groups. This includes hiring the formerly incarcerated. Some states provide additional incentives, and employers can also participate in the Federal Bonding Program, which provides bonds during the first six months of employment for at-risk employees.

Ultimately though, the biggest benefit to taking a chance on hiring the formerly incarcerated is that you have access to a big pool of qualified individuals that are not always considered by other employers. Many of the formerly incarcerated want to put the effort into keeping a job so they do not go back, so you quite likely will find yourself with a dedicated and hard-working employee.

Stephanie Hammerwold is the director and co-founder of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a nonprofit that helps women find employment following release from jail or prison. Prior to starting the nonprofit, Stephanie worked for over a decade in HR. She writes regularly on workplace and HR topics. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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