Want a Safe Workplace? Hire People with Criminal Backgrounds.


In March, Washington State passed “Ban the Box” legislation – so called because of the ubiquitous yes/no checkbox that follows the question on job applications: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”   Most companies use this checkbox to eliminate an entire group from consideration – the formerly incarcerated.

Many of us think this approach makes sense.  We want our workplaces to be safe and productive, and so we should keep dangerous people out.  We agree.  But that doesn’t mean barring someone with excellent skills just because she or he has a criminal record.

Generally, people believe that past behavior is predictive of future conduct.  Although compelling, when it concerns people with criminal records, this belief is simply wrong.  Employees with criminal records stay on the job longer, are less likely to leave voluntarily, and are no more likely to be fired than employees without records.

Likewise, fear that employing people with criminal backgrounds will increase general overhead does not hold water.  Including people with backgrounds does not lead to skyrocketing insurance rates or the canceling of liability policies.

When people with criminal backgrounds are given a chance – instead of being summarily rejected – we all benefit.  People with jobs, can rebuild their families and communities, and they become a source of tax revenues rather than a drain on state coffers.  Public safety also improves. People with jobs are much less likely to commit crimes.

Evidence must drive hiring decisions, not a checkbox on a job application.

All of the positive impacts – increased skilled-labor supply, more cohesive families and communities, reduced government costs, and increased public safety – will not be realized if companies keep running away from criminal backgrounds.

The private sector can be a source of new attitudes and minds in the truly social sphere. That’s where What’s Next Washington comes in.

What’s Next Washington is a Seattle-based nonprofit prototyping a new way to change attitudes and hiring practices.  Next month, it is hosting a select number of human resource directors and employment-law lawyers (those who often serve as hiring “gatekeepers”) to explore liability concerns, insurance issues, and the data and experience around second-chance hiring.

The goal isn’t to make a splash or make demands or to force change.  Rather, it is to provide participants the “space” to engage in a thoughtful, open conversation about worries on both sides of the employment gap.  From that conversation, we hope employers will choose to include the entire pool of skilled labor in hiring decisions.  If so, the prototype will be a success, and What’s Next Washington will host additional convenings in the Puget Sound region and across the state.

Want to participate or learn more?  Contact us.