Jobs and Skills

Why businesses committed to diversity should embrace fair chance hiring

Some of the US's biggest and most innovative companies have started to implement fair chance hiring practices as part of their DEI strategies.

Some of the US's biggest and most innovative companies have started to implement fair chance hiring practices as part of their DEI strategies. Image: Unsplash/Clay Banks

Ken Oliver
Vice President, Checkr.org, Executive Director, The Checkr Foundation
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Jobs and Skills

  • Diversity has been repeatedly proven to be good for business and companies that embrace diversity and inclusivity often outperforming competitors.
  • However, 80 million Americans – about a third of US adults – with an arrest or conviction record face being discriminated against during the hiring process.
  • Here's why some of the US's most innovative firms are implementing fair chance hiring practices and setting an example for others to follow.

Emboldened by the US Supreme Court’s decision that colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission, conservative activists are now taking aim at corporate America in a misguided attempt to dismantle decades of incremental progress gained by African-Americans and other underrepresented communities.

Despite an increasingly diverse workforce and overwhelming evidence that this diversity has time and time again proven to be good for business, a number of legal salvos have been fired challenging diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the workplace.

Hopefully, business leaders know better. The data suggests that they should, revealing that companies that embrace diversity and inclusivity often outperform competitors and see demonstrable improvements in innovation, problem solving, and profitability.

Most companies putting more emphasis on diversity than ever

Perhaps this explains why, despite some of the misguided legal threats to the contrary, a recent survey of HR leaders found that a majority of companies are placing even higher importance on DEI this year than in previous ones.

That doesn’t mean the challenge of building a more diverse and inclusive future of work isn’t still a protracted struggle. The biggest area in need of transformation is the way we traditionally value and source talent.

Most business leaders are still missing the mark on at least one in three working-age Americans – 80 million people – who have an arrest or conviction record. This is the single biggest demographic eligible to enter the workforce, but this often hyper-marginalized population is rarely discussed or included in current DEI strategies.

In fact, hiring discrimination against talent with records is systemic and widespread, resulting in unemployment that often reaches eight to 10 times that of the national average.

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This presents an interesting question: How can companies have a legitimate DEI commitment if they practice wholesale exclusion of the 80 million workers that have an arrest or conviction record?

When employers exclude talent with records they are missing out on large swaths of people who have unique skills, experiences and perspectives that can strengthen their businesses.

But learning about and implementing hiring practices that include talent with arrest or conviction records does not have to be steeped in fear of the unknown. Some of the US's biggest and most innovative companies have started to implement fair chance hiring practices as part of their DEI strategies.

Their experiences showcase four easy, forward-thinking steps that other companies can replicate:

1. Shift the narrative about talent pools that may have an arrest or conviction record

Rather than continuing to buy into the outdated stigma surrounding people with arrest or conviction histories, many companies have begun to think about this untapped talent pool through an asset-based lens that focuses on the value proposition for their organization.

For example, a number of studies have shown that talent with records have higher retention rates than employees without arrest or conviction records. And the customer base of most companies includes thousands of people who have similar arrest or conviction histories — meaning these workers can contribute important perspectives about a huge customer market.

In addition to educating themselves and their staff about the ways talent with records can contribute to their business success, they also report the value add of being able to unlearn prevailing and biased narratives.

Regular training sessions for employees help dispel myths about people with arrest or conviction histories, educate them about the system of mass incarceration in this country, and give them tools to overcome unconscious biases.

Most businesses don’t have the tools needed to do this narrative work themselves and should explore partnerships with community organizations – ideally those working with and/or headed by justice-impacted individuals.

Collaboration with these organizations can not only reshape perspectives, but also potentially connect you to a rich talent pool of justice-impacted job seekers looking for opportunities.

2. Adopt fair chance hiring policies to minimize bias

Fair chance hiring policies significantly reduce bias and discrimination in the ways companies recruit and hire workers.

Some are taking simple steps like avoiding stigmatizing language in their job descriptions (e.g., “felon” or “inmate”) and/or including language that encourages applications from individuals with arrest or conviction histories (e.g., stating a commitment to “fair chance” or “second chance” hiring).

Increasingly, these employers – including the US’s largest employer, the federal government – are also adopting “ban the box” policies that entirely remove questions about arrest or conviction histories from job applications.

Background checks are another area in need of major revision. A 2021 industry survey found that 94% of US employers conduct record checks on potential hires. The way most companies perceive background checks introduces substantial and unnecessary bias toward those individuals who have a mark on their record, often leading hiring managers to misread and make assumptions about an applicant’s future behaviour in the workplace.

If a background check is necessary due to the nature of the job – for example, in certain financial positions – the best practice is to conduct it after a conditional offer of employment has been made, so that applicants are evaluated on their skills and experiences first without introducing unconscious bias.

If a background check uncovers a previous arrest or conviction, consider the nature and gravity of the offence and how much time has passed. By replacing the blunt instrument of background checks with policies that consider the whole person, we can lower barriers for justice-impacted workers.

3. Create an environment of belonging

Some talent with records have been un- or under-employed for years and may need support integrating back into the workplace. To that end, companies have created mentorship programmes for talent with records to learn from more seasoned professionals or formed employee resource groups where they can share experiences with their peers.

Apprenticeship programmes have been another great way to provide a supportive space for fair chance hires to learn and grow. For instance, Checkr.org recently launched a 12-month apprenticeship programme to offer job experience and skills development to justice-impacted individuals, preparing them for future employment in the highly competitive tech industry.

Each apprentice has a dedicated mentor who offers one-on-one support, as well as cohort learning opportunities with fellow justice-impacted apprentices.

Formal support structures like mentorship or apprentice programmes have been shown to foster a sense of belonging for justice-impacted workers. That sense of belonging – which is too often overlooked in DEI frameworks – enables everyone to feel like a valued part of your team, which in turn can improve job performance and reduce turnover.

4. Model and champion fair chance hiring for others

The number of US working-age adults with arrest or conviction records is projected to reach 100 million by 2030 — meaning that their share of the workforce is only set to grow. Every business has a part to play in desegregating opportunity for talent with records and other marginalized groups, not just in their own workplace, but beyond.

Many business leaders that have committed to fair chance practices have become vocal about why and how they are integrating justice-impacted workers into their DEI commitments, and are championing state- and federal-level policies that encourage fair chance inclusivity.

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Others are partnering with organizations like Checkr that offer education and training for free to companies wanting to learn how they can integrate fair chance hiring into their talent recruitment and DEI practices.

As the baseless attacks on DEI practices continue, it’s more important than ever that business leaders stand up for diversity in all its forms.

That means recognizing the unique attributes and contributions of 80 million justice-impacted individuals who have been shut out of the workforce for too long. It’s time to move past outdated practices and harmful biases, and build a fairer future of work where inclusion is for everyone.

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