Written by Andrew Glazier

Adam remembers who he was when he entered prison — out of control, angry, unwilling to listen to anyone and a danger to himself and everyone else. As a teenager growing up in a rough neighborhood, he had gone down a path of addiction and violence that ended with a conviction for a serious violent offense and a life sentence by the age of 21. 

But eight years in, during a stretch in solitary confinement, he learned that his grandfather had passed away. He wondered if this was the life that his grandparents had envisioned for him — still causing pain, still messing up, still in prison. It sparked a transformation for Adam, who finally conquered his addiction, changed his behavior and earned his GED, an associate’s degree in sociology, and a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling. 

As a “lifer,” Adam had a high bar to clear to make parole. But on this new path, he started making progress in the eyes of the parole board. Finally, on his third try, he made it home — 19 years later, ready and excited to start his second chance at life.

A fresh start for Adam

That was November 2019, and Adam found a job as a fleet manager within a month, only to be laid off at the start of the pandemic. Faced with the prospect of unemployment, the old Adam would have made different choices at this moment. 

But while in prison, Adam had joined a program called CEO of Your New Life through Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization for which I serve as CEO. The program provides personal development, career readiness and entrepreneurship training for currently and formerly incarcerated people. It taught him how to push through negative thoughts and focus on his goals. He set his sights on a job in tech sales and learned the skills he needed to become a compelling candidate. 

Great interviews led to multiple job offers, but his background check proved to be an insurmountable barrier for many companies. Despite being told that the jobs required no experience, he was suddenly not experienced enough. Some hiring managers left it at “stuff came up and we can’t move forward.” A few cited company policy, saying they weren’t allowed to hire someone with his background. 

Yet Adam kept interviewing. Through Defy, which operates postrelease career and reentry programs for graduates of its prison program, he got connected to Checkr, a national background-check technology company known for its fair chance hiring culture and practices. Soon, he found himself choosing from three job offers. 

Ultimately, Adam chose to join Checkr as a candidate experience representative in September 2021. He turned down more money from the other options because he knew that he wouldn’t have to hide from his past with Checkr and he could be openly proud of the person he had become. Checkr benefitted too — Adam has already been promoted twice since he joined and is on a management track.

Fear is the real barrier

Adam is not the exception. In fact, when it comes to those who were incarcerated, he is the rule. This population is no more likely to perform poorly or misbehave in the workplace than anyone else, and they are less likely to quit. As a group, justice-involved individuals represent an enormous untapped talent pool, and fair chance hiring (also referred to as second chance hiring) policies and processes are the key to unlocking that potential. 

To clarify, fair chance hiring doesn’t mean that you hire people because they were formerly incarcerated. It simply means you don’t exclude otherwise qualified individuals because of their criminal history. Fair chance hiring involves doing diligence on any potential employee, like you would with any candidate. But you do that through processes like the nature/time/nature test, which considers the intersections between the nature of the crime, the time elapsed since the offense and rehabilitative efforts, and the nature of the job. Books such as Untapped Talent, organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation and companies like Checkr offer case studies, tool kits and even certifications that anyone can use to execute these processes well. 

The business case for fair chance hiring is likewise clear, compelling, and well-documented. The SHRM Foundation notes that 85% of HR and 81% of Business Leaders report that individuals with criminal records perform the same as or better than employees without criminal records. Cases published by the Second Chance Business Coalition and the US Chamber of Commerce show similarly compelling results. Plus, federal bonding to manage perceived liability and tax credits sweeten the business case even more.

So, if the business case is strong, the risks and liability low, and the process clear, what is the real obstacle? In my experience, when business leaders and hiring managers balk at hiring people with criminal histories, it is because fear and emotion override rational business considerations that would otherwise drive their decision-making around hiring, even though most people seem to believe in the idea of a second chance. 

First, let’s acknowledge that an emotional response (typically fear) is understandable when presented with the idea of hiring someone who has been incarcerated. This may be expressed as fear for personal or workplace safety, fear of corporate liability or perceived reputational risk. These fears are associated with a gut reaction to a category or categories of crime. For example, when I ask a room full of executives if they believe in second chances, nearly every hand goes up. When I ask about nonviolent criminal histories, most of those hands stay up. But when I add in violent offenses, most hands go down. The question is why. 

The truth is, many of us draw emotional red lines about whom we would and wouldn’t hire. And like many emotional gut reactions, those lines frequently have no basis in real-world facts or business cost-benefit. In fact, one-third of Americans have a criminal history by the age of 23. So you may already unknowingly employ someone with a criminal history — and they are probably doing just fine.

By making those decisions solely on the basis of how they feel about someone’s criminal history rather than considering the available information in a deliberate and rational way, business leaders make two big mistakes: 

  1. They hurt profits by not filling spots with available talent.
  2. They negatively impact society, particularly communities of color, who are heavily over-represented in the criminal justice system. As many companies undertake diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts, this point is especially relevant. Without considering the impact of criminal histories in your DEIB plans, you’ll struggle to really diversify your workforce. 

So if the barrier is an emotional one, how do you overcome it?

Start with three steps.

1. Ask yourself hard questions and answer them honestly. 

  • Do your hiring policies and processes explicitly or implicitly exclude formerly incarcerated candidates?
    • While some industries are governed by state and federal regulations that restrict people with certain criminal histories from employment, do your policies explicitly exclude formerly incarcerated individuals beyond these requirements? For example, some company policies may simply exclude people who have a felony conviction. If so, why?
    • Do your policies and procedures implicitly exclude people? Your policies might not specifically state “no one with a felony” can be hired, but if no one with a felony ever gets hired, why is that? Is there always a convenient reason that a felony conviction conflicts with a job duty? 

Implicit bias gets to the question of your emotional red line, the place where fear and emotion take over from rational decision making. Consider Adam, his enthusiastic conditional offers and the revocation of those offers after his background check was completed. Without a fair chance policy and a procedure to guide the evaluation of his candidacy, the hiring managers were left to consider him on a case-by-case basis — a situation ripe for implicit bias. In Adam’s case, his criminal history crossed that emotional red line and cost him the job (and those companies a talented employee), whether the hiring managers were conscious of it or not.

  • If you do consider yourself a fair chance employer, what are your policies and processes?
    • Is it up to every individual hiring manager’s interpretation? 
    • Is it case by case? 
    • Is it “don’t ask, don’t tell”? 

None of those options are scalable, equitable or inclusive, and none of them count as fair chance hiring. 

This leads to one more set of questions: 

  • Is there a common understanding of what fair chance hiring means among your company leadership? 
  • How far does that understanding and desire to implement extend? 

In my experience, CEOs tend to be far more excited about fair chance hiring than their talent leaders, who are more likely to find reasons not to move forward with a formerly incarcerated candidate or with a fair chance policy at all. In some ways that makes sense — talent leaders are juggling talent acquisition alongside risk management. But as the gatekeepers to employment, if you aren’t willing or able to examine your own response to fair chance hiring, it won’t get far. This extends through the rest of your company as well. In truth, the policies and procedures are the easy part; changing company culture is what requires intention, commitment and time. 

2. Dig a little deeper with a partner. Test the attitudes of people at various levels of your organization — from line staff to the C-suite —  through a guided conversation. Defy Ventures can help you do that by leading hiring simulations followed by nonjudgmental, facilitated dialogue. This is one of the best ways to confront the fears you may not even recognize that you have until you are confronted with a specific situation, where suddenly you find yourself saying “not this one.” These kinds of exercises force a level of intellectual honesty that allows us to see not only what is holding us back but also how fast and how far we want to move forward. 

In addition, we can help you and your teams get closer to the issues faced by incarcerated people by bringing you to prison with us for a coaching day or one of our business pitch competitions. We’ll spend the day doing career and business coaching or judging a pitch competition, building empathy through shared experiences and celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship. This is a powerful way for talent leaders to challenge their perceptions and to replace impersonal processes, white papers and cold statistics with human faces and experiences. It’s also a terrific, service-driven team builder.

Down the line, we can also work with you as a hiring partner to identify graduates of our program who have a network of support, training and education and who would be a good fit for your company. 

3. Make a deliberate decision to explore and develop your fair chance hiring program with thoughtfulness and empathy alongside data and best practices. In my experience, a CEO’s directive is easily circumvented by capable yet apprehensive hiring managers, who might be afraid to even meet Adam, let alone hire him, even when the data says he’s incredibly unlikely to reoffend and the interview shows he’s a great fit for the job. On a human level, Adam has an inspiring story of transformation. He will defy every one of your perceptions and challenge you to see him as he is — a talented individual with valuable skill sets and endless potential. In other words, he would be an indisputable asset to any company. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Fair chance hiring doesn’t mean you hire people simply because they have a criminal history. It just means that you don’t exclude otherwise great candidates whose history doesn’t conflict with the job.
  1. Start exploring fair chance hiring with an honest assessment of the emotional barriers. Case studies, data, policies and procedures are necessary but not sufficient. Companies will struggle to successfully implement fair chance hiring unless they spend the time to address fear and other emotion-based obstacles.  
  1. Just saying you are “open” to hiring people with criminal histories is not the same as being a fair chance employer. What are your specific policies and processes? Is it up to every individual hiring manager’s interpretation? Is it case by case or “don’t ask, don’t tell”? None of these are scalable, equitable or inclusive, and none of them count as fair chance hiring.
  1. DEIB efforts will not be successful without addressing fair chance hiring. Half of Black men in America have criminal histories, and people of color are heavily over-represented in the justice system. Without considering the impact of criminal histories in your DEIB plans, you’ll struggle to really diversify your workforce. 
  1. Work with an outside partner. For many companies, part of addressing the fear around fair chance hiring means having honest and hard conversations. Partners like Defy Ventures, who work in this space, are experts in guided dialogue, and their teams include people with lived experiences. They can help you get started.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Indeed.

Andrew Glazier

Andrew Glazier is the President and CEO of Defy Ventures, a national nonprofit that provides career readiness, entrepreneurship and personal development programs to currently and formerly incarcerated adults. He lives in Los Angeles.