Common Myths about Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated

By Stephanie Hammerwold

In HR, we often talk about looking for red flags when screening applications and resumes. Red flags can be anything from unexplained gaps in employment, being terminated from previous jobs for questionable reasons or criminal convictions. While automatically ruling candidates out based on so-called red flags can speed up the process of going through a huge stack of applications, it often means that perfectly good candidates get tossed in the reject pile.

For those with criminal convictions in their past, this can be especially challenging. Often a job and a steady paycheck can be a gateway to securing good housing and rebuilding a life following release from jail or prison. Despite having already served time, many continue being punished for criminal convictions following release from jail or prison in the way that they are barred from certain housing, employment and other services. For this reason, it is important that we break down the myths around hiring the formerly incarcerated and give serious consideration to hiring those in the reentry population—many of whom would be excellent hires.

Myth #1: Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal

Some employers do not want to hire someone with a criminal record because they fear that there is a risk that the person will steal, act out violently or commit some other major policy violation because of their criminal past.

A recent study out of Harvard and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst looked at what happened when the military allowed those with felony records to enlist. Not only did the study find that those with a felony record were no more likely to face termination for negative reasons, but it also found that those with a record were often promoted faster than those without a record. The researchers pointed out that those accepted into the military were screened on a number of factors, and those who were more likely to get into trouble were often weeded out; however, the study does point to the fact that a criminal background is not an automatic red flag.

This study is a good reminder that a criminal background does not fully define a candidate. Instead, employers should look at the whole person—job experience, education, skills and other factors that contribute to making someone a good employee. In my HR career, I hired hundreds of people. Some of them had criminal records, and many of them turned out to be excellent employees.

Myth #2: Those with a Criminal Past are Lazy, Unreliable and Lack Discipline

This idea is in line with the above myth. Once again we can look to the military study to disprove this. The military has a high level of discipline and is no place for lazy people. In fact, many people want to do what it takes to keep a job after they have been released from jail or prison.

PastForward, an organization that helps connect formerly incarcerated job seekers with employers in Maryland, found that, “Ex-offenders are often more motivated to work and more grateful for the chance to prove themselves. Some companies find that ex-offenders tend to be committed workers whose success rate is comparable to that of the company’s overall workforce.” A steady paycheck can be the key to securing good housing and getting a life back on track. What better motivation is there for working hard?

Myth #3: They Can Get Experience Elsewhere Before Applying Here

One of my motivations for founding Pacific Reentry Career Services was to break down the myths that get in the way of the formerly incarcerated finding jobs. Early in my HR career, I had a boss tell me to automatically rule out candidates who checked yes to the question about criminal convictions. Her reasoning was, “They can get their experience elsewhere and then come back and apply when they get their life back on track.” It was hard to understand that logic when we were employing entry-level warehouse workers who were paid minimum wage. Where was this mythical elsewhere that people were going to get experience?

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly one-third of the adult population in the U.S. has a criminal record. Not considering these candidates eliminates a big part of the labor pool. Those with criminal records deserve a second chance. It is not enough to assume that another employer will be the one to take the chance. Once again, it is important to look beyond the criminal record and to see the whole candidate. Failure to do so means that employers are missing out on a big segment of the population that could be really good employees.

Bonus Tip: Tax Credits for Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated

Employers who hire the formerly incarcerated may qualify for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and may also be eligible to participate in the Federal Bonding Program. Some states also offer tax credits as well. Taking advantage of these benefits is good for business and good for job seekers.

For more on the military study mentioned in this post, listen to Planet Money’s recent episode on the topic.