Time to tap 70 million forgotten workers

Prisoners work at computers following a graduation ceremony from a computer coding program at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California April 20, 2015. The program, called Code.7370, was administered by Silicon Valley's technology business community, as prisoners learned to stimulate live-coding in an offline computer lab. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith - GF10000066829

Shelley Winner had an extraordinary and courageous story to tell about herself in her five minutes of speaking at DisruptHR San Francisco Bay Area last May 31.

Shelley is a lovely, tall, slender, young, white woman who had the air of confidence and invincibility I find among many young women in Silicon Valley, but with one major exception.

Shelley told us that she had been incarcerated for four years selling drugs.  In jail, she began a long journey of reform and redemption. Shelley in prison sought to break her drug habit, reform herself, control her impulses, learn new tools for dealing with anger and stress. Shelley succeeded. She learned how to write a resume and interview for a job. Shelley credits her faith, her mother, and the help from many wonderful people and organizations along the way, including Team and Adult Challenge, Defy Ventures, and Code Tenderloin.

Shelley’s faith and persistence led her to secure a sales job for a multinational high-tech firm. After two months on the job, Shelley was voted the MVP. After six months she was promoted. At DisruptHR, Shelley publicly thanked the company for giving her a second chance at life and asked her two managers to stand so she could thank them and introduce them to the audience.

The theme of hiring the formerly incarcerate continued. Bernadette Jones, the head of Visionova, an HR Consulting firm in the Bay Area started her presentation with a slide that said, “One-third of working adults have a criminal record.” She implored the crowd of HR leaders and technologists to give the formerly incarcerated a second chance.

One-third. Astounding. It made me ask the question, with more open jobs in the US than unemployed, is it time to more seriously consider formerly incarcerated adults for our entry-level job openings?

A few weeks after DisruptHR, I met Bernadette Jones in her office in Emeryville, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. “How did you get an interest in hiring the formerly incarcerated?” I asked.

Her story started in the late 1990s when she and her husband won a contract with Pacific Bell. They had to hire 15 field technicians almost overnight during a time of low unemployment.

Three of the people they hired were formerly incarcerated. Two of them lasted about one year as field technicians. However, the third one worked for them for five years. “He rose up to be a lead field tech and interacted with our customers,” Bernadette said. “He was arrested at age 19 for a public disturbance issue. When the police arrived, he resisted arrest and was arrested and incarcerated for 12 years.”

Bernadette explained that his performance at first wasn’t very good. “We could tell that he lacked basic life skills required for teamwork,” she remembers. He wasn’t comfortable asking for help and they had to give him one-on-one training for those types of skills. But it worked. “Ever since then, I have been an advocate of hiring the formerly incarcerated,” Bernadette says.

I began to research the question further.

Citing the “around 70 million” Americans that have a criminal record, President Barack Obama in November of 2015 asked business and educational institutions to take the Fair Chance Pledge. According to President Obama, “Millions of Americans [who have criminal records] have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job. That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy. It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed. So, we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”

This issue is bi-partisan. In April 2018, the Administration of President Donald J. Trump announced its commitment to reducing recidivism and breaking the cycle of crime to make American communities safer.  As part of that effort, the U.S. Department of Labor announced an $82.5 million investment to help Americans exit incarceration and integrate into the workforce.

A total of 30 states have adopted Fair Chance Policies at least for public sector hiring. Over 70% of the U.S. population now lives in one of those 30 states, or the more than 150 cities and counties that have banned the box.[i]

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, the number of Americans with a criminal history has risen sharply over the past three decades. Today, nearly one-third of the adult working-age population has a criminal record. As Bernadette Jones said, that is 70 million adults. In fact, so many Americans have a criminal record that counting them all is nearly impossible.

The Brennan Center puts 70 million adult working-age people in perspective[ii]:

  • America now houses roughly the same number of people with criminal records as it does four-year college graduates.
  • Nearly half of black males and almost 40 percent of white males are arrested by the age 23.
  • If all arrested Americans were a nation, they would be the world’s 18th largest. Larger than Canada. Larger than France. More than three times the size of Australia.
  • The number of Americans with criminal records today is larger than the entire U.S. population in 1900.
  • Holding hands, Americans with arrest records could circle the earth three times.

These are alarming numbers. The US has as many people with criminal records as it does four-year college graduates! US arrested adults would constitute the 18th largest nation, larger than France.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also published a definitive 2017 report on hiring the formerly incarcerated. It is called, Back to Business: How hiring formerly incarcerated job seekers benefits your company.[iii]

Their report begins with an eye-popping factual observation. More than 640,000 people are released from prisons each year. However, because of the stigma associated with a criminal record, nearly 75% of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed a year after release.

Research has found that a lack of stable employment increases the likelihood that an individual will return to jail or prison, and joblessness is the single most important predictor of recidivism.

For blacks, the adverse effect of a criminal record on getting a job interview is 40% greater than for whites with similar histories.

The consequences of unemployment for this population can be ruinous. At the national level, economists estimate that the gross national product is reduced between $78 and $87 billion dollars because of excluding formerly incarcerated job seekers from the workforce.  The ACLU reports that corporations like Total Wine and More, Starbucks, Home Depot, American Airlines, Kock Industries, and Under Armour have begun hiring people with criminal records. Smaller companies are also tapping into this pool of job seekers, including Butterball Farms, Dave’s Killer Bread and Haley House Bakery.

Economists confirm that hiring people with criminal records is smart business. Retention rates are higher, turnover is lower, and employees with criminal records are more loyal. At Total Wine & More, human resources managers found that annual turnover was on average 12.2 percent lower for employees with criminal records.  Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) saw a similar outcome: by adopting a program to recruit employees with criminal histories, it reduced turnover from 25 percent to just 11 percent.

The website 70millionjobs.com provides advice and a job board for companies who want to tap this underutilized workforce during a time of full employment. It was started by Richard Bronson who is the co-founder and CEO of 70MillionJobs and 70M Coin. He has a criminal record and an incredible story to share about his days on Wall Street and a world of white-collar crime and securities fraud.

Richard Bronson’s story is fascinating. He lived the life portrayed in the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey. Like Shelley Winner, he has a story to tell of redemption and rehabilitation, and also of paying back those who were the victims of his crimes. Like Shelley, Richard benefited from Defy Ventures and his experience at Defy Ventures was a mainstay in for his road to rehabilitation.

Richard’s company, 70MillionJobs connects companies to adult Americans with some type of criminal record. Companies gain nationwide access to a pipeline of ignored talent—at scale. The website states that for large employers that need to hire hourly wage workers it delivers applicants nationwide, on demand. Their clients include ADP, Thor Industries, Airstream, Checkr, BNSF Railway, and Perdue.

Employers who hire workers with criminal records can reduce their federal income tax by as much as $2,400 per employee through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. In addition, the US Department of Labor offers bonding for the formerly incarcerated employees through the Federal Bonding Program to help employers mitigate any risk to other employees from hiring them.

The 70MillionJobs website also emphasizes the social good of hiring formerly incarcerated people. Nearly 80% of those released from jail or prison will be re-arrested within five years. Almost all of them will be unemployed at the time of re-arrest. People with jobs, on the other hand, almost never recidivate.

With full employment is the US and more open jobs than unemployed (as of June 2018) I think it is time to consider the 70 million adult workers in the US who were formerly incarcerated and to go about it in a smart way. Hiring those with violent behavior I believe is inherently risky. I would be very cautious about such hiring. But hiring those with drug records, who own their mistakes, have gone through rehabilitation, and have new tools for managing life’s stressors , like Shelley Winner and Richard Bronson, strikes me as a good place to start.

There are of course legal limits on hiring the formerly incarcerated based on the crime, usually for industries and professions where a certification is required. For example, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has a bad actor disqualification for those convicted of certain crimes or have restraining orders from beginner investment managers and principals of pooled investment fund issuers, promoters, compensated solicitors and from being executive officers and 20% beneficial owners of the issuer.

Disqualifying events include, among other things, certain criminal convictions, court injunctions and retaining orders, SEC disciplinary orders and cease and desist orders, and US Postal Service false representation orders. More can be learned by going to the US Securities and Exchange Commission website at https://www.sec.gov/info/smallbus/secg/bad-actor-small-entity-compliance-guide.htm.

Employers have a right to see an individual’s criminal record before making a final decision to hire them (being sure to be in compliance with ban-the-box regulations in your state or locality). However, that right has several key limitations. The decision not to hire someone who was previously incarcerated ought to be related to the job, meaning the criminal record indicated that the person could be a liability in that position.

It makes sense to me that in retail, health care, child care, and elderly care you would not hire anyone who has recently finished serving their sentences for theft or violence. Employers reasonably want to avoid negligent hiring laws suits by hiring someone who would be dangerous or unfit for some positions.

How do employers screen without bias and hire the formerly incarcerated? Here are some straightforward steps.

  1. Use organizations like 70millionjobs.com to reach out to the formerly incarcerated.
  2. Follow the ban-the-box provisions in your state and locality. Ban-the-box means you do not conduct a background check until after a conditional offer is made. Your labor attorney and organizations such as the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) have up-to-date listings of states and localities that have Ban-the-Box provisions.
  3. Run all applicants through your hiring process. Use structured interviews and validated assessments to identify which candidates have the highest probability of success on the job. You may find that a formerly incarcerated job applicant has the experience and skills you need for your open positions. Or, if you are hiring entry-level individuals, you may discover someone who will be the loyal and conscientious employee you need.
  4. When you do find you have made a provisional offer to a job candidate who after the background check has a criminal record, if the crime is not job-related or legally disqualifies the formerly incarcerated person from being employees, consider them.
  5. Look for actions and behaviors showing that the individual has learned from his or her mistakes, has gone through treatment, stress and anger management, and has learned new tools to deal with the stressors of life.
  6. Be prepared to provide coaching on life skills. Remember the successful advice of Bernadette Jones and the coaching provided to her employee.

As you think through your strategies for hiring the formerly incarcerated, reflect on the cases of Shelley Winner and Richard Bronson above. What makes Shelley and Richard’s history instructive is that they both acknowledged their mistakes, were remorseful, sought treatment, and are committed to being better.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, global talent strategies, using digital technology to improve recruiting and retention, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Questions? Contact Victor at VA@VictorHRConsult.com or call him at 707-331-6740. Visit http://www.victorhrconsultant.com for more insights and his valuable free reports.


[i] Matt Krumrie, “Why You Should Give Candidates with a Criminal Background a Second Chance,” October 4, 2016, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/blog/why-you-should-give-candidates-with-a-criminal-background-a-second-chance/.

[ii] Daryl Atkinson, “The Benefits of Ban the Box,” The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, 2014, http://www.southerncoalition.org/ wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BantheBox_WhitePaper-2.pdf; and Dylan Minor, Nicola Persico, and Deborah M. Weiss, “Criminal Background and Job Performance,” Working Paper, October 30, 2016, file:///Users/test/Downloads/SSRN-id2851951%20(1).pdf.

[iii] “Back to Business: How Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Job Seekers Benefits Your Company,” ACLU. Available for download at: https://www.aclu.org/report/back-business-how-hiring-formerly-incarcerated-job-seekers-benefits-your-company.

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