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Second Chance Hiring Enhances Talent Pipeline, Empowers People

North Carolina is only as strong as our people. Our state is more competitive when every individual has the chance to be productive and successful. By empowering each person, regardless of their circumstance, with broader pathways to education and employment, we will fuel our talent supply while offering opportunity and optimism to every North Carolinian – such as those burdened with a criminal record who are desperately seeking a second chance.

This summer, the General Assembly unanimously passed two NC Chamber-backed bills that will improve educational resources for prison inmates and remove obstacles preventing many North Carolinians with criminal records from entering the workforce. The Second Chance Act establishes a positive step for boosting North Carolina’s talent pipeline and creates a compassionate approach for advancing access to employment. Jeffrey Korzenik, chief investment strategist and senior vice president for Fifth Third Bank, is an advocate for “second chance” hires. He recently spoke to the NC Chamber team about the benefits and best practices business leaders may want to consider when adopting “second chance” hiring strategies.

NC Chamber: How did you become aware of the business case for hiring people with criminal records?

JK: My education actually started in Charlotte, with a meal at the King’s Kitchen. Seeing the wonderful work done by the King’s Kitchen and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Dream Center in helping people who’ve been marginalized become productive contributors to the economy and their community got me asking questions. I sought out more and more enterprises that gave second chances for employment and realized this was a real opportunity for our whole economy.

Even with the current unemployment numbers, why are “second chance” hires significant to businesses for addressing talent supply challenges and turnover rates?

I have been touching base with second chance employers throughout the pandemic. None of them are changing their hiring practices despite the abundance of traditional workers. The most common word used to describe the attributes of second chance hires is “grit” – at a time when employers can’t get workers to return, second chance hires are used to navigating risks and are typically grateful for the opportunity to work. Longer term, our birth rates suggest that finding good workers will only get harder. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.

How is “second chance” hiring different from “ban the box” policies?

“Ban the box” is a well-intended policy to get employers to not discard candidates with criminal records. Like most “short-cuts,” it has had very mixed results and appears to be leading some employers to avoid whole populations of prospective employees, whether they have a record or not. Some research suggests that “ban the box” policies hurt marginalized populations. Our own work promotes a very specific model of hiring people with records: 1) finding candidates who are truly ready to turn their lives around, and 2) making sure they have the tools to stay employed. Typically, this “true second chance” model is accomplished by businesses partnering with nonprofits.

How do employers determine which candidates are ready for employment?

This is essentially a character assessment – employers who have been doing this for a long time tend to get very good at this. For those starting out, it is critical to rely on partners; typically these are nonprofits that work closely with people with criminal records and have a sufficient relationship to assess character, but partners can also be parole officers, churches, judges, or prisons.

What are some best practices that business leaders should follow for successful “second chance” hiring?

Beyond following a model of partnership with nonprofits, businesses generally must take a critical look at their recruiting process. For example, many companies will not automatically exclude people with records, but their secondary review process is dictated by people who have no vested interest in ever saying “yes” to an applicant with a background. One way to mitigate this problem is to include line-of-business managers in the process. Another best practice is to let a background check speak for itself rather than requiring a candidate’s self-disclosure match exactly to the background search. A candidate legitimately may not know exactly what a background check will show, and some good candidates have been discarded as “dishonest” when their disclosure did not match the records.

Will you share a story about a “second-chancer” making a positive impact at work?

Let me share the story of JBM Packaging, a second chance employer in Ohio that is the subject of the case study chapter in my book. JBM came to second chance hiring in desperation – they simply couldn’t find enough employees to grow their business. Through fits and starts and great leadership from their CEO Marcus Sheanshang, they are now having tremendous growth thanks, in part, to the 31 of their 150 employees who are second chance hires. Even the skeptics within the company have turned around, observing that their “Fair Chance” (the name of their program) are among their hardest-working, most dedicated employees. The company has a training program in a prison (and pays a training stipend) which creates a steady pipeline of skilled talent. What’s really striking is how this initiative has transformed and reinvigorated the company’s purpose: “Better Solutions. Better Lives. Better World.” Their story is frankly my favorite chapter in my book!

Why are you passionate about promoting “second chance” hiring strategies? Have you always believed that people deserve a second chance?

Among people who are involved in criminal justice issues, I tend to be on the “law and order” side – actions should have consequences up to and including incarceration. I have great respect for people in law enforcement. But something like 95% of people who are incarcerated will eventually be free, so as both a practical and moral matter, they need opportunities. I trace my openness back to a childhood incident. My late father did the “heavy lifting” in our family – raised in poverty to an immigrant family, he was first in his family to go to college, enlisting in World War II at age 17, and doubling up on courses to use the GI Bill to earn degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Law School in four years. He never lost touch with his roots and visited his old neighborhood frequently; sometimes I accompanied him on these “errands.” When I was 10 or 12, we visited a small shop owner. As we were leaving, my father mentioned that this friend had been to prison. When I asked about the nature of the crime, my father told me, “murder – a crime of passion.” He added, “He’s done his time” – that’s a lesson I never forgot.  People who have “done their time” should have the chance to be better than their worst moments.

Do you see “second chance” hiring as a pathway to advancing racial equity and social justice?

I conducted this research to solve the labor problems of the companies we serve as bankers, but there was always the knowledge that this would make our communities better. We live in a nation where 19 million Americans have a felony conviction. Certain communities are disproportionately represented; one in three Black men in America has a felony conviction. We cannot hope to achieve any kind of equality of opportunity until we open the doors of employment to people who have the burden of a criminal record. One of the reasons that we have had such awful outcomes in criminal justice is because the business community has not “been at the table.” Business professionals are wonderful problem solvers – we need to be part of providing solutions to the important societal challenges.