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Working With Employers to Recruit and Retain Ex-Offenders

For ex-offenders, finding post-release employment is key to successfully re-entering society. Employers who are open to hiring these workers may take societal benefit into account—but they will also consider the needs and interests of their organization.

As a counsellor, you can help potential “second chance” and “fair chance” employers to:

  • Identify the likely benefits of employing ex-offenders
  • Evaluate possible concerns
  • Understand best practices for success
  • Find information on relevant legislation

“I’d say the biggest thing for employers is really just educating them… using statistics from the community, using information and education from our organization, other organizations, I feel would really break down barriers…”

—Member of a community organization (Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, Toward a Working Future [pdf])

The role of employment counsellors

Identifying benefits to employers

Many large employers, such as restaurant chains, retailers, and tech companies, include ex-offenders in their hiring policies with great success.

Employers who are willing to hire candidates with a criminal record may benefit from:

  • An increased labour pool, particularly with growing competition from the gig economy.
  • Higher retention and reduced turnover, leading to savings in hiring and training costs. Employees with a criminal record tend to stay in a job longer and are less likely to quit than other workers.
  • A reputation for inclusive hiring practices.
  • Employee loyalty and motivation to succeed in the job. Workers with a criminal record know that it may be difficult to find another opportunity.
  • Work-specific technical skills. Many ex-offenders receive training while in prison through CORCAN and other programs.
  • The positive effects on their local community. Ex-offenders who are employed are significantly less likely to reoffend than those who are not.

“The temptation as an employer is to always assume less risk. So, if we are going to assume greater risk, what do we need to understand around individuals with criminal records? How do we objectively assess that risk? How do we ensure that that activity doesn't occur again… how do we protect ourselves as a corporation?”

—Alberta employer (Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, Toward a Working Future [pdf])

Addressing employer concerns

Despite the benefits of giving ex-offenders a second chance, employers may have valid concerns about hiring them. Some clients in this group do reoffend, so the hiring decision should consider the specifics of the offence, the work environment, and the position.

Employer resistance is often tied to concern for the health and safety of other employees in the workplace. However, many ex-offenders do not pose a risk to others:

  • The nature of the conviction may not be related to safety concerns.
  • In some roles, the risk may be minimal.
  • For some, the conviction is a long time in the past.

Maintaining labour market knowledge

“I’ve found that [the landscaping industry is] very open and the manufacturing and the construction trades… For the most part, those are the best ones for us, because they pay a livable wage and they don’t face too, too many barriers and they don’t work with sensitive information or sensitive populations, which is the biggest thing that a criminal record would prevent you from doing.”

—Member of a community organization (Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, Toward a Working Future [pdf])

In working with employers to place this client group, knowledge of the labour market is key. Counsellors should consider the following strategies:

  • Build relationships with employers who do not require criminal record checks.
  • Develop a thorough understanding of job duties and working conditions.
  • Research employers in sectors favourable to hiring people with a record, such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture, food, manual labour, and customer service.

Success factors

Employers and organizations that have worked with ex-offenders identify the following factors that can lead to success when employing people in this group.

Partnerships for recruitment and support

Specialized support is a major success factor for employers hiring ex-offenders.

Encourage employers to work with government or not-for-profit organizations that can help pre-screen candidates for employment readiness and support their re-entry to the workplace. Examples include:

Clear screening practices

“I think that people respond to criminal records, from an employer perspective, sometimes from an emotional place. We have this belief in our head that criminals are just bad people and that can really influence the way that you’re hiring. So I really think that building a good structure around what is acceptable and what isn’t, based on what we need, based on the clients we’re working with, based on what the company’s doing… is a great way for the employer to really kind of tackle that issue. To create… a real standard.”

—Alberta employer (Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, Toward a Working Future [pdf])

Unless required by law, most employers should not automatically disqualify every candidate with a criminal record. But not every candidate will be a fit for every employer or position.

In its successful program for hiring ex-offenders, the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore uses the following information to determine the relevance of an applicant’s background—help employers develop a similar approach:

  • Job and duties
  • Time, nature, and number of convictions
  • Circumstances and relationship between convictions
  • Time between conviction and decision to hire
  • Applicant’s attempts at rehabilitation
  • Age at time of conviction
  • Impact of conviction and relevance to security and safety to employees, patients, and visitors
  • Whether the applicant disclosed this information

Fitting the person to the position

As with any hiring decision, employers must fit the candidate to the position. Depending on the nature of the conviction, a person may not be right for one role in an organization but may do well in another. For example, someone recently convicted of theft who is not suitable as a cashier may be a good fit at the customer information desk.

Encourage employers to consider the following questions:

  • Do the job duties require that the employee be bondable for insurance purposes? If so, will the nature of the conviction be a problem?
  • Will parole or court-ordered conditions such as not being able to use a computer interfere with the job duties?
  • Does the job match the client’s skills and interests? Job satisfaction and feeling that the work is meaningful are significant factors in the success of a placement.

Tailored employment practices

Encourage employers to consider the following practices for supporting a new hire’s transition to the workplace and success on the job:

  • Offer internships as trial employment.
  • Provide a structured environment with clear and measurable expectations.
  • Provide managers with sensitivity training on the challenges that face employees in difficult socioeconomic circumstances.
  • Permit flexible schedules to accommodate parole appointments and other conditions of release.
  • Enlist job coaches to help address issues as they come up.
  • Help the employee integrate into the workforce by treating that person the same as everyone else.

Legislation and record checks

Decisions on hiring ex-offenders are not entirely up to the employer. Federal and provincial legislation determine when record checks are required.

In Alberta, most employers are legally allowed to base hiring decisions on whether an applicant has a criminal record. Sometimes a record check is required for work with specific sectors, such as vulnerable populations. However, many sectors and occupations do not require record checks.

If an employer requests a record check, the results should be used only for approved employment purposes. They should not be disclosed to anyone other than those in the organization who need to know for those purposes.

Employers may need support finding information on their legal responsibilities. In reviewing their hiring policies and procedures for evaluating candidates with criminal record checks, they should consider:

  • Seeking guidance from legal counsel and human rights organizations
  • Reviewing job descriptions to determine when a specific criminal record is a legitimate barrier to employment
  • Learning how to consider a criminal record in the hiring process, including such factors as the nature, time, and extent of the criminal record
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