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The Workplace Is Ready to Give Second Chances

Aug. 31, 2021
Nonviolent offenders should be part of the talent pool.

Opinion/Analysis

We are long past the Willie Horton stigma of the 1988 presidential campaign, back when a criminal on furlough went on a violent crime spree as America was discussing felon rehabilitation. The point is, one example blew up the entire cause for years. But what we’ve seen of late is how smart CEOs, such as Jamie Dimon at Chase, are making it a point (and a successful one) to expand their talent pool by hiring employees with criminal records. A couple of years ago, Chase reported hiring 20,000 workers in the United States, and 10% of them had a criminal history. Phenomenal.

Chase went so far as to “ban the box” by removing the question of criminal records on its applications. As Dimon stated in a press release: “When someone cannot get their foot in the door to compete for a job, it’s bad for business and bad for communities that need access to economic opportunity.” We simply need to be thoughtful about removing barriers for those who have made mistakes that led to periods of incarceration, while maintaining our own unique culture and cultural truths.

The numbers back this up. As the US government reports, for the formerly incarcerated, employment within a year after their release reduces the chance of recidivism from 32.4% to 19.6%. And yet 75% of those released from prison remain unemployed a year later, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

 We have to do better by them as we do better by business, too. There is no doubt the workplace is ready to give second chances to those who have served their time. SHRM helped produce a study revealing that while people with criminal records face additional scrutiny during the hiring process, many employees, managers, and HR professionals are open to working with and hiring people with criminal histories.

The American public is on board, too:

  • 78% of Americans are comfortable shopping at businesses where a customer-facing employee has a nonviolent criminal record.
  • 76% are comfortable doing business with a company that offers second chances by hiring the formerly incarcerated.
  • 74% percent say they are comfortable being employed by a business at which some coworkers have nonviolent criminal records.

The success stories back up the findings. At SHRM’s annual conference in 2019, I was fortunate to share the stage with Alice Marie Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate.

The theme of the conference was “Creating Better Workplaces,” with an emphasis on how untapped talent pools can help close the skills gap. The story Alice told not only validated that concept—talent can be found in untraditional places—but it was life-affirming, too.

Before the conference, I had met with Alice. We sat down in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the Broadmoor hotel. I’m a lawyer—a law and order guy—and I’m a conservative in that regard.

When it comes to criminal issues, my natural response is, “If you commit a crime there are consequences. And those consequences might stay with you forever.”

I am not a fan of people who don’t own their choices and show accountability for the decisions they make. So, when I first had a one-on-one with Alice in Colorado Springs, I didn’t exactly know what to expect.

But when she began by saying, “I did the crime.” I thought, Okay, this is accountability. I was ready to hear her story.

When she spoke at the conference, she started with, “More than two decades ago, in desperation, I got involved with the wrong people and did the wrong things. I made the biggest mistake of my life. In 1996, I was convicted for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. My sentence was life in prison.” 

 That’s a harsh conviction by many standards. What lead up to this horrible position she had put herself in? She grew up as one of nine children of sharecroppers. She got pregnant in high school and later found work as a secretary. By the early 1990s, she had lost a son in an accident, lost her job due to a gambling addiction, gone through a divorce and was in bankruptcy.

 No career. No home. Then came the tragic decision to get involved with a Memphis organization that trafficked cocaine. In 1996, she was convicted on federal charges of money laundering and distribution. For two decades, she missed every moment of

life outside prison. As she told us at the SHRM conference, “While behind bars, I lost both of my parents. I lost the moments of watching my children grow up. I lost 21 years of my life.”

Alice was all but saved in 2017 by a viral video of her struggle. It caught the attention of reality-TV star Kim Kardashian. In a very public way, Kardashian personally lobbied President Trump at the White House in an effort to gain clemency for Alice, and it worked.  In June of 2018, when Alice was 63, President Trump commuted her sentence and later granted her a full pardon in August of 2020.

 As Alice told our conference audience at SHRM, “My good fortune did not stop there. After my release, I was able to find a new career . . . a new purpose. But there are many more like me who are not so fortunate. After serving their debt to society, they are shut out, resentenced to joblessness and economic insecurity. Like me, they only want to find their purpose in the dignity of honest work.”

 As I listened, I was struck by the powerful force of one woman’s story. But I was also impressed by her persistence, even when it looked as if the rest of her life would be spent behind bars. During her years in prison, she took career courses and read up on every unfolding paradigm shift, hoping against hope to get out one day. She told me that one of her lowest moments was seeing President Obama leave the White House without offering her clemency. If not then, when? That’s what she thought.

But she didn’t let up, didn’t give up. To me, Alice embodies all of what you want to see in your workforce. Yes, she’s a grandmother, but she is devoted to reinvention, steeped in a desire to learn, and willing to support those around her.

As leaders, we have to do our part to help these stories of the incarcerated end with good jobs and promising careers.

There is nothing to fear in providing second chances to skilled workers who have paid their dues and earned a position that pays.

This isn’t charity. It’s good business.

Excerpted from RESET: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval by Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. Copyright © 2021, PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and chief executive officer of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management.  Mr. Taylor's career spans more than 20 years as a lawyer, human resources executive, and CEO in both the not-for-profit and for-profit space. Most recently, Mr. Taylor was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. He is a member of the White House American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

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