When a person is released from jail, we say they have “paid their debt to society.” But society’s stigma against formerly incarcerated people often means they continue to pay far beyond their release. Take employment, for instance. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), only 5% of managers and 3% of HR professionals actively recruit candidates with criminal records for open roles, severely limiting employment opportunities for these job seekers. It’s no wonder, then, that about 60% of inmates released from prison don’t find employment within one year.
And yet, employing this population has benefits not just for the individual, but for their families, employers and the community alike. In the era of the Great Resignation and the ongoing tight labor market, hiring formerly incarcerated people — also known as second chance hiring — presents companies with an opportunity to fill employment gaps while also giving back to the community.
What Is Second Chance Hiring?
Second chance hiring is the practice of hiring individuals with a criminal record. In the United States, more than 70 million people have a criminal record and about 600,000 people are released from jail each year.
Formerly incarcerated people want to work. And yet, their unemployment rate is nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general U.S. population. That puts the current rate at 18.5%, compared to 3.7%. This high unemployment rate is a product of public sentiment, policy, and practices — not a difference in ambition. A significant hurdle driving the high rate of unemployment is the stigma attached to having a criminal record.
In addition to an unfavorable hiring environment, time spent away from the public can have a negative impact on a person’s employment chances. Time spent in the justice system can result in the erosion of basic job skills, disruption of formal education, and the loss of social networks that can improve job-finding prospects. Job seekers with felony convictions also face legal restrictions that lock them out of many government jobs and licensed professions regardless of their capabilities or the nature of their offense.
If employers can see beyond the stigma, reassess restrictions that automatically remove candidates from the hiring pool, and be willing to provide training where needed, individuals with a criminal record can represent a viable untapped market of job candidates.
Does this present a risk to the safety of a company’s existing workforce? According to FBI data, more than 95% of U.S. arrests were for nonviolent, nonsexual crimes in 2019 (the latest data available). Drug abuse violations and driving under the influence were the most common felony charges, with about 1.5 million and 1 million respectively in 2019. Nonviolent offenders who live crime-free for three to four years are no more likely to commit a crime than the average person. Establishing hiring criteria can help companies select candidates who deserve a second chance while minimizing risk to existing employees.
How Can Second Chance Hiring Work for a Transportation Company?
Expanding the potential candidate pool to include individuals with criminal records won’t solve the labor shortage on its own, but it does present opportunities for transportation companies with job openings.
So how does second chance hiring work?
At Union Pacific Railroad, developing a second chance hiring program first and foremost started with ensuring the safety of existing employees. Safety is the top priority for every company initiative, and second chance hiring is no exception.
From there, Union Pacific built the program on four foundational steps: 1. Reviewing policies to identify barriers, 2. Establishing community partnerships, 3. Getting leadership buy-in and 4. Providing training. The company’s Chief Executive Officer, Lance Fritz, and Chief Human Resource Officer, Beth Whited, gave their full support to the program, which has been critical to its success.
“Union Pacific is committed to expanding our team, focusing on diversity and inclusion, and creating a work environment that supports a broad range of backgrounds and experiences,” said Tonya Eggspuehler, AVP of Talent Management. “With the safety of our workforce at the forefront, we created an internal review panel that includes a one-on-one conversation with the individual to understand the context and circumstances of their conviction.”
Union Pacific also established partnerships with community agencies that can help identify talent and provide wraparound services to support the success of second chance hires. Workforce Resources (WR) employees at Union Pacific also attended training to understand how to recruit and retain second chance individuals.
“A key differentiator for us is collaborating with high-quality community partners to ensure second chance candidates are prepared, trained and supported during their Union Pacific employment,” Eggspuehler said. “We want to set up our existing team for success as well, so we proactively provided sensitivity training for WR employees involved throughout the hiring and onboarding process.”
Union Pacific’s second chance hiring program began before the current tight labor market conditions, so it is already in full swing; by the end of 2022, 17 locations along its network will have second chance hiring in place, including cities in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, California, Oregon and Washington.
Second Chance Hiring Outcomes
Second chance hiring programs benefit participants by providing employment opportunities. But there are ripple effects beyond that. Employed individuals have lower recidivism rates, which in turn is a benefit to their families and communities.
Two years after release, employed individuals are twice as likely to have avoided arrest as their unemployed counterparts. Children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be imprisoned themselves.
“One of our company’s key stakeholders is the communities in which we live and work. By leading the way with second chance hiring, we are giving back to the communities through employment opportunities and providing a different path. We can help break the cycle that has plagued these communities by providing employment opportunities that allow them to sustain a household,” Eggspuehler said. “We have heard from many employees that they are proud Union Pacific is offering second chance hiring, as they have a friend or family member who may have made a regrettable choice early in life but want to work and could be a great fit for a job at Union Pacific.”
Benefits for Companies
Studies in a variety of industries demonstrate that companies with second chance hiring programs stand to gain employees who are motivated and loyal to the organization.
- A study of 1.3 million United States military enlistees shows that those with criminal records were promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than other enlistees. They also had the same attrition rates due to poor performance as their peers without records.
- A study of call center employees found that individuals with criminal records had longer tenure and were less likely to quit than those without records.
- A Johns Hopkins Hospital study found that after “banning the box” on initial applications and making hiring decisions based on merit and the relevance of prior convictions to particular jobs, second chance hires exhibited a lower turnover rate than those with no records.
This evidence illustrates that broad stereotypes about people with criminal records have no real-world basis — second chance hires have a lot to offer companies willing to shed those stereotypes.
While no single initiative will solve current labor market challenges, second chance hiring can help organizations, including transportation companies, fill jobs while also doing what is right for the community.
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