In this tight labor market, employers are eager to hire. But too often, they overlook a large pool of talented, dependable and high-performing workers who tend to stay at a job longer than the average employee. 

The reason these workers are often overlooked? They have criminal records.

While many people feel confident about their ability to find employment, more than 70 million Americans who have criminal records face the risk of being overlooked for jobs, even as employers struggle to fill millions of open positions. 

“Having a criminal record can make it much harder to find a job,” says Abbey Carlton, Global Head of Social Impact at Indeed. “In many cases, employers can rescind a job offer because of a criminal record.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27%, which is higher than the total US unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression. 

Fair chance hiring, the idea that all quality candidates should be fairly considered for a job regardless of their criminal histories, recognizes the potential and skills of these job seekers. Here’s how to get past some common misconceptions about job seekers with criminal records, with examples of how hiring these candidates can give you a competitive advantage and tips for getting started with fair chance hiring.

Using data to battle misconceptions about fair chance candidates

Many employers are required by law to consider applicants with criminal histories, so all employers are advised to check their state and local laws for more information. In addition, employers should consider what the data reveals about the benefits of hiring fair chance candidates. 

For example, individuals with criminal records perform the same as — or better than — employees without criminal records, according to 85% of the HR professionals surveyed in SHRM's 2021 Getting Talent Back to Work Report. The report also found that 75% of HR professionals believe workers with criminal records are just as or even more dependable than workers without criminal records.

Existing data also show interesting trends regarding retention — a crucial concern for employers in today’s hiring climate. Individuals with criminal records tend to stay longer with their employers compared to other employees, according to a study of job performance among call center employees. Given the financial and time costs of hiring and onboarding new workers,  it is much more cost-effective to retain talent and reduce the risk of churn — which means fair chance candidates can directly benefit a company’s bottom line. 

Employers who hire fair chance candidates can see measurable success

Helping all people get jobs is Indeed’s mission, and fair chance hiring is nothing new to the company. In fact, the first employee hired at Indeed in 2004 was formerly incarcerated for a felony offense. 

“In our case I think it’s fair to say that had [our founders] not been willing to give an opportunity to someone who had made a terrible mistake — and paid for it — we might not be here today,” says Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. 

Other employers are benefiting from fair chance hiring, too. 

“At the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), many of our employees with past convictions are among the most dedicated to their current roles and eager to excel in the organization,” says Christopher Watler, Chief External Affairs Officer at the nonprofit, which provides transitional jobs and vocational services to those recently released from incarceration. 

Often, these candidates possess transferable skills they don’t realize are valuable to employers, Watler says. For example, a CEO employee “told me that while incarcerated, they managed the kitchen that served 1,800 meals a day,” he explains. “Their responsibilities included ordering food, ensuring proper coverage, food handling and adhering to a strict schedule. However, the person believed this experience wasn’t valid because of where it was earned. It’s time employers validate transferable skills acquired in nontraditional places of employment.”

CleanTurn, a commercial cleaning company, has also seen tremendous success from hiring workers with criminal histories. In fact, 95% of its staff have had prior interactions with the justice system.

CleanTurn’s workers are “loyal, hardworking and team-spirited” and have high retention rates, says John Rush, founder and CEO. 

“We’re providing a platform to demonstrate that a person's past might influence who they are but it doesn't need to dictate who they are,” Rush says. “None of us want to be defined simply by our worst decisions.”

“Having hired many people with convictions, I can share that these team members are often the most hardworking, resilient and resourceful people on our team,” adds Genevieve Martin, executive director at Dave’s Killer Bread (DKB) Foundation. At DKB Foundation, whose mission is to motivate employers to adopt and implement fair chance hiring, more than one-third of employees have prior felony convictions.  

Take stock of your current hiring policies — and other tips for getting started with fair chance hiring

What are some ways employers can attract, retain and hire fair chance candidates? 

Start by understanding your current hiring policies. For example, Indeed made a commitment to help 30 million job seekers facing barriers get hired by 2030. As a first step, the company took a closer look at the language used in our own job descriptions to ensure they conveyed our commitment to hiring fair chance candidates. 

Limiting background checks and educational requirements can help reduce barriers to jobs for fair chance candidates, Watler adds. Also, it’s important to help hiring managers understand how they can set up these workers for success, such as offering time off to check in with probation or parole officers, support groups for people with past convictions and leadership development opportunities. 

“Hiring people with past convictions doesn’t need to be a huge undertaking,” says Watler. “You can start by including people with past convictions as part of your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statement and by ensuring your company is up to date with Ban the Box laws.”

“Visit a prison,” Rush suggests. “Network with others in the space. Be open-minded and learn how to work together as a team to cultivate a culture of care, grace and space. Remember that business is about people and we, as people, are complicated.”

Make fair chance hiring an integral part of your talent philosophy. “When we view [fair chance hiring] as a philosophy, we can see how slight shifts and nuances in how we hire benefit all job candidates and employees,” says Martin. “This is all about creating thriving, inclusive workforces — not about creating unnecessary barriers to economic mobility.”

What’s good for fair chance candidates is good for business 

The next time you hire, keep in mind the fair chance candidates who are eager to prove themselves at their jobs. Understand that these individuals can make ambitious, resilient and hardworking hires who can positively impact your retention and business performance.

“With the tightest labor market we’ve ever seen, getting more people to work is good for everyone,” says Hyams.