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Embracing Formerly Incarcerated Workers: Things HR Should Consider

9 minute read

One of the biggest business woes of 2019 is the extremely tight labor market. Businesses from all sectors are having trouble finding talent and even more trouble retaining the talent they currently have.

However, a few businesses have noticed that there is a giant (and we mean giant) pool of workers that, until recently, has gone completely ignored: the formerly incarcerated.

Right now, there are roughly 70 million Americans with criminal records, according to Inc. 10 million people are brought back into communities every year after serving sentences. And, as Inc continues, finding a job is a major step for them to stay out of the system and move forward with their lives.

With that said, bias, misunderstanding, a heap of statutes and regulations, and many other factors work against these individuals, making it very challenging for them to get good paying, stable jobs. This is all despite the fact that a good, stable job is exactly what they need to reintegrate into society.

The labor shortage has encouraged businesses across the US to rethink formerly incarcerated employees with some major players stepping up for the cause.

incarcerated workers

Case in point: Slack. The unicorn chat startup has recently teamed up with The Last Mile, a tech-training program for incarcerated people, to create Next Chapter, which will place formerly incarcerated workers within Slack. (Next Chapter recently even received $800,000 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, too.)

"Next Chapter will train and place three "returning citizens" inside Slack as quality-engineering apprentices—and build a process to help them acculturate to one of the most successful start-ups of the past decade, with help from a small support team led by a formerly incarcerated man named Kenyatta Leal," reports Alexis C. Madrigal from The Atlantic.

"The apprenticeship is split into three parts over a year: Roughly four months at the start-up bootcamp Hack Reactor, four months of training, and then four months on the job, after which Slack may hire an apprentice, or help them get a job at another tech company."

This is huge news because Slack is so universal in many offices and startups around the country (and beyond). Their partnership signals an about-face in terms of how businesses view formerly incarcerated workers.

So, with so much changing, what should HR know about the movement? What concerns are valid and what ones are rooted in bias and misinformation?

Let's dig in a bit to find out.

The Current Unemployment Rates, Compared

It's not news that the US has extremely low unemployment rate right now. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate sits at exactly four percent at the time of this article.

While this is great for workers, businesses obviously have trouble filling roles because there just isn't enough available workers to fill talent gaps, especially if roles require expertise in specific skills.

Now, what about the unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated workers? It's an entirely different story.

According to a recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative, over one-fourth of previously incarcerated people are out of work.

"Using a nationally representative dataset, we provide the first ever estimate of unemployment among the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States," the initiative reports.

incarcerated workers

"Our analysis shows that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27% — higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression."

So, while most Americans are experiencing an extremely low unemployment rate (four percent), formerly incarcerated individuals are at an all time high (27 percent).

This means that there are a lot of people needing jobs in America. However, they are ignored by most industries.

"Our estimate of the unemployment rate establishes that formerly incarcerated people want to work, but face structural barriers to securing employment, particularly within the period immediately following release," the initiative goes on to say.

And, since this problem persists, it creates a bunch of other problems in its wake.

"This perpetual labor market punishment creates a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers, and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle," the team says.

With all of that said, the tides are starting to (slightly) change. Let's take a look at what's been happening recently.

The Shifting View of Formerly Incarcerated Workers

As we mentioned up top, formerly incarcerated people have long been barred from entering the workforce in any meaningful way after they were released and rejoined society.

There are a lot of reasons for this, which we will get to in a moment. Despite these barriers, some companies are taking notice to the issues - like Slack - and are putting their money (and jobs) where their mouth is.

But what made this change happen? After all, formerly incarcerated people have always had it extremely hard when they attempt to rejoin the working world.

There were three things that happened very quickly earlier this year. The first was that Congress passed the First Step Act, which did many things, including giving judges the power to give different sentences to non-violent offenses and - most importantly here - upped rehabilitation methods for former inmates.

The passing of this act really got the nation talking about the issue. This also came on the back on another shift: states and local governments across the country have started to ban private and public employers from asking about previous criminal histories.

incarcerated workers

"Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have banned private or public employers from asking prospective employees if they have a criminal history until after they've passed an initial screening, had an interview or been given a conditional job offer, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures," reports USA Today.

"Some local jurisdictions, like New York City, also ban most workplaces from asking about criminal history until they're offered employment."

Then, the third thing that happened, was The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) stepped up to the plate. In January, SHRM launched a program - called Getting Talent Back to Work - designed to help previously incarcerated people get back to work by having businesses pledge to offer qualified candidates the same opportunities as those who do not have criminal backgrounds, USA Today reports.

"The key is to get us past the point where people are rejected immediately and automatically because they have a criminal background,'' said SHRM's CEO Johnny Taylor.

This is huge news because SHRM has the attention of HR departments all over the place. With their backing, over 700 businesses and other entities have joined in on the cause already.

Here's what Taylor said of the pledge, according to USA Today:

"At a time when the national unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, SHRM says that more than 7.8 million jobs need to be filled by 2020. With 650,000 people being released from jail and prison every year, the time is ripe for employers to be more open to those with a criminal history, Taylor says."

You can read all about SHRM's initiative - complete with stats and insights - here.

While there are other independent organizations that have been fighting for the rights of ex-incarcerated employees for a while now, these three events that happened roughly around January 2019 have given the movement a gigantic boost in the right direction.

The Bias Against Incarcerated Workers: An HR Issue

Now that you have firm understanding of what's going on, it's important to address concerns that businesses have had forever about hiring workers who were previously incarcerated.

One of the biggest issues people will immediately bring up about the formerly incarcerated is the fact that many of them - two-thirds - will be arrested again in the next three years. So, why would a company hire someone who hasn't changed their ways?

These arguments never go a step further to the real core of the matter: why are is the recidivism rate so high in the first place? This is obviously a question that requires thorough examination, much more than what we can dig through here, however, it stands to reason that many people with criminal records lack the ability to change their ways because they have no options (or they can't see what their options are).

incarcerated workers

As we know from the current social movements around the topic, formerly incarcerated people are often left with no way to earn a decent living, are provided little to no support, and are often forgotten. This, without a doubt, makes their old ways more attractive. It's basically saying what's left to lose?

However, when formerly incarcerated people do land jobs, studies have shown that recidivism drops when people land jobs that are decent. A job at Slack bettering yourself? Decent. A job in construction building things and having responsibilities? Decent. A job as a dishwasher making about minimum wage or sometimes even less? Not so decent. These low paying, stressful, and often times dull jobs do not reduce recidivism it turns out.

This is why programs are starting to exist that boost what type of jobs formerly incarcerated people can obtain. With a dedicated job, that rate drops. But these individuals need elevated.

So that's one area of bias that is often brought up. The others are more social in nature.

Organizations tend to view previously incarcerated people as dangerous, untrustworthy, and a bunch of other things. These societal issues need to change because the prison system, on paper, is meant to rehabilitate people - not end their lives. Despite that, the system has increasingly been viewed as a holding tank for 'lost causes' that do not deserve their fair shake. This is the wrong way of thinking.

There are no silver bullets that make these bias disappear. However, one good way of leveling the playing field is for employers to simply not ask about previous incarceration. Many times, if these questions are asked and then spread through workplaces, it colors how previously incarcerated people are perceived, hindering them from being their best selves.

After all, these individuals want to move on and start fresh - not be weighed down constantly by their previous wrongdoings. They are already held down quite heavily by missing out years of experience in the workforce, offered worse housing situations, and can be struggling from mental health or addiction issues (both of which are receiving a lot more support now more than ever).

SHRM's Guidelines

SHRM doesn't give a full-blown overview of what different employers need to consider when hiring employees with criminal records. They do, though, say that employers who wish to tap into this pool of talent do so in a way that pretty much aligns with how they hire every other individual.

The perceived risks of hiring a previously incarcerated person are basically just as high as hiring anyone new. Do you really know what the person will be like? Also, just because they haven't been arrested, how can you ensure that anyone you hire hasn't committed a crime in the past?

In summary, do you ever really know who you're hiring? In today's world of culture reigning supreme inside organizations, you never truly know if someone will fit in. That doesn't stop anyone from taking the chance, especially if the individual has the right skills.

incarcerated workers

As rehabilitation programs continue to be at the forefront of our minds, previously incarcerated people will start to meet skill-based requirements more and more (if they aren't already).

"Every organization must decide if and how it will approach hiring workers with criminal records. In many cases, these important conversations have not yet taken place. Employers who choose to pursue this talent source need to understand how to manage both real and perceived risks of this hiring practice and must communicate their policies and practices to their employees," SHRM writes.

"HR professionals have an opportunity to create a dialog among decision-makers within their organization."

In fact, despite some of the bias against them, many managers enjoy hiring workers with previous records. SHRM reports that 80 percent of managers and two-thirds of HR pros value workers with criminal records as high or higher than workers without records. That's a lot!

They go on to say that one of the biggest benefits for employers is that these individuals are ready and willing to work. They want their jobs. They want to be engaged, to thrive, and better themselves inside and outside of the workplace. In other words, they make for good workers, especially in a time when the labor market for traditional workers is at an all time low.

The Takeaways

We've covered an absolute ton of information here. We hope that this article has helped you better understand what's going on inside the world of ex-incarcerated employees.

The real takeaway is that countless organizations - including Congress - are starting to take strong stances on the benefits of hiring and rehabilitating people who were recently incarcerated. Studies have shown that a strong work environment can vastly decrease recidivism rates, which is great news for society.

At the same time, the labor market is squeezing the traditional talent pool, forcing companies to look elsewhere. With millions upon millions of potential workers in the US having criminal records and not getting their fair shake, the economy has created a need that is actually doing some social good.

We will be monitoring how these events all play out and hope that you do, too. In just a few months, the topic went from being a non-profit-based issue to one that has the support of some serious juggernauts in the private sector. It seems, though, that this is only the start

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