From January through September 2023, Afton collaborated with the Corporate Coalition of Chicago, Cara Plus, and the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance to facilitate the inaugural Fair Chance Hiring (FCH) Initiative, a business-led effort to reduce barriers to hiring individuals with criminal justice involvement. We recently sat down with the Initiative’s Program Director, Steph Dolan, and co-facilitator, Liana Bran, to talk about the origins of this work, why it’s so important, and what impact it’s had to date.

Afton: First, for those that may not know, what does the term ‘fair chance talent’ mean?

FCH Initiative: It refers to individuals who have either been incarcerated, have a prior conviction, or have a prior arrest. When folks hear this phrase, they often only think of people who have at some point in their lives served time in prison. However, one-third of the adult working age population has a criminal record. A person does not have to have been incarcerated; someone with a 10-year-old DUI falls into this category. Through this Initiative, we want to demystify who is part of a ‘fair chance’ hiring pool. We want to reframe the narrative and shine a spotlight on just how many folks have been and continue to be impacted by the criminal legal system.

Afton: What are some of the pervasive myths or perceived roadblocks employers cite related to fair chance hiring?

FCH Initiative: There are three main things that usually come up. First, companies often cite their industry’s regulatory requirement as being a barrier to hiring fair chance talent, but this blanket statement leaves out a lot. Sure, there might be some folks who won’t be able to be hired for a specific role because they possess a disqualifying record, however, there are many ways that organizations can make it work–regulatory requirements alone should not stop you from hiring individuals with prior convictions or arrests.

Second, companies have a lot of perceptions about risk, about what they’ll be liable for if their hire commits another crime. To address this, many companies set their background check lookback period to be 7-10 years, often disqualifying individuals who have a conviction within that timeframe. But why? Why are we looking at 10 years? Most people are not career criminals. They may have made one choice that led to an arrest or conviction, but they’re not necessarily repeating that behavior again and again. Often, individuals take these actions because of their limited economic opportunity, so having a job addresses this need.

Third, companies are subject to implicit bias and often have preconceived notions about what kind of worker someone with a criminal record will be. However, in practice, employers are finding fair chance hires have higher retention rates and are focused not only on keeping a job but in advancing, as well. As one example, fair chance hires at Dave’s Killer Bread Company outperformed traditional hires in attendance, policy, and behavioral violations, and were promoted faster over a three-year period.

Afton: How was the Fair Chance Hiring Initiative launched?

FCH Initiative: The Corporate Coalition decided to pursue a fair chance hiring cohort based on the interest of our Coalition members. In 2022, Jeff Korzenik, a thought leader in this space and author of the book Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community, presented to our membership about the hiring challenges many employers are facing, particularly coming out of Covid. The U.S. is currently experiencing a labor shortage that requires employers to look to non-traditional or ‘untapped talent’ pools– like individuals with prior arrests or convictions–for their hiring. In making this business case, our members expressed resounding interest in participating in a cohort that would help them examine their own hiring and retention practices related to fair chance talent.

Once our membership was on board, we were able to secure funding from the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance, JP Morgan Chase and the McCormick Foundation to launch an inaugural cohort. We also partnered with Cara Collective—an organization with a long history of helping individuals impacted by the criminal legal system to secure employment—and its expansion arm, Cara Plus.

Afton: What were the goals of this first cohort?

FCH Initiative: The goals of the Initiative are to demonstrate and promote models of successful fair-chance hiring, to build a cross-industry group of local champions for fair chance hiring to scale the effort, and ultimately to increase the number of people with criminal records gaining productive, family-supportive employment. In this first cohort, we worked with eight companies that were largely national or global in scale, ranging from financial services and health care to transportation, academia, and retail. Over the course of nine months, we met monthly to discuss topics such as overcoming regulatory barriers, developing talent pipeline partners, revising background check processes, overcoming internal barriers and external perceptions, and offering supportive wrap-around supports to ensure retention and advancement of new hires.

Afton: What outcomes, successes, or results did you see from this first cohort?

FCH Initiative: So many amazing things occurred! Here are some examples:

  • The majority of cohort members have created internal stakeholder groups to continue to move this work forward, generate organizational buy-in, and influence culture change.
  • Many are drafting language to include in their job postings to indicate they are “fair chance employers” and encouraging those with arrests or convictions to apply.
  • One company is working to adjust their background check lookback period from 7 years to 5 years.
  • All cohort members identified two or three roles that could be suited for a fair chance hiring pilot and received feedback on these job postings to ensure they represent more inclusive hiring practices, such as highlighting transferrable skills and listing responsibilities in clear, jargon-free language.
  • Two companies are drafting additional content on their background check processes to communicate expectations more transparently with interested job seekers.

Afton: For folks reading this who may be interested, what actions they can take to hire more fair chance talent?

FCH Initiative: There are three things organizations can do right away to make change:

  1. Identify roles within your company that are fair chance friendly and make that known! Let applicants know you’re open to hiring individuals with records by posting transparent communication on your website and in the job descriptions themselves.
  2. Partner with workforce development organizations in your area that specialize in supporting fair chance talent. They will be able to provide resources to you and the employee to ensure the hiring, onboarding, and retention process goes smoothly.
  3. To the extent you can, conduct more individualized assessments for candidates based on the nature of the role you’re hiring for, the nature of the conviction, and the time that’s elapsed since the conviction took place. This individualized approach to your background check process will help you keep the door open to as many people as possible.

Afton: What comes next for the Fair Chance Hiring Initiative?

FCH Initiative: We are currently recruiting employers for our next cohort, which will kick off in January 2024. Reach out to Steph ([email protected]) for more information. And, for those interested in additional tools to support fair chance talent, check out The AdvoKit from Cara Plus or reach out to Liana at [email protected].

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