Fair Chance: Here's How to Access America's Incarcerated Talent Pool

4 min read

Everyone has a bad interview story. 

But for people who have spent time behind bars, that story can start to feel like it’s on repeat.

From missing out on callbacks, to being dropped when a potential employer discovers their past, overcoming recruiter bias can prove almost impossible for applicants with a criminal record.

In fact, only 25% of ex-offenders are back in employment a year after their release. And with a massive 1 in 3 US adults having a criminal record, that’s a vast proportion of potential talent going right under the radar. 

Because turning their backs on ex-offenders means employers miss out too.

On the flip side, businesses who are open to this pool of talent can benefit from huge payouts via tax credits and fidelity bonds. They can also relax knowing employee turnover rates for people with criminal records is around 13% lower than for those without.

Bottom line? Recruiters can diversify their organization, bring in new voices and boost employee retention by working with this largely (and in many cases, unfairly) untapped talent pool. 

If you're ready to put your prejudices to bed and make the most of the US’s awesome talent, read on. We've got some tips to help you do it right.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

When it comes to recruitment, giving applicants a fair hearing is good practice 101.

The problem is, not all employers’ hiring decisions are based on the right things. In fact, according to a survey by Linkedin, around 1 in 4 managers would refuse to hire anyone with a criminal record—that’s not cool, and it’s most likely not legal either. 

So, how can you avoid making the same mistakes everyone else is making?

Conduct the right kind of background checks, while keeping it 100% human with applicants.

That means getting to know what the applicant has to offer at the interview stage—before passing judgment and throwing the talent out with the bathwater.

As an interviewer, it’s important to know you don’t need to discuss a person’s criminal convictions—and neither do they. An applicant may choose not to discuss their past, but if they do it’s important to know how to respond:

  • Stay on topic - Keep in mind that you only need to know about things that are relevant to the role. Don’t ask for details you don’t need to know—keep to topic and continue to relate back to the role. 
  • Show respect - It takes courage to go to interviews and work your way out of the prison system. Recognize your applicants' bravery by showing them the respect they deserve. Don’t push for details and make sure you offer opportunities for them to display any positives they’ve encountered through their experiences, no matter how different from your own.
  • Be supportive - Help the applicant understand that your company is open and encourages diversity. Explain that if they encounter any challenges, the organization will be there to support them. 

Takeaway #1: Firm up your interview strategy to constructively engage with applicants who have a criminal record. 

Ban the Box

Now that we’ve tackled conscious bias, it’s time to delve deeper.

Whether we like it or not, unconscious bias is something we’re all guilty of.

From assuming an older relative will have no idea how to operate a smartphone, to raising an eyebrow at a boy who’s into Barbies, making assumptions about people based on their age, gender, race or—you guessed it—criminal record, is more common than you’d think. 

And the scary thing? Most of the time you don’t even know you’re doing it. 

A report published in Psychology Today shows exactly how commonplace unconscious stereotyping is. 

“Scientists think [most people have a] conscious check on unacceptable thoughts… This internal censor successfully restrains overtly biased responses. But there's still the danger of leakage, which often shows up in non-verbal behavior: our expressions, our stance, how far away we stand, how much eye contact we make,” the report says.

In other words, no matter how unbiased you think you are, there’s still a lot going on beneath the surface. 

According to the report, this is because humans are group-based animals—and to create a group they need to be able to recognize the things that make “other” groups different.

Unfortunately, this habit of stereotyping has stuck around into the 21st century. 

“While we tend to see members of our own group as individuals, we view those in out-groups as an undifferentiated—stereotyped—mass. The categories we use have changed, but it seems that stereotyping itself is bred in the bone.”

That’s why civil rights campaigners have been fighting to help recruiters avoid subconscious stereotyping with “Ban the Box”

The campaign encourages recruiters to ditch the check box asking if applicants have a criminal record—helping applicants find work without the stigma.

Ban the Box has been so successful that 13 states now have laws in place to back it up. Plus, it's made a visible dent in the applicant pool of ex-offenders—according to a 2019 Economic Inquiry study, Ban the Box has raised the likelihood of people with a criminal record gaining employment by about 30%. 

Takeaway #2: Ban the box on your application forms to make sure every applicant is given a fighting chance at employment, whatever their history.

Make sure your background checks are legit

When it comes to background checks, making sure your processes are fair is the only way to go.

From an applicant’s employment history to their driving records, there is a ton of information you can find out about a potential employee before giving them the thumbs up. 

But what about the aspects employers shouldn’t take into consideration? 

Whether we like it or not, there are some things that could be making your hiring process illegal and, surprise, surprise, the way you treat criminal records is one of them.

It’s not illegal to obtain a background check related to “criminal or other public records”—in fact, they account for a huge 84% of pre-hire checks. But what you need to remember is it’s how you use this information that counts.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Federal Trade Commission state, “any time you use an applicant's or employee's background information to make an employment decision, regardless of how you got the information, you must comply with federal laws that protect applicants and employees from discrimination.”

So, what recruiters need to ask themselves is— “do we really need to know?” 9 times out of 10, the answer will probably be a big N. O. 

Lucky for us, technology is here to save the day (again). 😉

With an automated background check, recruiters can filter out unnecessary records—helping them avoid unconscious bias and stick on the right side of the law.

Breezy partner, Checkr, does exactly that—using AI, they help recruiters easily conduct appropriate (and legal) background checks.

In an Entrepeneur interview Checkr’s Head of Comms, David Patterson, said “[Technology can remove] the ability for employers to use a background check as a proxy to screen people out.” 

In the same post, co-founder Daniel Yanisse explained the reasons why recruiters can no longer afford not to use technology to make their background checks.

“Initially, I think it was quite binary how decisions were made. Either you're clean and you haven't done anything… or you have some flags in your background, so we're not going to hire you… But when you get into the details, you realize that's not the case... People make mistakes, and there are different severities of mistakes.”

Takeaway #3: Use a background check software like Checkr to streamline your recruitment decisions and minimize the risk of unconscious bias. 

People make mistakes

If you're committed to the kind of candidate-driven, 100% human type of hiring that turns applicants and employees into long-term raving fans, you owe it to yourself to remember that we all make mistakes.

With the right tools and information, unfairly or unlawfully disregarding qualified talent doesn't have to be one of them.

Work with your hiring team, C-levels and candidates to ensure that every awesome applicant gets the fair chance they deserve. 

Ready to diversify your hiring? Try Breezy for free!

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