WASHINGTON — An employer is behind if it's only beginning consider tapping into the large talent pool of individuals with criminal histories, Innova Legal Advisors PC Attorney Heidi Mason said during a panel at the Society for Human Resource Management's Employment Law & Legislative Conference Monday afternoon.
In fact, an employer may run afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission standards if it ignores applicants with criminal records. "Those of you who are really in tune with Title VII and EEOC guidelines, you should already know you should be looking at people with criminal histories," Mason said. "Having an across-the-board ban on hiring somebody who has a criminal record, for most employers, will run afoul with Title VII and the 2012 EEOC guidelines."
But it's not just Title VII and EEOC that can prohibit some employers from discriminating against the formerly incarcerated. Ban-the-box laws — laws that make it illegal for certain employers to ask applicants about criminal history on job applications — are growing in popularity. Employers that operate in jurisdictions without these restrictions may want to consider banning the box on their own accord, Mason said; "You can make a choice not to ask at that particular time and ask when the person comes into interview."
How an employer decides to handle applicants with criminal backgrounds is a matter of compliance, but it also plays into talent strategy, Dave's Killer Bread Foundation Executive Director Genevieve Martin said. When considering Dave's Killer Bread employees who violated attendance, policy or behavior rules, the company found people with felony convictions performed slightly better than their counterparts, Martin said. And employees with felony convictions performed the same as those without in terms of turnover, she added.
As employers look to improve their practices for interviewing, investigating, hiring — or not hiring — and employing ex-prisoners, these six tips will set them up for success.
#1: Know when to ask about criminal history.
Hiring managers need to know when and how to make an inquiry into someone's criminal background, Mason said. If an employer operates in an area where ban-the-box legislation applies, it's clear that organization can't ask a candidate on a job application. Some ban-the-box laws go so far as to prohibit employers from asking about criminal history until the selection process is complete. That way, Mason said, the employer considers each candidate fully and equally, and bias against ex-convicts can't affect the hiring process unless it disqualifies a candidate entirely.
#2: Be prepared to respond to the candid candidate.
Sometimes, candidates inform hiring managers about their criminal records before hiring managers are ready to know, and that can be awkward, Mason said. When this happens, she said she tries to thank them for their honesty and ensure them that criminal history doesn't necessarily disqualify them from employment.
#3: Collect only relevant information.
Employers need not screen for convictions that aren't relevant to the position they're applying for, Occuscreen VP of Business Development Pamela Mack told attendees. "You don’t have to screen a motor vehicle report for people who aren't driving for the organization," she said. "You probably don't have to run a sex offender registry unless they're working with vulnerable populations like children, disabled or the elderly."
This ensures that employers don't see irrelevant information that could cause them to decide against a candidate who is qualified for the job. "Since you can only use information that's relevant to the job, you don't want to necessarily see or know that information because you can't un-know it and it's probably going to change how you feel," Mack said.
#4: Keep screening consistent.
It's important, too, that employers screen classes of jobs consistently. "You can have different protocols for different job classes," Mack said. "Within those job classes, you want to keep most people screened the same way."
#5: Confirm the report.
Once a background check provider has done its job, an employer needs to follow up and confirm the information it sees. "Don't rely on a database search only. Make sure all your information is confirmed by a source, which is typically the county," Mack said. "Those databases are far from comprehensive and they're never updated." If a record was expunged or reduced, a database will likely fail to reflect the change.
#6: Be reasonable.
When it comes time to decide to hire or pass on an applicant with a criminal record, the employer needs to lower its standards from perfection to reasonable. "Reasonable is your bar," Mason said. "You must be reasonable under the totality of the circumstances."
Employers often worry about the risk of bringing on a candidate with a criminal background, Mason said. "Is that a risk? Negligent hiring is a risk," she said. "If you document your judgment calls and document why you did what you did, you're not going to be negligent." If an employer isn't confident about a decision or is making a tough call, Mason encouraged attendees to reach out to someone who has more experience, like an attorney.
When assessing a candidate with a criminal history, employers should look for them to take ownership and accountability for their actions, Martin said. "If they can do that, the next thing you want to know is who are they now?" she said. "How have they bettered themselves?"