Would You Hire Ex-Felons?

Hand ShakeWhat Is Your Company’s Stand on Hiring Convicted Felons into Your Family of Employees?

What is your company’s stand on hiring ex-felons? Does your company have an overall policy on hiring?  A good interviewer should have the skills to uncover good, qualified candidates with excellent credentials for any job in question.  However, many interviewers may end a candidate’s interview process when he or she checks the “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” box.  If yours is like most companies, you do the best you can to avoid the entire issue of hiring ex convicts. Many companies do not want the hassle of trying to figure out what to do with such a candidate when he or she indicates some kind of criminal background in his or her past.

Why should I consider hiring ex-convicts?

It is a shame, sometimes, to leave the decision there because of pre-judging and bias.  There are many highly qualified people who have had difficulties with the law and have been convicted of a crime.  However, the normal reflex reaction of tossing out the candidate who has a record can severely limit your ability to hire the best candidate for the job.  Regardless, the occurrences of such situations are only going to increase rapidly due to the increasing number of felons in the population.

Take a closer look at what hiring felons may mean

Would you find it difficult to believe that over 60 million Americans have some kind of criminal record?  That is one out of every five Americans of any age, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the United States Department of Justice.  If you were to run standard background checks, any of these would show up with a negative report. Moreover, of that number, over 13 million Americans have a felony of some kind on their record, again according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The numbers are growing.  If the current trend and rate to incarcerate continues (and there is no sign that it will not) of the generation of Americans being born now, 1 in 15 whites, 1 in 6 Hispanics and 1 in 3 African-Americans will serve prison time sometime during their lifetimes.  That means that on average, starting in about 20 years, around 10% of the adult population will spend time in prison.    What this means to company interviewers is that more and more of your candidates are going to show up at your door looking for a job but will have to disclose a criminal conviction experience at some time in their life.

All felons are not alike—just like everybody else!

If you include this segment of the population for consideration, you are going to have to make some determinations about individual persons and appropriateness.  It helps to know that less than half of those in prison are there for violent crimes.  Of the half convicted of non-violent crimes, about one-fifth are there for property crimes, about one-fifth are imprisoned for drug offenses and about 10% are for public order crimes.  In fact, drug offenses account for two-thirds of the inmate growth in city and county facilities and 40% in state facilities.  Most of these will never repeat the offense, which is predictable by attained level of education.  Of the public order crimes, many are serving time for such things as speeding in excess of 20 MPH over the limit (felony speeding), tax-law violations, gambling, and subsequent offenses (usually second or third) of driving while drinking.  With their lives now marked with a felony criminal record, most of this population would also never return to prison—again, as indicated on studies of recidivism (lifetime chance of returning to prison) and the impact of education on its reduction.  The average stay in prison in most states is currently 22 months.

Where do we stand in Arizona and neighboring states?

Arizona prisons are actually in crisis due to the serious problems brought about by mandatory sentencing.  Arizona is now eighth in the nation for incarceration rates (525 per 100,000 people), for the first time ahead of Nevada (at 462)—by eight states and California (455) by nine!  In neighboring Utah, the number of people locked up is sixth from the bottom (207) with New Mexico (275) just a little behind.  In numbers, Utah and New Mexico incarcerates only about 15% to 20% of the people that Arizona locks up.  The rapid increase in Arizona means that more and more residents of Arizona will come for job interviews with a criminal record.

What can a company do to be better equipped to interview and hire ex-cons and bring into play that part of the labor and talent pool?

How can an Arizona company—or a company in any state—be more competitive at selecting the best candidate and use this rapidly growing pool of forgotten or ignored job candidates?  Using the precursor of education, companies can be better equipped to be better at selecting personnel from this segment of the population in the same way as they do in any other segment.  Education has proven to be a better predictor here, as with any segment of the population.  Education changes the prejudice of what to expect when attempting to hire ex-felons, and many states have made it a high priority that felons make up all shortcomings in education and specialized training before being considered for parole.  Thus, it is no different than the experience we have with the rest of the population in that the better the education levels attained, the better the problem solving and time managing skills of the candidate.

For most of the inmates preparing to re-integrate into society, completion of education, development of specific technical/vocational skills, in addition to better coping skills improves them as potential job candidates.  But, getting these candidates into shape (before or after prison) will remain a challenge in Arizona, which is now 52nd among the states and territories in educational spending.

Paul Greener, president of the Correctional Education Association of Utah and high school instructor in coping skills, English and advanced writing at the Central Utah Correctional Facility explains:

“One of the first things that strikes anyone working inside a prison, is that for the most part the people you encounter make up a similar cross-section of society as you would expect to encounter on any street in any locale in the country.  That fact comes as a real surprise to most.  In interviewing and hiring ex-felons, the process remains the same–an assessment of the reliability, skills, and self-motivation of the candidate.  The job interviewer must use the same assessment skills to hire ex-felons as would be employed when interviewing any other person.”

He adds:

“I tell my students/inmates: ‘A good education allows you to help run society instead of becoming a victim of it.’ Dependability, judgment, and problem solving (all elements of solid job skills) are developed through corrective education.  Not everyone gets the opportunity to attain an education at the same time.  Some people do not have the chance to complete an education (or did not take the opportunity because of a misspent youth) until they are adults.   A few may never get a proper, basic education. That shortfall brings many into the prison system.  Once each inmate becomes accepting of educational needs and priorities, then normal progress and growth resumes.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the prison-based high school classroom,”

How objective are you?

It may be worth some introspection to see how any prejudices play a role in your decision-making process as a recruiter, interviewer, or employer.  As with overcoming any other social, ethnic, age, or gender stigma or prejudice, your workforce can be much more dynamic and high-performing if you can broaden your field of potential candidates while still interviewing for critical characteristics.  Of course, there are obvious areas where someone with a specific problem would not be appropriate for specific jobs.  For example, someone who has a record of identity theft would not be appropriate to oversee personnel or credit files.  A person with a record of reckless driving and driving under the influence would not be appropriate to make deliveries in the company vehicle.  Still, there are many who have seen so much bad in their lives that they would be fiercely loyal to having a chance for a normal existence in a normal job.

The decision about appropriateness in this population, however, is really no different than it would be for the population at large.  It would be just as unwise to put a gossip in charge of personnel files.

Are there legal reasons why we must interview and hire ex-felons?

From a legal perspective, the courts have affirmed an employer’s right to use an applicant’s criminal history to influence employment-related decisions, but the courts also caution that employers face high hurdles in justifying the exclusion and should have an exclusionary policy that is no broader than necessary to accomplish the goals.  With common sense and creativity, either jumping or going around those high hurdles is nothing with which a skilled interviewer needs to be concerned.

As with any or all prejudice, it takes time, adjustment, and new skills to overcome the disposition and to see beyond the prejudices to find the best job candidates.  People with criminal backgrounds—probably one of the fastest growing minorities in the country, especially in states like Arizona—are going to be facing you as interviewees more often in the future than ever in the past.  A good, skilled, open-minded interviewer who makes strong and timely decisions will find the best candidates no matter what the candidate’s personal histories or experiences are.