Humor me for a moment, let’s pretend we are hiring managers in HR, and we’re looking at our final two applicants for a job opening. Candidate A seems to generally be what we are looking for, maybe they meet our qualifications and then some, but besides being qualified nothing else really stands out about this candidate. Candidate B has made it as far as they have in this hiring process because of their unique background and résumé. Candidate B has had a long and varied work history, but there are some year-long gaps between jobs. We find out in interviews that candidate B comes with priceless life experience that can’t be measured on paper, however, their background check came back with some less-than-stellar information that explains the gaps in their résumé.
When questioned about this, candidate B is upfront and honest about all parts of their history, the good and the not-so-good. They seem to be confidently unashamed of their life’s narrative, which initially comes off as a surprise to you, seeing as you assumed that a spotty criminal record is something that would elicit feelings of shame and embarrassment. The story they tell is about the challenging position from which they began their life, and how over the years they defied the odds at every turn. Their harrowing tale reminds you that some people take their first breath on this planet with the cards already stacked against them, and what do they often receive from the world in response? Zero empathy. Candidate B concludes their turbulent narrative with what they have learned along the way about not only themselves, but the world at large and smarter strategies to navigate it. Their compelling authenticity is impossible to ignore and you’re impressed by the way candidate B has taken advantage of every opportunity available to them to grow, learn, and develop new skills— it shows a clear commitment to the betterment of their future and demonstrates a particular, unique work ethic that candidate A (with no criminal record) does not seem to have.
So what do you do? Do you play it safe and hire candidate A who is “perfect” on paper but lacks the unique, character-building experiences of candidate B? Or do you hire candidate B with a criminal record and a non-traditional education journey, but enough perseverance, grit, charisma, and life experience to share with the whole organization? There is no single correct answer, but personally, I would hire candidate B. Seeing as one in three American adults have a criminal record (1), I would wager there’s incredible benefits to gain from building a staff that reflects the diversity of life experience that our customers or clients may very well have themselves. Never mind the benefits that the rest of my personnel and I stand to enjoy from being a part of a group containing such a multitude of perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds. Washington State University even asserts these benefits can include increased productivity, creativity, cultural awareness, and an improved reputation as an organization (2).
In Rhode Island, the law mandates that all public and private employers with more than four employees must inform a job applicant that they are looking into their criminal history; and they may only do so during the applicant’s first interview or later. Additionally, if an employer rejects an applicant based on this background check, they must provide the name and address of the company that provided the background check. Failure to abide by these regulations may result in punishment, including steep fines. These laws are in place to protect job seekers from companies that provide potential employers with incorrect criminal history information, as well as affording job seekers some level of protection from being rejected before given a fair chance (3). However, ultimately, employers may still reject an applicant because of their criminal record. So it is the opinion of those who work closely with the previously incarcerated that these Rhode Island laws— while better than nothing— realistically don’t do nearly enough to level the playing field for job seekers with a criminal record.
Perhaps with all those previously described laws and hiring procedures, you’re still not convinced that hiring candidate B would be your best option in my proposed hypothetical situation. Fair enough. When it comes down to it, employers’ “bottom line” is often their primary concern. If that sounds like where you’re coming from, then surely the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) will be of interest to you. The WOTC is a federal tax credit made available to employers who hire individuals that come from groups experiencing great barriers to gaining consistent employment. These eligible individuals include but are not limited to: veterans, SNAP (food stamp) recipients, and of course, the previously incarcerated (within one year of release). After a simple application process that requires very little paperwork, employers stand to reduce anywhere from $1,200 to $9,600 in federal income tax liability, per person hired. Employers are not only allowed to, but encouraged to multiply this benefit by hiring an unlimited number of eligible employees (4). If additional security to insure this choice is important to you, then you will probably be pleased to hear that Rhode Island employers are able to access federal bonds to insure losses at zero cost, these federal bonds are purchased by the state and can go into effect on a new hire’s first day (5).
With these no-brainer benefits available to Rhode Island employers, advocates for the previously incarcerated are left pondering one important question: why don’t more employers take advantage of this opportunity? The first potential answer is that they’re simply unaware of its existence, an easily avoidable problem I hope to have begun to dismantle with this piece. The second potential answer is the more insidious and onerous of the two: some people are simply not ready to challenge their own prejudice. They discover anything other than a squeaky clean background check, and suddenly, whatever potential they saw that brought the applicant to this round of interviews is instantaneously dead on arrival. Ironically, this widespread fear and skepticism of the previously incarcerated as quality employees is a significant contributing factor to their inability to secure a legal way to support themselves and their families. These choices leave previously incarcerated job seekers exponentially more likely to make decisions that land them back in prison (6). In other words, closed-minded and resistant employers’ prejudice creates the exact problem they think they’re avoiding by not hiring someone with a criminal record.
So, now equipped with this knowledge, I’ll leave you to ask yourself if you will be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution. Ask yourself: would you hire candidate A, or candidate B?
Interested in taking advantage of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC)? Contact the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training’s Business Workforce Center at
1-888-616-JOBS (5627) or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in taking advantage of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit or have any other questions about the program.
Friedman, Matthew. “Just Facts: As Many Americans Have Criminal Records as College Diplomas.” Brennan Center for Justice, 17 Nov. 2015, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/just-facts-many-americans-have-criminal-records-college-diplomas.
Washington State University. “10 Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace.” WSU Online MBA, 14 Jan. 2021, https://onlinemba.wsu.edu/blog/10-benefits-of-diversity-in-the-workplace/.
Matthew J. Rodgers “Rhode Island Background Check: A Complete Guide .” Iprospectcheck, 14 Aug. 2021, https://iprospectcheck.com/rhode-island-background-check/.
U.S. Dept. of Labor and Training. “What Is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit?” Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training , RI Gov, Feb. 2003, https://dlt.ri.gov/sites/g/files/xkgbur571/files/documents/pdf/wc/SelfInsureApplication.pdf.
OpenDoors. “Strengthening Your Business.” OpenDoors, OpenDoors, http://www.opendoorsri.org/anemployer.
Rhode Island Family Life Center. “Employment & Prisoner Reentry in Rhode Island.” Issue Brief on the Impact of Incarceration & Reentry, Rhode Island Family Life Center, May 2004, http://www.opendoorsri.org/sites/default/files/employmentbrief.pdf.