Unions @ Work

Open Hiring: “What’s Past Is Prologue”—Or Is It?

By Tim Murphy

I got to thinking of this quote from the Shakespeare play, The Tempest, after reading a recent New York Times article about employers who engage in open hiring: they don’t conduct background checks—criminal, credit, or drug testing—or job interviews. After some digging (by that I mean Googling), it appears that Shakespeare meant the quote to convey that the past doesn’t matter, only the future does. Ironically, the current common understanding of the quote is the opposite: that the past is everything in predicting the future.     

Well, anyway…what if you bounced all the “checks?”

The article, “No Background Check, Drug Test or Credit Check. You’re Hired!” profiled a number of businesses that have either completely abandoned background checks or have sought out and embraced job candidates with criminal pasts. Proponents of a more open hiring process are most interested in job candidates’ futures not their pasts.  Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York conducts no background checks or interviews.  Job candidates merely sign up on a sheet and are hired as positions become available. It hired all of its 71 employees this way and has been profitable since 2009. The folks at Greyston Bakery established the Center for Open Hiring to help other employers interested in open hiring.

Public attitudes—across the political spectrum—have coalesced around the need to give second chances to those with criminal pasts. “Ban the box” initiatives are one sign of that consensus as are efforts to restore the vote to convicted felons. (For more information about the Massachusetts Ban the Box Law, please see our earlier posts here and here.) For others, interest in more open hiring is driven by worker scarcity.

The historical reluctance of businesses to take a chance on those with criminal records—due to concerns over theft, turnover, lack of skills, and customer opinion—has begun to slowly change, according to the article, as the facts underlying these concerns come into question. According to one study, the U.S. military has found that service members with felony convictions were promoted quicker and higher. Another study showed lower turnover among employees with criminal records. While a SHRM survey revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents were comfortable with businesses that hired those with criminal records.

Johns Hopkins Health System has successfully experimented with a more open hiring approach. It hired 1,000 employees with criminal records; only one of whom turned out to be a problem. Johns Hopkins had an outside organization train recently released prisoners on how to get and keep a job with a focus on soft skills, such as how to shake hands and accept criticism. Other businesses mentioned in the article had help with vetting and training as well.

Advocates for open hiring and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are prodding employers to hire in a more open-minded way, as opposed to automatically denying jobs if there is a criminal past.  The EEOC takes the position that blanket hiring policies that exclude applicants with felony or other arrest records discriminate against people with convictions, which disproportionately impacts people of color.

But open hiring will not work for many employers. For instance, employers who serve vulnerable populations must conduct criminal background checks in order to help protect those who cannot protect themselves. Other employers are required by law or regulation or safety concerns to conduct drug or alcohol testing on job applicants. Still other employers are required to conduct credit checks on prospective employees. 

Ronald Reagan may have been right when he said the best social program is a job, but well-intentioned employers should proceed with caution before taking the leap to more open hiring.         

Note: Tina Rosenberg wrote the article. She co-founded the Solutions Journalism Network which “supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.” Her articles appear in the New York Times’ Fixes column.  To receive email alerts for Fixes columns, sign up here.

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