The Case for Hiring Candidates With Felony Convictions

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The thought of employing individuals with felony convictions is enough to make most CEOs wring their hands. You can hardly blame them. Many of these people have done bad things in the past. Hiring them is a noble endeavor, but what if our worst fears come true?

As it turns out, those fears may be overblown. Just look at those businesses that already hire large numbers of people with criminal records. Dave’s Killer Bread, for example, has built an entire brand around the fact that one third of its employees have criminal backgrounds. Likewise, MOD Pizza has credited its rapid growth to an “impact hiring” talent acquisition strategy, which focuses on hiring and empowering people many other companies would overlook, including those who were once incarcerated.

So, are candidates with convictions a gold mine of talent hiding in plain sight, or are we inviting disaster into our businesses when we tap this talent pool?

It’s Complicated — As Is Anything Involving Human Beings

Sure, a quick Google search can turn up all kinds of horror stories about hiring people with criminal backgrounds, but I personally have had positive experiences with employees who had records. They delivered amazing results at our company, eventually left of their own accord, and are now leading successful careers elsewhere.

Currently, my business is engaged with contracts that restrict us from employing individuals with felony convictions. If this weren’t the case, these candidates would definitely still be on the table — depending on the circumstances of the felony and the role in question.

Based on my 20 years of experience in the talent acquisition sector, I strongly encourage more businesses to rethink their attitudes on this subject. “Common sense” might dictate candidates with records are a liability, but a study from Northwestern University found that, in most positions, candidates with a record are no more likely to be fired for misconduct than candidates from the general population.

Despite popular belief, there’s some quality talent here, and for the most part it doesn’t pose any extra risk to your company. In a historically tough labor market, we can’t afford to disqualify any candidate prematurely.

Put the Business Case First

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: A felony conviction looks bad. Why should you hire someone with this blemish on their past when you could hire someone else?

I’m a firm believer in making the business case before doing anything just because it makes us feel good or creates good PR. Whether it’s a diversity and inclusion initiative or hiring candidates with records, we have to make sure what we’re doing helps the business first and foremost. Otherwise, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and will only frustrate our existing employees.

Once we know exactly why a new talent strategy will help our business, we can make sure it succeeds. Knowing the why helps us get buy-in from people at all levels of the company and ensures we’re not forcing anything.

Believe it or not, there are particular benefits to hiring individuals with felony convictions. Because of the stigma they face, it’s very hard for these people to obtain employment in the first place. However, once they do, they often make for appreciative, loyal, and motivated employees.

Don’t believe me? Check out the data. The Northwestern study found that employees with a record are less likely to leave voluntarily. Overall, turnover rates for employees with a record are 13 percent lower than for the general population. If you’re struggling with retention, you may want to look into hiring more people from this group.

Other benefits include the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and, most importantly, access to a wider talent pool.

The Talent Pool Is Too Small to Disqualify Anyone

Unemployment is at a 50-year low, and the gap between job openings and unemployed people has hit a record level. In short, it’s tough to find the talent we need!

For critical roles or those involving sensitive information, it may not make sense to hire anyone with a criminal record. However, for entry-level roles or those that don’t pose any security risk, businesses should consider relaxing their attitudes on prior convictions.

By all indications, formerly incarcerated individuals can excel in the workplace, and we can’t afford to disqualify any candidates without good reason. If they can do the job and do it well, we should give them due consideration. The cost of open seats is high enough without us hindering our own recruitment efforts. We don’t have to give someone the keys to the company in order to give them a second chance.

It’s All About Second Chances

I could talk about the business case all day, but I want to end by touching on why I personally believe in hiring these individuals. It’s simple: I believe people deserve second chances.

We’ve all done things we’ve regretted. In my younger days, I was arrested twice for silly mistakes. Luckily, neither turned into so much as a misdemeanor! For most of us, these mistakes have never come close to felonies, but the point remains. We all do very stupid things, and we all grow as a result. I firmly believe people do change — even convicted criminals.

We owe it to others to give them a chance to redeem themselves. If we don’t, we’re only pushing them back toward a life of crime. So let’s give them a shot at a new path forward. The idea may be scary, but I think you’d be surprised at what your business can gain from hiring someone looking for a new lease on life.

Steve Lowisz is a keynote speaker and CEO of Qualigence International.

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Steve Lowisz is a keynote speaker and CEO of Qualigence International. He founded Qualigence in 1999 with an "anti-agency" mission to redefine and shake up the recruiting industry. Steve regularly contributes to industry events and publications and has been featured in Fortune Magazine, CNN Money, the Detroit Free Press, and on Bloomberg Radio. He is also a member of Forbes HR Council, where he offers leadership advice and cutting-edge insights on the industry.