Does “Felon Friendly” Pay?

Though few in number, companies that have fully embraced hiring people with felony convictions find the rewards far outweigh the risks.
By: | October 16, 2017 • 9 min read
felonly friendly

Many employers have hopped on the ban-the-box bandwagon in recent years, whether to comply with laws, stay ahead of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or simply to express an open-minded hiring philosophy. It’s not the same thing, however, as taking active steps to hire more people with felony convictions.

A Google search for “felon-friendly employers” yields an abundance of job-listing sites that are identified as being hospitable toward convicted felons. The employers listed on these sites do not always promote themselves in those terms, however.

Proponents of affirmative action for felons recognize that the social benefits of employing people with criminal convictions, such as lowering recidivism and crime rates, do not amount to a business case. Instead, they point to metrics such lower turnover rates.

For example, at Total Wine and More, a 5,000-employee national beverage chain, job turnover for several job categories was significantly lower for employees with a criminal record than those without, according to the company. For cashiers, the rate was 14 percent lower.

In analyzing its data, the retailer determined that the lower turnover rates applied to all categories of crimes — “not only for individuals with low-level drug or alcohol-related convictions, but also for individuals with more serious convictions.”

Further, the self-described “key finding” in a study of customer-service employees by a trio of Northwestern University professors found that “employees with a criminal record perform as well or better than those without a record in some jobs.” (The research, titled Criminal Background and Job Performance, was posted on the SSRN.com website in May.)

The researchers at Northwestern University say more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn, but many of the employers that have already moved towards a comprehensive felon-friendly strategy contend the benefits of this practice may far outweigh any risks associated with it.

Ubiquitous Felons

Given the prevalence of Americans with criminal records, it isn’t hard to find them in the labor pool. Consider that the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 70 million Americans have a criminal record, including 20 million with felony convictions. Or, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, 95 percent of prisoners in state prisons will be released at some point.

While it’s impossible to gauge their degree of “felon-friendliness,” the number of employers that have signed the Fair Chance Business Pledge exceeds 300, including many of the nation’s largest employers. (Collectively, these organizations employ more than 5 million workers.)

That pledge, part of a 2016 Obama Administration initiative, includes the following statement: “We are committed to providing individuals with criminal records . . . a fair chance to participate in the American economy.”

The roster of signatories includes companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, Monsanto and Koch Industries.

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Ben & Jerry’s, a subsidiary of U.K.-headquartered Unilever, explained its hiring philosophy in a message to its employees and customers last year, stating that an undue focus on criminal convictions reinforces “systemic racial and economic injustices,” and “stands in the way of our aspiration to build a diverse, inclusive and high-performing team.”

The Quest to Innovate

Similarly, Monsanto, another “fair chance business pledge” signatory, says its approach (including a ban-the-box policy) reflects its commitment to building and maintaining a diverse culture. A key business payoff of that philosophy, says Sue Allen, the company’s global talent and HR leader for North America, is faster development of “innovative products for our customers.”

That’s not just a theory, says Allen, adding the company has conducted internal studies that found leaders who are inclusive “in thought, processes and behaviors” are top performers.

Any potential challenges associated with intentionally considering job applicants with criminal records “must be considered against the value they will bring to the company,” she says.

Allen’s comment reflects the fact that St. Louis-based Monsanto, like most employers, doesn’t ignore criminal records when screening job applicants. It’s more about the degree of individualized analysis accorded to applicants with felony convictions that the EEOC called for in its 2012 “enforcement guidance on the consideration of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions.”

Banning the box generally means not determining whether a job applicant has a felony conviction until after the first round of elimination. At Koch Industries, all job candidate finalists are subject to a background check, says Mark Holden, general counsel of the 120,000-employee Wichita, Kan.-based global industrial giant. “But it’s just one data point.”

When applicants know that a background check will be performed, they typically will bring the subject up during the interview, says Holden. “They know it’s important to get that on the table.”

Koch’s perspective, reflected not only in its hiring practices but in its philanthropic initiatives, is that the U.S. criminal justice system is fraught with abusive practices that “ensnare a lot of people,” Holden says.

For example, Holden says, state laws often set low thresholds for the quantity of an illegal drug that automatically deems the drug’s owner as a dealer, without requiring the prosecutor to prove that to be the case. The result is an automatic felony conviction, he adds.

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