As many as one in three Americans have some kind of criminal record — more specifically, between 70 and 100 million. But even a minor infraction, such as a misdemeanor, can create lifelong obstacles for someone when it comes to accessing housing, public assistance and especially employment.  

Last year, we saw hundreds of companies make bold commitments to racial and social justice in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. With communities of color disproportionately affected by incarceration, fair chance hiring is one important area where companies can make an impact, giving all applicants an equal opportunity for employment.  

Let’s learn more about fair chance hiring and how to implement these policies at your organization. 

What is fair chance hiring?

Fair chance hiring is the idea that all qualified candidates should be fairly considered for a job, regardless of their criminal histories. Offering people with past convictions a fair chance at employment is an important practice that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if your organization values diversity, inclusion and belonging. 

Employers may be hesitant to implement fair chance hiring due to common misconceptions about people with past convictions. Matt Joyce, partner at Envoy, an impact-oriented advisory practice, says the most challenging part about instituting fair chance practices is addressing the perceived risks. 

“The stigma of justice involvement can raise questions and concerns from every level of the organization,” says Joyce. These may include: 

  • How will this impact safety? 
  • What is our liability if something goes wrong? 
  • How will this be received by customers, staff and partners?

“Employees with past convictions can be perceived as risky in terms of both safety and productivity, but both research and anecdotal evidence illustrate the opposite,” says Christopher Watler, chief external affairs officer at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit organization that provides people returning from prison immediate paid employment, skills training and ongoing career support.

In fact, the evidence shows that employees with past convictions are highly productive and motivated workers who have no greater likelihood than their peers to be terminated. A 2017 study found that employees with criminal records have a much longer tenure and are less likely to quit their jobs compared to other workers. And not only do employees with criminal records stay in their positions longer, their performance tends to be strong, too: 85% of HR professionals indicate that workers with a criminal history are equally or more effective at their jobs compared to their peers. 

In addition, a 2018 study of U.S. military enlistees showed that there is no difference between people with felony backgrounds and people without when it comes to leaving their jobs due to poor performance. On the contrary, those with records tend to be promoted more quickly, and to higher ranks, than others.

Fair chance hiring opens jobs to all qualified applicants, regardless of record 

To help level the playing field, Envoy and CEO formed a collaborative initiative called Levelset, which aims to debunk misconceptions about people with criminal records by connecting employers with a talent pool of candidates who have past convictions. Levelset partners with a company’s human resources (HR), talent acquisition and legal leaders to review their current hiring policies, making recommendations or revisions so their jobs are more accessible to every candidate who is qualified, criminal record or not. 

Watler says that when employers open up job opportunities for people with past convictions, they are not only increasing their ability to attract the best talent, they’re also helping reshape the criminal justice and workforce landscape toward more equitable growth and stronger communities. 

 “I define success as a hiring process where a criminal conviction is no longer a statistically significant factor in a person's ability to get a job and advance within the company,” says Watler. 

Joyce says the core objectives of their initiative are for companies to institute more modernized, inclusive hiring practices; gain access to expanded candidate pools, such as local organizations that train and support workers with past convictions; and create more equitable company cultures that prioritize fair chance hiring practices. These are all things your organization can undertake to expand opportunities for all candidates.

If you’ve already implemented fair chance hiring practices at your company, there are many ways you can continue to spread the word about fair chance hiring. A few examples include:

  • Sharing your story more broadly
  • Advocating to your vendors, peers and local policymakers for fair chance approaches
  • Evaluating the success of your fair chance programs to help build the base of research supporting this work 

How can companies start to implement fair chance hiring policies? 

Start the conversation around fair chance hiring

If your organization hasn’t initiated fair chance hiring practices, why not start that conversation? While it may feel challenging to bring up this topic, you’re more likely to get a positive response than you might think; data shows that 80% of Americans support fair chance hiring

“It is very important that organizational leaders have a forum to hear from their teams about fair chance hiring,” says Alex Love, founder and CEO at Alex Love Consulting, which specializes in human resources and talent strategy. 

While you might assume your employees are uncomfortable with the idea of hiring people with criminal records, Love says, they have facilitated sessions with managers who are extremely supportive of expanding inclusivity. For example, many mention losing great candidates because of their background checks as well as family members who struggled to regain employment due their past justice involvement.

Make the business case for fair chance hiring

After the events of the past year, employees are increasingly demanding that their employers address issues of equity and inclusion and want to work for employers who are intentional about creating social impact. When advocating for fair chance hiring, get buy-in from your leadership team by communicating the benefits and positive impacts of these policies. 

“In a tight labor market, candidates with past justice involvement represent an untapped and motivated talent pool that can strengthen the workforce,” says Joyce.

Additionally, implementing fair chance hiring practices can promote positive social change. Most employers place a deep value on the stability of the communities in which they operate. Opening jobs to people with criminal records can help them reenter society and the workforce, reducing the likelihood of future arrests and convictions. In turn, this contributes to positive generational impacts that reverberate through workers’ families and communities. 

Revisit your organization’s internal policies and hiring practices

You can also revisit your own policies and hiring practices to see if they’re keeping anyone out. A good question to ask is whether what’s on the books still reflects company values and goals. 

Love recommends revisiting and rewriting your job descriptions and applications to use inclusive language so as not to discourage potential candidates from applying. You can also update your hiring matrices to ensure that convictions that have no bearing on the job in question and will no longer disqualify candidates, says Love.

Additionally, Love says you can include individual secondary-review protocols that give candidates with criminal records an opportunity to discuss the circumstances of that conviction, as well as their efforts to rejoin the community and workforce. 

Another option to consider is removing the disclosure box from job applications: “Employers can still run background checks and learn about candidates’ past convictions,” says Joyce. However, removing the box ensures that candidates with criminal records aren’t disqualified before having an opportunity to interview and receive a conditional job offer — broadening the candidate pool.

Organizations can also review the policies around their “look-back” periods, or how far back criminal background checks go, says Joyce. Typically, misdemeanor criminal records are only reported for the past seven years; however, employers are able to easily access records that go back further, unless you live in a state that restricts disclosures of convictions older than seven years. If your look-back period is longer than seven years, you could be disqualifying candidates who may have had convictions deep in their past but are outstanding employees today. 

Last, Joyce recommends that, if you do run background checks, do so after a conditional offer of employment has been extended. This gives candidates every opportunity to make their cases before their convictions are considered. 

Encourage employees to learn more about fair chance hiring

It’s important to encourage people in your organization to learn more about fair chance hiring, especially within related departments. A good starting point is to take Levelset’s fair chance hiring self-assessment, which assesses inclusivity and opportunity at your organization. To dive deeper, complete the Society for Human Resource Management’s certification in fair chance hiring, which CEO helped develop. This certification, called the Getting Talent Back to Work Certificate Program, equips HR professionals and other stakeholders with the knowledge and skills to make their workplaces inclusive of talent with conviction histories. 

People with past convictions face many barriers to employment, but people deserve more than just one chance. Research shows that candidates with prior convictions make strong employees who may stay at your organization longer, advance faster and contribute to your goals. Implementing fair chance hiring policies is a key step toward inclusivity, with profound social impact for not only people with past convictions but also for future generations and the entire community.


Interested in making fair chance hiring a part of your talent strategy? Levelset can help your company develop and implement inclusive hiring practices. Levelset has collaborated with companies in diverse industries, including retail, manufacturing, e-commerce, and food and beverage, to help expand talent pools and increase opportunity for people with past convictions. You can contact Levelset at info@levelset.us or learn more through their website at https://www.levelset.us/.