The Case for Hiring Ex-Offenders
A Q&A with David Rattray, executive vice president of the Center for Education Excellence and Talent Development at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
Representing more than 1,650 member companies with 650,000-plus employees, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce has taken a prominent role in supporting education and career pathways for formerly incarcerated men and women. That includes advocacy work, such as supporting California’s Proposition 47, which decriminalized certain drug offenses, and the Chamber’s Creating Opportunities and Real Experiences (CORE) internship program, which trains young adults and helps them obtain work experience.
David Rattray, a 20-plus-year veteran of the food service industry, spoke about why employing formerly incarcerated adults is good for business, what gets in the way of hiring, and how companies can and should adapt. He is executive vice president of the Center for Education Excellence and Talent Development at the Chamber and president of UNITE-LA, the school-to-career partnership of Los Angeles.
For businesses, what’s the benefit of hiring formerly incarcerated workers?
There’s an enormous amount of talent, and it comes in every shape, just like the overall workforce. These are not only people who can do low-wage, low-skilled work. There are a lot of high-skilled workers and people who are super entrepreneurial and know how to get stuff done. Every type of skill, personality, and character trait exists in this population, just like it does in the larger population.
Are employers turning to ex-prisoners because they have no choice in a tight labor market?
This is a moment in which we can get a lot of ex-convicts back into labor markets. What I wouldn’t want to do is create an impression that this is a marginal pool for when you’re desperate. I’d rather emphasize that there’s real talent here, in some cases the best talent, regardless of economic swings.
Even if it’s not about economic swings, why is this especially important now?
This was a smaller part of the adult population when we had much lower incarceration rates. As sentencing laws became harsher, it’s become an enormous portion of our adult workforce. That challenges us to think differently about something that 30 or 40 years ago seemed like a marginal issue. Employer practices, in some ways, are a relic. Companies can’t afford to exclude a huge portion of the talent pool.
What gets in the way of hiring?
Companies get flooded with resumes. It’s time-consuming to examine 100 resumes or more for one position. It’s natural for a company to come up with pretty simple criteria, like not having a criminal record, to just skim off the top of a bunch of resumes.
Companies are often prohibited by law from asking about criminal records. How do you talk about it in an interview?
Like in any job interview, interviewers should invite candidates to make their case. As they do, the natural thing is to walk through their work history. Somebody who’s been incarcerated is going to have gaps. Employers often find out someone has a criminal past without directly asking.
You want the candidate to acknowledge their experience and say, “Here’s the truth. Here’s who I am, and here’s what’s happened to me,” and take it as an opportunity to explain their own fallibility, the realities of what they faced, and what happened. You would hope there’s something that demonstrates growth.
How realistic is it for job seekers to volunteer that information?
It’s so natural and rational for someone who’s been incarcerated to think that if I tell you this, it’s a guarantee I will not get the job. Why would I think that I somehow would score points by being candid? It is important that employers understand that fear.
How can senior management help when it comes to hiring applicants with criminal records?
In most cases, there’s no reason for a criminal record to rule out a candidate, but many employers come up with a blanket policy. Senior management has to give hiring managers cover to avoid knee-jerk noes and balance risk with a hiring policy that’s proactive, that increases the possibility of a lot of yeses.