Can Hiring Ex-Offenders Make a Business More Profitable?

The Guardian

By Autumn Spanne

Jimmy Erickson went to prison for a violent felony when he was 25. When he was released, at 46, he felt reformed and determined to build a new life. A month and a half later, he got a job with Butterball Farms, a Michigan company with a track record of hiring former prisoners.

Erickson has now been with Butterball for seven years and has received several promotions. He married and bought a home. At first, Erickson says, he battled against a constant anxiety that everyone knew about his criminal history and judged him for it. So he concentrated on proving himself from the moment he was hired.

“At first I was apprehensive about trying to form relationships with people, but I had the mindset that this was my opportunity,” he says. “I’d work my shift and whenever they needed someone to stay over, I volunteered. Anything they asked me to do, I did it.”

Butterball represents a growing number of companies hiring former inmates. Major corporations like Target, Home Depot, Walmart and Koch Industries have joined more than 100 cities and 19 states in passing “ban the box” legislation to prohibit employers from requiring job applicants to check a box indicating whether they have a criminal record. Checking that box often leads to automatic exclusion from consideration without the opportunity to explain the nature of the crime.

Instead, more companies wait until later in the interview process to ask about criminal history, a change aimed at giving those with a record a fair chance to compete for jobs. In November, the Obama administration followed suit, taking executive action to “ban the box” in federal hiring. And, just last week, a bipartisan congressional task force on prison reform released a report calling for stronger employment and other programs to help ex-offenders reenter society.

Most people coming out of the prison system don’t have the smooth transition to employment that Erickson had. A 2009 study found that up to 75% of ex-offenders were unemployed as long as a year after release. Employer surveys show that almost 90% of large companies do employee background checks, and most are not willing to hire someone with a criminal record.

“Six or seven years ago, employers looked at you like maybe you had a screw loose when you talked about hiring ex-offenders,” said Joyce White Vance, US attorney for the Northern District in Alabama who has worked with the Birmingham Business Alliance to encourage hiring of ex-offenders. “Now it’s much more part of the mainstream conversation.”

Law enforcement officials, civil rights organizations and business leaders say giving former inmates a better shot at employment is good for business and society. More than 65 million people in the US have a criminal record, from low-level property crimes to violent felonies. More than 600,000 are released from prison every year. Excluding such a large group of people from the employment pool, they say, is impractical and bad for the economy, costing tens of billions of dollars annually.

Some businesses simply see it as the right thing to do, realizing that those who have criminal records face an uphill battle to find jobs and frequently end up back in the legal system partly because they couldn’t find work to support themselves. In fact, cutting the skyrocketing cost of running prisons, which house nearly 2.4 million inmates nationwide, has been a major incentive for finding employment for former prisoners, Vance says.

Employers are finding that by being more inclusive, they are benefiting from employees like Erickson who are determined to excel.

“We’ve found that just by us giving that opportunity, a lot of people so appreciate it that what we get back as a company in return is much greater than what we ever gave in the beginning,” says Bonnie Mrozcek, chief talent officer for Butterball Farms.

Butterball is a leader in the effort to get more so-called returning citizens into stable employment. But its original motive wasn’t strictly altruistic, says Mroczek – 20 years ago, Butterball was having trouble filling positions and wanted to expand the applicant pool. The company discovered ex-offenders were great workers with lower turnover rates on average than other employees.

The company began to champion for hiring former inmates but found strong resistance from the business community. So in 2012, Butterball, based in Grand Rapids, started the 30-2-2 initiative, which set out to get 30 employers in its hometown to hire a minimum of two former inmates and track their job performance for two years, hoping to show other businesses that ex-offenders could be desirable, competitive applicants.

These days, companies in the initiative are also working with job placement services and staffing agencies to find suitable job candidates. Now the 30-2-2 program is being adopted in New Orleans.

Matching businesses with potential employees remains a significant challenge overall. Agencies that offer skill training to former prisoners historically lack the staff to build a strong relationship with local businesses and place job seekers. But that’s changing with more funding from the US Department of Labor to fund those liaisons, says Stephanie Akhter, the re-entry and employment project manager at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

A patchwork of state and federal regulations that are intended to ensure public safety have also created a major barrier for ex-offenders to find work. Those rules typically impose restrictions on voting, access to housing, public benefits and jobs, but they sometimes create unintended consequences. A classic example is that many states prevent formerly incarcerated people from working as barbers and stylists, even though these are common job training programs in prisons. A national study by the American Bar Association identified a staggering 38,000 state and federal statutes that impose such consequences on people convicted of crimes, the majority pertaining to employment.

Many businesses remain wary about hiring people with a criminal past because they worry that ex-offenders pose safety risks, says Madeline Neighly, a senior policy advisor for corrections and reentry at CSG Justice Center. Some businesses also cite concerns about getting sued by other employees for failing to conduct a good background check if the former inmates they hired turned out to be problem workers. But, according to Neighly, there is little evidence that this represents a significant risk, and some states now have regulations to shield employers from negligent hiring claims.

“It’s natural for people to have a stigma, but once you expose hiring managers or executives to real people, it diffuses the stigma,” says David Rattray, executive vice president for education and workforce development at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which is part of a pilot program, Back on Track LA, that helps ex-offenders get jobs and education. The chamber hired two former inmates and hosted a summit last fall to line up support for the program. It also takes members on tour of the local jail to dispel stereotypes.

“It’s not a simple ‘just add water’ solution,” Rattray says. “But if we do it at the LA Chamber, I think we will get more and more employers learning from other employers and us, and choosing this option.”