Memphis Business Leaders Discuss Overcoming Challenges with Employing Individuals with Criminal Records

Screenshot 2015-02-18 11.16.42MEMPHIS, TN—A group of influential local business leaders joined state and local policymakers in Memphis last month to discuss opportunities and challenges associated with connecting individuals with criminal records to employment.

The roundtable—organized by the National Reentry Resource Center, a project of the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, and Memphis Tomorrow—featured executives from Memphis-based companies, such as City Gear and Barnhart Crane and Rigging, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr., and other state and local leaders, sharing experiences, strategies and challenges related to hiring people with criminal records.

Tennessee State Senator Mark Norris“Ask any person in prison to name the most important thing they need to succeed in the community upon their release. The response will almost always be the same: ‘I need a job,’” said Sen. Norris (left), who also chaired CSG in 2014. “The participation we’re seeing from these businesses tells us that, under the right circumstances, they are willing to hire someone with a non-violent criminal record, provided that person has the skills to succeed in the job.”

There are more than 9,000 people currently on probation or parole in Memphis and thousands more have criminal records, according to a representative from the Tennessee Department of Correction.  Research shows that employment can play an important factor in their success when returning home from incarceration.

Memphis business leaders emphasized the importance of making individual assessments when hiring individuals with criminal records. Many shared that they are delaying questions about arrest records from job applications and are asking about criminal records later in the process. Some also do not consider criminal records in hiring decisions after someone has remained crime free for a significant length of time.

These practices are in line with the EEOC guidelines on the consideration of criminal records in hiring decisions, as well as the Memphis City Council’s 2010 “Ban the Box” ordinance, which removes questions about criminal records from job applications and delays the use of background checks until later in the process.

Scott Nikaido, the corporate compliance manager at the local Barnhart Crane and Rigging, discussed a successful partnership his company has maintained with Economic Opportunities, a faith-based program operated under the Memphis Leadership Foundation. The partnership allowed Barnhart to become an on-the-job-training site for people with criminal records.

“We hired five long-term employees that graduated from the program who are still with us and continue to be outstanding employees after seven years,” Nikaido said.

Despite some successes, significant obstacles still remain. Business leaders expressed some hiring concerns, including liability and safety risks. They also were interested in how they could better assess individuals’ readiness for work. Given the high cost of onboarding and training, it is important that businesses invest in employees that will be successful. Recognizing this need, the state provides Certificates of Employability to individuals that have demonstrated their readiness for work.

Panelists agreed that partnering with local programs to ensure individuals have the necessary job readiness skills is important. Two employers—ML Group, a logistics management firm, and healthcare provider Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcareave partnered with the city’s local Second Chance program to hire individuals with criminal records. The two employers said that the additional support from the community program helps ease their concerns about hiring. Mike Longo of ML Group also noted that, contrary to popular belief, the turnover rate among individuals hired through the program was comparable to the general population.

Other panelists highlighted their work to improve employment outcomes for people with criminal records. The Tennessee Department of Corrections and Shelby County Division of Corrections, for example, have both made significant investments in employment programming within prisons and the community with the goal of increasing public safety. The Workforce Development Network has also taken steps to connect this population with work, including hiring a dedicated career services coach who works specifically with people with criminal records.

These efforts around employment and reentry are supported by the CSG Justice Center’s Reentry and Employment project, and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. To learn more how you can host similar conversations in your jurisdiction, click here, or contact Stephanie Akhter for more information. Click here to subscribe to “Reentry and Employment” and receive updates on the project.