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#SHRM19: Giving a second chance to people with criminal records

SHRM is urging employers to hire people with criminal records. Here's a story of one advocate who is trying to make up for his past failings.

7 min read



Alice Johnson, who at SHRM on Monday shared her story of serving a 20-year prison sentence for a nonviolent, first-time offense. (Chris Williams/SHRM)

“There’s no courage without vulnerability.”


Brene Brown returned to that phrase multiple times during her Monday keynote at SHRM’s annual conference and exposition, and while she started by using it in the context of military special forces and NFL players, the maxim applies to all of us, even in mundane circumstances.

Think hiring. It’s a common, routine activity, but one with significant effects. To make great hires (and some mistakes), you have to be vulnerable, knowing that for all the data and research you do, every hire is a chance taken. And every hire is filtered through unintentional bias and specific circumstances.

For all the predictive analytics coming to market, there’s still a looseness to most hiring, a human element that can be short on information, distracted or sabotaged by bias (even as the algorithms can also be biased). Some of this filtering is unavoidable — certain jobs have ironclad requirements or barriers, and many positions sensibly seek out particular skills and experiences in candidates.

But there are other biases that have, for whatever reason, been considered more acceptable. These biases are not even considered as such, but rather as just good business. The bias against hiring people with criminal records is one example.

One in three Americans has a criminal record. To put that into context, that’s roughly the same amount of Americans as have a four-year college degree. Each year, more than half a million people are released from prison, according to a SHRM handout.

These people need jobs, and yet 75% will remain unemployed a year after release. Can we be sure that this outcome is only a result of non-work societal challenges or a lack of effort?

Or, should we consider the employer’s responsibility — and opportunity — in this situation of what SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. calls being “resentenced to joblessness”?

The deep bias against hiring people with records

Against this is a peculiar challenge: That the bias against hiring such people is so ingrained that it affects even people who have been the victim of bias, mistreatment or prejudice. This, and much more, attendees learned Monday from Felix Massey, a SHRM field services director and 23-year HR veteran.

Massey himself admitted that he has discriminated against people with criminal backgrounds. He would “turn over” that resume or work harder to find extra-qualified candidates — “plus-plus candidates” — so he could hire one of them instead. He described what essentially was an extra effort to avoid hiring people with criminal records while guarding against claims of hiring discrimination.

“I’m not sure that’s the element that we want to bring into our workforce,” Massey said he would have said in these situations. This happened probably at least 10 times during his career, Massey said.

All of this misguided effort, he believed then, was to protect the organization. He went on to say:

“Not my proudest day. Not the legacy I want to be remembered for by the HR people that reported to me and that were on my team. And I say it and bare my soul to you because I’m embarrassed about it today. … I had never considered that was a mother, a father, a brother or son, someone — a person. I looked at it as a piece of paper. You heard me truly say, ‘I’m not sure we want to bring that element into the workplace.’”

Massey went on to describe growing up in Arkansas, entering elementary school just as schools were being desegregated — a background in which he understood what it was like to be viewed as a bad “element.” And yet, he told people with criminal records “No,” instead of seeing “a person that’s trying to put their life back together.”

So what’s the biggest roadblock to getting talent back to work, to giving people a second chance? We have to look in the mirror.

“As you know better, do better,” Massey said. “Don’t continue to make that mistake that I made.”

How can we do better?

Now, Massey is part of SHRM’s push for HR and companies to do better, to expand the definition of “qualified candidates” — or, perhaps, to rid that phrase of caveats. “Qualified candidates” is about “talent and people,” Massey said, and that doesn’t automatically preclude people with criminal records (or disabilities, and so on).

Massey talked about SHRM’s efforts to promote the Getting Talent Back to Work initiative, which includes a pledge SHRM’s asking HR to take. That pledge, in part: “I commit to give opportunities to qualified people with a criminal background, deserving of a second chance.”

Knowing that pledge and understanding the biases against people who have been incarcerated also allows us to get clearer about other phrases, such as what we call people with criminal records. Massey urged attendees to rethink their vocabulary. These are “people,” Massey said, not ex-cons or criminals or even the formerly incarcerated. Think of them as people first, he said, because “labels are for packages and boxes.”

This second chance initiative is not a free pass for applicants or a reckless move that puts organizations in undue legal jeopardy, Massey argued. As he said a psychologist told him, HR doesn’t have to own what a person did, but they do have to own whether they say “No” to a second chance. And not everyone is ready for work right after release — this effort is about finding the fullest pool of qualified candidates, including people with records who are ready to work.

HR departments should also keep in mind:

  • Hiring people with criminal records doesn’t mean quotas or special treatment. It’s more about not disqualifying on record alone.
  • There might be concerns from managers, employees, customers. There might be concerns about insurance liabilities and other areas. These can be addressed.
  • There’s no extra cost to committing to the Getting Back to Work pledge.
  • HR managers overwhelmingly have said that hiring people with criminal records is good for business, both in terms of productive employees and overall business gains.
  • There is also a societal benefit to this second chance, as the key cause of recidivism is joblessness. 

Since leaving this emotional session, I would add three things: One, going back to Brene Brown, there’s no courage required to only hire people who look perfect on the surface. On the other hand, there can be vulnerability and courage is saying, “Maybe we haven’t gotten hiring right. Let’s examine ourselves and do better.”

Two, from the SHRM perspective, as Taylor said during a media session Tuesday, hiring from a wider pool is good business, especially in this era of low unemployment. It’s the sensible business thing to do, even as it also brings good into the world.

Third, consider “second chances” in a wider scope. Many of us have hurt or wronged people and gotten a second chance, or a third or fourth chance. We needn’t have committed a crime (or have been caught) to understand the value in redemption, especially when the correct series of steps is taken to own up to mistakes, make things right and move forward as a better person.

For HR professionals — or any C-suite executive, for that matter — looking to improve the business through hiring the best talent, rethinking applicants with criminal backgrounds is not a problem or a burden but an opportunity


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact daSilva at @James_daSilva or by email.

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