Midwestern States Share Innovative Strategies for Hiring People with Criminal Records

By the CSG Justice Center Staff

In 2012, three Michigan-based employers—Butterball Farms, Cascade Engineering, and Grand Rapids Community College—set out to prove to the business community what they had known for years: hiring people with criminal records is an investment worth making.

The trio launched the 30-2-2 Initiative, which aims to work with 30 local organizations that agree to hire two individuals with criminal records and track their progress for two years. To date, the initiative has signed on 19 committed companies that have hired more than 100 employees.

(left to right) Lew Maltby, President, National Workrights Institute; Fred Giles, Senior Vice President, Research Division, CARCO; and Joseph Phelps, Human Resource Investigator, Johns Hopkins Health System

Lew Maltby, President, National Workrights Institute; Fred Giles, Senior Vice President, Research Division, CARCO; and Joseph Phelps, Human Resource Investigator, Johns Hopkins Health System

Along the same lines as the 30-2-2 initiative, the “Ban the Box” movement—which has been taken up by 19 states, more than 100 cities and counties, and numerous nationwide private employers—bans the box on job applications that inquires about an applicant’s criminal record, and delays such inquiries until later in the hiring process. Effectively implementing such policies requires a belief in the potential of the applicant, regardless of his or her past, according to Bonnie Mroczek, Butterball Farms’ vice president of Human Resources.

“[In the applicant’s interview] we talk briefly about what happened in the person’s past and then focus on the positive changes they’ve made since then,” she said. “We need to look above and beyond the conviction and focus on the changes these individuals have made.”

Mroczek, joined forces with approximately 60 business representatives, policymakers, and community service providers from Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska in Chicago on Oct. 26 for the Midwestern Regional Summit on Fair Hiring to share guidance on how to comply with federal policies regarding hiring people with criminal records.

“We are all trying to get to the same outcome: Employers getting the workers that they want, and workers getting the jobs that they need,” said Roberta Meyers, director of the National HIRE Network, which hosted the event. 

Navigating the Policy Landscape

Employers often find the maze of regulations regarding hiring people with criminal records confusing and challenging to navigate.

The EEOC issued guidelines in 2012, which recommend individualized assessments of candidates with criminal records to provide them with the opportunity to share additional information related to their records that might ameliorate hiring concerns. But conducting such assessments can prove challenging for employers, especially when it comes to creating and implementing a time- and cost- effective assessment process.

“The only way an employer is going to change its policy is when it makes sense to do so either from a philosophical standpoint or as a means of mitigating their risk,” said Pamela Devata, a labor and employment partner with Seyfarth Shaw LLP, who was a panelist at the event. “So, we want to be sure to communicate exactly how these laws can mitigate employers’ risk.”

A number of employers have figured out innovative ways to navigate these laws and guidelines. Johns Hopkins Health System—a network of medical clinics, hospitals, and research institutions in Baltimore City—developed an effective way to streamline its assessment process while remaining compliant with the EEOC guidelines by hiring an internal human resources investigator to identify instances when a candidate’s criminal record is relevant to the job.

Other large employers have teamed up with outside firms to handle a number of human resources functions, including conducting criminal record screenings. According to Fred Giles, senior vice president of research at CARCO Group, Inc., a security consulting company, employers should consider three rules of thumb when searching for a qualified and ethical background screening company:

  1. Screening companies should only be using online databases as a supplement to actual courthouse searches, not as a primary source of information.
  2. Screeners should confirm the status of their detailed records with local courts.
  3. Multiple identifiers should be used to report on candidates—such as the candidate’s entire name, his or her address information, and birth date—to minimize the chance of reporting false information.

Partnering for Impact

While these practices may work for a large organization like Johns Hopkins Health System, small businesses do not have access to the same type of infrastructure. One way small businesses can address the lack of resources is by embracing partnerships.

The partnership between Growing Home Inc.—a Chicago-based provider of farm-based training for people with employment barriers—and Local Foods—a Chicago-based market and eatery—provides individuals returning to their communities from incarceration with the opportunity to learn skills required to find work in the agricultural industry while supporting a local business.

“What makes our partnership work is the support we provide both prior to being hired and after being hired,” said Brad Hirn, workforce development manager at Growing Home Inc. “We know where our folks come from, what their talents are, and where they want to go in life. By remaining a constant factor in their lives, we are better prepared to troubleshoot if instances do come up, which helps us retain our relationships in the long run.”

Partnerships like this exist all over the country, and more and more connections are being forged every day. In order to sustain successful partnerships, though, honest communication and outreach among business leaders is essential, according to Cleve Dixon, sector manager of workforce development at Safer Foundation—a nonprofit that provides support services to individuals with criminal records.

“Many times, we approach business owners who are reluctant to hire the returning population with a ‘try it before you buy it’ option, knowing full well that people who have been in jail often become the hardest workers on the job because they know how terrible conditions are behind bars and understand that gainful employment is the best way to stay out of trouble,” Dixon said.

Businesses interested in learning more about partnership opportunities can start by:

  • Learning more about workforce programs in your community and what they provide (click here for a list of programs that receive funding through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act grant program); or
  • Contacting your local workforce investment board for guidance.

The October event, hosted by the Legal Action Center’s National HIRE Network, with support from the National Reentry Resource Center—a project of The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance—was inspired by “State Pathways to Prosperity,” an initiative supported by the CSG Justice Center’s Reentry and Employment project.