Employer Toolkit

Clearly define the job

One of the keys to success when working with formerly incarcerated people is to set clear expectations. Likely the role a company makes available to fair opportunity individuals already exists, but it is worth revisiting the job description to ensure it precisely spells out the purpose of the role, the hard and soft skills required, and what supports and benefits the employer provides (including on-site training if available). Gina Delahunt (DKBF) at Dave’s Killer Bread in Portland, Oregon stresses the importance of also being transparent about the workplace culture; if it’s “sink or swim,” she encourages employers to be honest so employees can make an informed decision about whether that environment is conducive to their success.

In keeping with other diversity and inclusion efforts, the job description should be skills-based. In other words, rather than requiring academic degrees or other traditional markers of experience which might exclude qualified candidates with nontraditional backgrounds, the description should emphasize the attributes and skills that are necessary to be successful in the role. For example, Price at HCT is less interested in restaurant experience than finding someone “eager, flexible, and positive [who] will engage well with guests… skills you can’t teach.”

Employers should also give serious consideration to how the employee will be classified. Checkr, a Bay Area technology company, first began to recruit fair opportunity talent into temporary-to-permanent contract roles. The company quickly learned that the temporary nature of the job put so much pressure on the individuals to perform that it was ultimately detrimental to their performance. Checkr now hires people directly into full-time positions. However, Social Imprints, a Bay Area promotional products company, and Hot Chicken Takeover (HCT) both hire people into entry level roles with a probationary period and neither has found that the probationary period limits worker success. HCT has a three phase training period that unfolds over ninety days; each phase requires the employees to demonstrate more responsibility and leadership, and compensation adjusts accordingly. Similarly, Social Imprints hires people into contract roles for three months of training before they offer full-time employment.

Match employee job readiness with employer resources

A person with a criminal history may have the aptitude and hard skills an employer seeks the day they release from prison, but that same person may have challenges related to reentering society that have the potential to greatly influence their job performance. “Applicants must not only be prepared for work, but for being a working adult – they must have a bank account to deposit paychecks, a support system and a treatment plan,” describes Basette Smith at Nehemiah Manufacturing Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio. And what Smith describes is only a fraction of the gaps formerly incarcerated individuals may need to fill to be a “working adult.”

Employers should consult with Defy to increase their understanding of the full range of needs formerly incarcerated individuals will have upon release from prison. In general, the combination of the individual’s time since release and their civilian work experience provide a rough guide for the extent to which they will require reentry support as they enter the workforce:

  • the longer the time since leaving incarceration = less support
  • the more civilian work experience (before or after incarceration) = less support

However, it is important to bear in mind that these are guidelines, not rules – each individual will have their own reentry journey. Support networks, employment, and housing, among other factors, can significantly impact the speed at which individuals adjust. Social Imprint’s Co-Founder Kevin McCracken has found that a “huge support network, programming inside and the aptitude and readiness to work” can outweigh time since release. Employers should lean on Defy to make this determination on a case-by-case basis.

In advance of evaluating individual applicants, the employer must make a realistic assessment of the extent to which they are able to offer reentry support. Most employers will not have the expertise or resources to do so in-house so they will benefit from partnering with Defy and other CBOs who are able to provide reentry services. But not all companies have the time to form these relationships. For this reason, Richard Bronson, CEO of staffing agency 70 Million Jobs, has found that most employers with national reach avoid hiring people who have recently been released from prison or jail not because they require previous civilian work experience, but because their demand for talent exceeds the time they have available to partner with CBOs. Similarly, Social Imprints, lacking strong relationships with CBO partners, prefers 1-2 years of work experience after release for their sales roles so that the individuals “have time to adjust,” according to McCracken.

Conversely, interview subjects Checkr, Liberty Oilfield Services, MOD Pizza, and HCT, actively hire people straight out of prison into entry level positions, which vary from tech customer service (Checkr) to equipment operators (Liberty Oil) to dishwashing (HCT). These companies all dedicate resources to partnering with CBO partners that can identify and support their fair opportunity talent.

Identify recruiting channels

The combination of the employee’s post-release experience and the employer’s demand for talent will determine how companies source candidates. Employers who have CBO partners to support their fair opportunity employees reentering society will typically lean on those partners to recruit talent. Price at HCT seeks “strong, trusting relationships” with organizations that have “boots on the ground” with formerly incarcerated individuals. She establishes two-way communication with HCT’s partners, inviting referrals and providing feedback in return on how candidates present, and why HCT decides to hire or not hire. HCT has over 50 partners in Cleveland so that they have a large referral pool when positions open.

However, even with 50 partners, HCT can only recruit hundreds of qualified candidates per year. National employers who require thousands of job applicants will be unlikely to reach their targets. Instead, they will use standard recruiting channels like staffing agencies or online jobs boards, like Indeed.com. They may also take advantage of sourcing channels that cater to employers seeking people with criminal histories, like 70 Million Jobs, and others with barriers to employment, like the national talent recruitment nonprofit LeadersUp (neither provides reentry services). MOD Pizza, a national fast service restaurant chain with high demand for talent, sources candidates through CBOs, but also uses 70 Million Jobs’ online job board and attends state-sponsored in-prison job fairs, among other sources. Employers who hire individuals that require less reentry support may also use these sourcing channels.

Defy is an excellent source of candidates who have recently released from prison because the organization continues to provide programming to its in-prison graduates immediately upon release. However, if the employer needs 10, 15, 20 or more employees each quarter, Defy may not be able to provide enough candidates and the employer will benefit from partnerships with additional organizations to avoid a shortage of candidates.

Standardize interviews, use references

Interviewing people with criminal histories is in many ways no different than hiring someone without a record. Pam Brady (DKBF), Human Resources Manager at Portland Bottling Company, is emphatic: the “assessment [of a person with a criminal history] should be no different.” All interview subjects made clear they are always looking for the strongest candidates; being formerly incarcerated does not compensate for skills. According to Mary Douglas, Director of Community Engagement at MOD Pizza, the company “looks to hire the right person for the job focusing on their grit, growth, generosity and gratitude – not because they’re formerly incarcerated.”

As with all other applicants, the focus should be on matching the individual’s aptitude and skills with the job requirements, and should follow best diversity and inclusion hiring practices. Corbett Gordon, Senior Counsel at Tonkon Torp LLP, insists: “inconsistency gets you in trouble.” She recommends that employers establish a set of questions directly related to the job and ask those same questions of each applicant. “It’s not about clicking with people,” Gordon says; when we look to hire people like us “we end up replicating the same categories of people in a workplace. Not necessarily hiring the best person but the person we feel most comfortable with.” Checkr has made a strong commitment to using this interviewing technique for all candidates and believes it has helped them avoid bias and hire the most qualified candidates.

Using standard questions should yield an understanding of a candidate’s aptitude and hard skills. However, in order to gauge whether they are prepared to be a “working adult,” more research may be in order. At Nehemiah, where more than 80% of the workforce is formerly incarcerated, all applicants are asked to sign a release that allows them to speak with their CBO partners to verify the support networks they have in place. Companies that don’t have these partnerships are advised to lean on personal and professional references. The company spotlight on Formr (Appendix E) underscores how important references can be for employers.

Create a space for candidate’s to feel comfortable sharing their conviction history (if they choose to)

Interviews with fair opportunity applicants will diverge from others when the time comes to discuss their criminal past. Employers who do not currently run background checks rely entirely on the candidate’s candor. The timing is likely to be influenced by the sourcing of the candidate and the culture of the employer. For example, if the candidate is referred by Defy, the candidate is likely to feel more comfortable discussing their criminal history because the employer has sought out a candidate with a criminal history; likewise, an applicant is likely to feel more comfortable with an employer like Hot Chicken Takeover, where the majority of their workforce has a criminal history. Conversely, if a candidate is sourced on Indeed.com and the employer is not known to be fair opportunity-friendly, they might be more reluctant to address their past proactively and might even forgo the opportunity altogether.

The timing of disclosure to employers who run background checks is still at the discretion of the candidate in states like Colorado that have “banned the box,” but once the background check is complete, the employer will have the ability to start the conversation themselves.xxi Audrey Barrios, Marcom Manager at Liberty Oilfield Services, hopes that candidates will share their past at their own volition before the background check is run, but “understands [when] people don’t because they’ve been burned in the past.” If they have not already, Barrios hopes that when she notifies them of her intent to run a background check, they will seize that opportunity to share their history.

Brittney Price at HCT hopes that candidates take the opportunity to discuss their past before being prompted and sees this as a “test for honesty… the candidate’s first opportunity to be vulnerable, to tell the [employer] what they’re going to find.” In these discussions, employers I interviewed hope to hear the fair opportunity candidate take accountability for their mistakes and demonstrate a commitment to a new way of life. Whether a candidate shares details of the crime is typically not important to employers, who will get details from the background check.

Conduct individualized assessment panels

Once a background check is run, employers must decide how to handle the information they receive. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) formalized its guidance for handling background check reports in the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC’s guidance outlines what has become known as the “Nature-Time-Nature” test for evaluating compliance. Challenging for employers, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation (Appendix B).

All of the companies I interviewed that routinely hire people with criminal histories have identified the nature of the crimes and the time since offense that they are willing to accept. Yet, most have moved to conducting individualized assessments for all individuals with a criminal history, recognizing there may be extenuating circumstances that make cases that fall outside the guidelines worth considering.

The composition of the individualized assessment panels varies from company to company:

  • At The Curtis Hotel, a human resources representative and the hotel General Manager conduct the assessments.
  • Liberty Oil recently adopted individualized assessments that include the Head of Human Resources, the Senior Human Resources Manager, the District Manager, and Liberty’s Vice President of Operations in the discussion. Tracee Quinnell says of Liberty’s new process: “the commitment to do a case-by-case assessment has been huge. It is more time consuming, but much more fair to the applicant.”
  • Checkr’s panels include their fair opportunity program manager, a representative from human resources, and individuals from different teams across the organization. Each panel begins by sharing their own biases against people with criminal histories; once their biases are identified, they become easier to work with during the assessment rather than having them become hidden obstacles to an objective review. Megan Goddard of Checkr notes that the process has allowed the company to hire exceptional people it might have initially turned away.

Companies’ assessments typically include a detailed review of the information returned on the background check, police reports, and additional information solicited from the candidate including evidence of rehabilitation (in-prison programming, academic achievements, etc.) and personal references. Taking all of this information together, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends a 6-point risk analysis in their Getting Talent Back to Work Toolkit:

  • Does the conviction pose a job-related risk?
  • How serious is the prior offense? (SHRM recommends going to the charge sheet and asking a professional – parole officer, attorney, applicant – about the specific offenses.)
  • How many prior convictions does the applicant have?
  • How serious is the potential harm?
  • Has the applicant been referred by an established reentry organization?
  • Has the applicant changed or been reformed?

Panelists typically seek to reach an agreement on hiring someone whose conviction falls outside the company’s guidelines at the conclusion of their deliberations.

Don’t forget onboarding

Gina Shilhanek (DKBF), Human Resources Manager at the Oregon Food Bank, stresses the importance of a formal onboarding process to educate new employees about the company’s culture. She believes it is important to help individuals understand the interconnectedness of departments and become clear on what their part is in the larger organization. While onboarding typically benefits all employees, it is particularly important for people with criminal histories who may have limited to no experience in private companies.

Provide or outsource reentry support

To be successful beyond the onboarding period, it is critical that companies not lose sight of the fact that their fair opportunity employees, especially those who have recently released from prison, are simultaneously working to rebuild their lives. Unless the employer strictly hires people who have extensive work experience since release, CBO partners remain as important as ever in providing reentry support services post-hire. Ed Blair has found that “the first 60-90 days of employment are often the most challenging” for new fair opportunity employees at The Curtis Hotel and stays in contact with his CBO partners to ensure they are providing necessary support. Depending on the employee, services may include some combination of soft skills, digital literacy, financial literacy, individual coaching, mental health services and/or case management.

Companies with a significant number of fair opportunity employees may invest in internal support services. The company spotlight on Hot Chicken Takeover showcases the in-house programs they have developed to support their fair opportunity employees (Appendix D). While not all companies I interviewed with a large percentage of fair opportunity employees provide internal support currently, the trend is moving in that direction. MOD Pizza has a longstanding contract with an employee assistance program, Unuum, that provides certain mental health and wellbeing services, but the company is actively considering expanding their in-house capacity to serve the specific needs of their employees. Likewise, to date Social Imprints has referred workers to external support services, but the company is considering a significant expansion of job training and social service support in-house because they have not found a partner in the community that provides adequate training for the job requirements at Social Imprints. Companies that employ fewer fair opportunity individuals have the opportunity to learn about their employees’ needs by becoming aware of these programs.

The importance of reentry support cannot be understated. An employee who lacks stability outside of work is all but certain to struggle with performance on the job.

Consider mentorship

Mentorship is a recognized strategy for increasing inclusivity in the workplace for minority populations. Fair opportunity employers have used it successfully to help retain and advance formerly incarcerated individuals. At Dave’s Killer Bread, all new employees are assigned mentors, intended to provide a safe space for new employees to ask questions and help them feel like a part of the team. Checkr has a near-peer mentorship program that matches every new employee with another employee who is also formerly incarcerated and has successfully transitioned to the workplace.

Acknowledge hiring is a mix of art and science

Experienced fair opportunity employers share a belief that hiring people with criminal histories is a mix of art and science: Patrice Stankavich (DKBF), Vice President of Human Resources at Harry’s Fine Foods in Portland, describes the process as a “balance between what I know and what I feel… they have to play in the same sandbox.” Brittney Price at HCT performs a similar balancing act, relying on her gut during interviews and on partner referrals to make her final decision. Most importantly, George Colón of CEO implores employers to “assess [fair opportunity candidates] for today, not a mistake in the past.”