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A case for looking beyond criminal records

Peter is a sharp young man with bright green eyes, military-upright posture, and an Ivy League vocabulary. Now in his late 20s, he grew up in an average middle-class family and started partying when he was 14, buying beer with a fake ID. By the time he enrolled in college, he was struggling with alcoholism, getting loaded before morning classes. Impatient with school, Peter got a job in sales, eventually becoming an account manager for a prominent tech company.

By forging instant rapport with his customers and mastering the technical aspects of the products, Peter excelled at work, despite his daily habit. He found he could fake it on-the-job, until he couldn’t. After a few brushes with the law, minor drug possession charges, and later, a misdemeanor conviction, Peter hit rock bottom. He was unemployed, broke, homeless and had a criminal record.

Peter wound up at the Denver Rescue Mission. His determination earned him a spot in their coveted residential program, where he worked tirelessly in work-as-therapy and substance abuse classes.  Almost ready to graduate, he stopped in our office last spring for an interview.

Peter was articulate, straightforward and gifted. He told us about his life on the streets and his 16-hour days volunteering at the Mission. He talked about his sobriety, his AA classes, and his stack of index cards, detailing the hundreds of searing memories why he’d never drink again. He spoke with ease about the software platforms he’d mastered, and the accounts he’d grown. Peter received an offer for part-time, minimum wage hours at a large retailer, but he longed for meaningful and stimulating work.

Over the next few days, we interviewed his case workers and his former employers, performed background searches, and interviewed him several more times.

Peter had the intellect and interpersonal skills of the research analysts I’d hired on Wall Street, so we initially attempted to place him in financial services. His criminal history ruled him out again and again. Weeks of rejection followed, but we assured Peter of both his potential and the promise of a dream employer. His nervous hopefulness soon eroded to anxious self-doubt.

Yet, Peter’s story isn’t isolated. According to a large-scale study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) and the Koch Institute, roughly 75-million Americans have a criminal record, the majority due to misdemeanor convictions, probation or arrest without a conviction. For too many, a criminal record of any severity dramatically limits employment and housing opportunities, preventing them from realizing their full potential and contributing to the economy.

To help Peter overcome these employment barriers, we pivoted to a skilled trade apprenticeship. He was intrigued by the rigor of the apprenticeship, and the opportunity to continually study, advance, and ultimately become a master journeyman.

We supported Peter through the months of waiting and into his new career, coaching him along the way. After just two weeks on the job, Peter began assembling parts, doing the work of third and fourth year apprentices. Two months later, Peter was promoted.

At six months, Peter received another promotion and relocated back to his hometown. He has been reunited with his family, importantly his nine-year-old brother, whom he rarely saw in recent years. Three consecutive managers have given him outstanding reviews. Meanwhile, Peter is paying down old debts, saving money and looking forward to investing for his future.

To his supervisor, he is the go-to guy. To company management, he is a rising star who, without their help, might still be unemployed or living on the streets. Peter’s employers gave a second chance to a smart, sincere, enterprising young man and changed the trajectory of a life. And by tapping into the underutilized talent pool of justice-involved individuals, they’re not only compassionate: they’re contributing to the health of the economy.

When individuals with a criminal record can’t find work, business is also hampered. Unemployment of these individuals hurts U.S. GDP by an estimated $78 billion to $87 billion annually, according to the SHRM report. Numerous employers are taking notice of this significant untapped talent pool, and changing the perspective about hiring ex-offenders.

Large companies like Checkr, WalMart and JPMorgan actively promote fair chance hiring. In fact, SHRM’s survey reveals that 82% of managers and 67% of HR professionals believe that the quality of hire for workers with criminal records is about the same or higher than that of workers without records.

Peter’s story illustrates that hiring individuals with criminal records is not only good for the economy but helps strengthen the fabric of society by reducing recidivism. According to the Council of Economic Advisors, the U.S. spent $270 billion (1.4% of GDP) in 2016 funding the criminal justice system. With more than three-quarters of state offenders re-arrested within five years of being released, any effort that will increase the chance of surviving outside the system is worth exploring.

“The key to reducing recidivism and improving public safety is finding employment for people. If individuals with a criminal record can be considered for employment based on their talent and skills, the benefits for the business and society are far-reaching,” says Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.

Simply put, by looking past an individual’s former record, employers can offer people like Peter the ability to thrive personally and financially and to contribute to their communities for the long term.


helen young hayesHelen Young Hayes is founder and CEO or Activate Workforce Solutions, a talent acquisition agency that creates pathways to self-sufficiency through successful, sustained employment.