How Should Businesses Approach Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated?

In St. Louis, Missouri, one bakery has a unique requirement for any applicants to an open position: they must have a criminal record.

The Laughing Bear Bakery, founded by a retired prison chaplain, is not alone in having such a requirement. Several companies around the country have sprung up in recent years, offering a pipeline from prison to employment, staffing their stores exclusively with the formerly incarcerated. At Laughing Bear, the owner says she doesn't even use criminal background checks—she simply wants to offer individuals the second chance so many need to get back on their feet.

Re-entering the workforce following a conviction is still a challenge today. The growth and spread of "ban the box" and new expungement laws highlight the work still ongoing by criminal justice reform advocates, but those opportunities don't exist everywhere. Without steady employment and the stability of a regular income, the potential for someone to re-offend and re-enter the prison system increases substantially.

What can business owners generally learn from the examples set by Laughing Bear and other convicts-only companies? 

First, there are some obvious advantages in broadening the pool of applicants one will consider during hiring—especially with an ongoing labor shortage across multiple industries. Expanding your scope can mean more opportunities to identify talented individuals who, despite a troubled past, come equipped with the skills or knowledge you need to fill a critical role quickly. 

There is also a positive social contribution to consider for businesses that choose to go down this path. A well-structured program for hiring ex-offenders can provide the company with an important labor source while making a personal impact—and contributing to the community’s general well-being. 

However, there are drawbacks to consider. Providing those with a criminal record, and especially those recently released from prison, with job opportunities, is an admirable pursuit, but one must still manage the risks mindfully. Hiring someone with a violent felony history may pose too much of a risk to your business, for example. Although a past conviction isn't a guarantee of future criminal activity, it's still important to understand the facts to make a discerning evaluation.

One way of mitigating potential risks to the business is ongoing criminal monitoring. A safety net for employers, these solutions provide a prompt alert when a monitored individual's name appears in court records and charging reports. These red flags can help a business take decisive action to protect itself. Otherwise, the process provides peace of mind. 

Everyone deserves a second chance. For businesses, that should mean careful, case-by-case consideration of each applicant’s circumstances. A blanket rejection policy for all those with a criminal record is not only legally dubious but potentially short-sighted. By equipping your company with the right tools to conduct background checks and monitor for warning signs, an entirely new labor market becomes accessible. 

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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