Editor’s Note: Johnny C. Taylor Jr. is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
In President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, he recognized Alice Marie Johnson, who was given a mandatory life sentence on nonviolent drug charges. Johnson served 21 years in prison before her sentence was commuted in June.
Johnson’s story, and many others like it, demonstrates a need to reform our overzealous criminal justice system. And while I applaud the bipartisan First Step Act becoming law, it really is just the first step. For criminal justice reform to succeed, American employers must take the next step: committing to consider qualified jobseekers with criminal records.
Not everyone with a criminal record is a career criminal. Many people with a record have made a single mistake. And of the almost 700,000 people released from prison each year, many were convicted of non-violent crimes.
What companies can do
Research continuously shows us that former inmates who find gainful employment are much less likely to reoffend. And when we reduce recidivism, we break the back-to-prison cycle that disrupts the lives of so many individuals, families and their communities.
The HR profession is on board. Nearly half of HR practitioners in the United States believe having a criminal history should not be a deciding factor in hiring. But we aren’t seeing this in practice because most companies don’t have clear policies around hiring workers with criminal records.
Given these points, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has launched an initiative calling on business leaders to adopt inclusive hiring practices giving men and women who are qualified a fair chance to bring their much-needed skills back into the workplace.
The Getting Talent Back to Work initiative empowers employers to confidently evaluate applicants with criminal records by equipping them with the information and tools they need to reduce uncertainty, including when to ask about a criminal record during the hiring process, state and federal regulations, and what types of convictions to consider based on the job.
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When it comes to hiring people with criminal records, companies are understandably concerned about safety, their assets and their public image. But today, many HR professionals are finding that the best approach to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds is not so different from the one they use for everyone else: to evaluate each candidate on his or her merits.
At a time when the unemployment rate is low and businesses are struggling to find qualified talent, employers can’t afford to continue shutting out this untapped talent pool of able workers. It’s time we stop punishing men and women who have already served their time and give those who are qualified a second chance at stable employment.