How companies are putting ex-offenders back to work

One of America’s leading healthcare organizations, Johns Hopkins Medicine, consistently ranks at or near the top for excellence in medical education, research and clinical care. The Baltimore, Md.-based alliance of the Johns Hopkins Health System and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine receives nearly 3 million patients and over 360,000 emergency-room visits annually across more than 40 care locations. That sheer volume of patient interactions and elite medical education and research requires an enormous staff of more than 40,000 full-time faculty and staff members, making Johns Hopkins one of Maryland’s largest private employers and the largest in Baltimore City.

Like many employers, the healthcare giant found itself facing a shortage of workers in the late 1990s. Then-President (now President Emeritus) Ronald Peterson gathered his executive team, senior legal counsel, vice president of security and vice president of human resources to explore the problem and brainstorm possible solutions. “Our leadership at the time said, ‘How can we look at this shortage and our openings and needs from a different vantage point?’ ” says Yariela Kerr-Donovan, senior director of strategic workforce development. “ ‘Who are we overlooking in our communities who would be great candidates for employment?’ ”

Related: Here’s why tech is giving rise to the ‘superjob’

Peterson and his team quickly honed in on one segment of the community: ex-offenders. The challenge then became to study best practices, look into legal considerations and investigate where in its hiring practices the organization was creating “unnecessary barriers.”

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SHRM’s initiative came about as a result of the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law in late 2018. The most significant criminal-justice-reform legislation in many years, FIRST STEP increases re-entry opportunities for non-violent offenders by expanding rehabilitative programming and earned-time credit opportunities. With more than 700,000 men and women released from U.S. prisons each year, opening the door to hiring those individuals would go a long way toward filling the 1.2 million vacant positions the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July.

Thinking Outside “The Box”

As Johns Hopkins began exploring ways to break down barriers that might keep ex-offenders from applying or being hired, one particular action became abundantly clear: the need to “eliminate the box.”

“It created a problem for folks just in applying when they saw that there,” says Kerr-Donovan. “It was like a punch in the face, a brick wall.”

While SHRM stops short of taking an official position on controversial “ban the box” legislation limiting–and sometimes, outright prohibiting–employers from including a question about past criminal convictions on job applications, Dickens says the organization advises employers to consider what happens if someone checks the box on an application. “Does everything stop there?” she asks. “If it does, maybe you need to reconsider that.”

Read more on Talent Management from HR Executive here.

While Johns Hopkins has removed the box from its application process, that doesn’t mean HR ignores a potential employee’s criminal history. Once an applicant has been deemed to be someone they would like to hire, a stringent screening process begins, during which that individual’s education, references and background are carefully reviewed. To ensure those with a previous incarceration receive fair consideration, a former police officer and member of Johns Hopkins’ security team was hired to work in talent acquisition, screening applicants.

“Your average talent acquisition [professional]/recruiter is not well-versed in the judicial system,” says Kerr-Donovan. “The person who does our screening is a former cop, so they know when they are looking at something to say, ‘That wasn’t anything’ or ‘That’s something, but it seems strange, so I need to investigate it further.’ ”

The type of offense plays a big role in determining whether an individual will be hired for a particular position, says Kerr-Donovan. Someone with a conviction for manufacturing and distributing a controlled substance would not be hired as a pharmacy tech, for example, although the “talents that were used in the kind of employment that got them arrested,” such as math and customer service, may be applicable in another area, she says. Those insights are best gathered by sitting down with the applicant and having an open, honest conversation about past mistakes.

“Sometimes, we have someone that may not be able to get hired for the job to which they’ve applied, but we recognize they have potential,” says Kerr-Donovan. “In those instances, we have them talk with a career coach to see where there may be another opportunity or career path with their skill sets, so we don’t lose good talent.”

Jobs that involve working directly with patients are quite a step-up from the opportunities afforded to ex-convicts just a few years ago, according to Jon Ponder, founder and CEO of Hope for Prisoners, an organization dedicated to assisting formerly incarcerated people re-enter the community.

“Ten years ago, when I founded this organization, all we were getting were minimum-wage jobs–folks to do telemarketing,” says Ponder. “The narrative has changed across the country, as employers are starting to look at alternative pools of people.”


Although many employers are reducing their emphasis on criminal-background checks, Gabriel McGaha, associate at Fisher Phillips LLP, says it’s still crucial to consider the nature of the crime and how it relates to a specific job.

“If someone applies for a job as a bank teller, but they have a theft conviction on their record, the employer could subject itself to liability in the event that employee steals a client’s money,” says McGaha. “Even if the employer is inclined to not hire the person based on a criminal conviction, under the law, they still have to give them the opportunity to discuss it to get a better idea what happened.”

While Johns Hopkins has abolished the box but still conducts stringent background checks, Greyston Bakery in New York embraces a system of “open hiring,” in which interested parties simply come to the bakery and place their name on a list. When a job becomes available, the next person on the list gets hired for a six- to 10-month apprenticeship at the legendary Yonkers bakery, which has provided brownies and other ingredients to companies like Ben & Jerry’s for more than three decades. After 30 days, they become union members; at 90 days, they are eligible for health insurance; and, upon completion of the apprenticeship, they receive the rest of their benefits package, including paid time off.

While Greyston never specifically set out to hire the formerly incarcerated, such individuals gravitate to the company due to lack of opportunities or embarrassment over checking “the box” at other potential employers. Currently, over 60% of Greyston’s bakers are ex-convicts. According to Senior Development Officer Karen Tumelty, it’s all about “investing in a person’s future, rather than their past.”

While critics may call a background-check-free approach to hiring risky, President and CEO Mike Brady disagrees vehemently. “Criminal-background checks simply tell an employer if someone has been convicted of a crime; it is not an indicator of ability,” he explains. “We believe that, given the opportunity, anyone can become a successful employee.”

For many employers, reservations about hiring ex-cons revolve less around concerns about them potentially stealing from the workplace or assaulting a co-worker and more around a lack of marketable skills, according to Ponder. Hope for Prisoners set out to mitigate those concerns. Through a partnership with the Nevada Department of Corrections, the organization operates inside five institutions, conducting assessments and vocational training to help prepare inmates for employment upon their release. They can learn data entry or construction skills; some even enroll in a culinary training program that often leads to employment with Station Casinos, which operates multiple properties throughout Las Vegas and has hired “every person we’ve sent over there,” according to Ponder.

Reducing Recidivism

While other employers focus their efforts on employing ex-convicts after their release, Televerde Inc. actively employs people while they are still behind bars. The global demand-generation company was founded on the idea of providing women in prison with jobs training and education while incarcerated, as well as career opportunities after their release. Five of the company’s eight engagement centers are located inside correctional facilities, where the “Women of Televerde” work in project management, business intelligence, and data analysis and reporting.

Upon their release, approximately 30% of the women go to work in Televerde’s corporate office in Phoenix, where 40% of the staff, including 30% of the leadership team, began their careers while they were incarcerated. The rest use their newly gained skills to find employment elsewhere, including with Televerde clients, like SAP and Adobe. More than 3,000 women have gone through the program over the past 25 years. Of those, less than 10% have ever returned to prison, according to Michelle Cirocco, chief social responsibility officer.

That comes as no surprise to Rob Gifford, president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and one of the signatories of the SHRM pledge.

“The single greatest thing you can do to reduce the recidivism rate is to employ a formerly incarcerated individual,” he says. “If they can be released from prison with some work-ready skills and be partnered with a community-based organization and with employers looking to hire, they are on a very good pathway. If all they know are criminal activities, unfortunately, some will revert to that in order to survive.”

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“Many of our employers have figured out there are an awful lot of people who are not hardened, violent criminals but have made mistakes in life and need someone to believe in them and give them a chance,” says Gifford. “Once they do, they get an extraordinarily dedicated and loyal employee.”

At Johns Hopkins, retention rates for “justice-involved” employees are comparable to the rest of the workforce–69% to 71%, according to Kerr-Donovan. She stresses the importance of recognizing everyone has made mistakes in their life and that past behaviors are not necessarily good predictors of future success.

“Life is about a journey of growth, discovery and moving forward and evolving into the best person you can be,” she says. “No one is the same person they were 20 years ago, so do not expect arrested development with this group.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected].