SmartRecruiters Hiring Success Journal
Bridging Worlds from Prison to Position

From Prison to Position: Teaching Businesses How to Hire Returning Citizens

Last May, SmartRecruiters organized an event to help San Francisco’s tech sector make progressive strides towards offering fair, second chances to individuals with criminal histories.

We often hear of companies expressing their interest in the benefits of open dialogue between corporations and potential employees who served time. Some of those companies are taking steps towards actively hiring them. As unemployment rates continue to hover at or below historically low percentages, it appears that some companies are finally taking action by providing more equal opportunities to help these individuals return to the workforce.

According to a survey conducted by recruitment and staffing services firm Adecco USA, 49 percent of organizations are “loosening” requirements because they are unable to find enough qualified candidates. While this trend signals a positive change in perception, a growing number of organizations are taking a more proactive approach by elevating this historically underserved minority through professional training.

Last spring, SmartRecruiters hosted the “Bridging Worlds: From Prison to Position” event, inviting formerly incarcerated individuals—also known as “returning citizens”—along with talent acquisition professionals to the company’s downtown San Francisco office. The group shared actionable insights and engaged in discussions on changing attitudes towards hiring second-chance candidates.

Throughout the evening, SmartRecruiters and its partners provided interview coaching, workshopped resumes, offered mentorship advice, and led in-depth conversations on background checks. Over 50 recruiters, human resources professionals, and representatives from local nonprofits interacted with the group of formerly incarcerated individuals, some of whom served upwards of 35-year sentences.

“It’s work like this that keeps me motivated,” said Roy Baladi, Head of Marketplace for SmartRecruiters. Alongside colleagues and SmartRecruiters’ Founder & CEO Jerome Ternynck, Baladi spearheaded discussions, fielded questions, and introduced the participating organizations at the Bridging Worlds event at SmartRecruiters’ headquarters.

The nonprofit organizations in attendance earned notoriety throughout the Bay Area and beyond for their activism in helping returning citizens find gainful employment. The Anti-Recidivism Coalition and the Center for Employment Opportunities assist formerly incarcerated individuals obtain jobs; Code Tenderloin removes barriers to securing long-term employment by providing education, opportunity, and support to participants, including those with criminal records; Defy of Northern California uses an entrepreneurship model to create career opportunities for people with criminal histories; the Southern California firm 70 Million Jobs connects candidates with criminal records to companies that offer second-chance jobs.

“Each (returning citizen) spoke with a certain softness and grace I’d never likened to someone who had spent the better part of their life confined to a jail cell,” wrote Abigail H. Scott, who works as a Customer Success Specialist at Glassdoor. She continued, “There is a strength within them that I had not been in the presence of before.”

The Bridging Worlds event, described as “an inspiring pact between recruiters and formerly incarcerated individuals,” was galvanized by Baladi & Ternynck’s experience visiting a prison in 2018. During their stay, they forged strong bonds with the inmates. “I learned how to get back in touch with my own humanity,” said Baladi. 

This experience soon incited an idea: bridge the gap between intent and action by providing real second chances for returning citizens. At its core, the Bridging Worlds event encouraged more open dialogue between people who served time and companies, especially at the executive level. 

In certain US cities, moving the needle towards greater equality for formerly incarcerated individuals requires legal reinforcement. Known as The Fair Chance Ordinance (FCO), this law grants individuals with criminal histories equal opportunity for employment and imposes certain restrictions on employer inquiries into candidates’ criminal records.

Currently, more than 150 cities and counties and 35 states have adopted some form of fair chance legislation. The success of Fair Chance Ordinances in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York stems from FCO requirements on employers to complete a detailed analysis of why, if a candidate is rejected due to criminal history, their dismissal relates to their specific convictions. For example, a candidate with a DUI on their record wouldn’t necessarily be disqualified from working in a call center, but might be rejected for a position as a truck driver.

Before the FCO was enacted in San Francisco in 2014, “a company wasn’t required to explain its rationale for rejecting someone with a criminal record,” said Ian Harriman, Sales Manager at Checkr, a San Francisco firm that aggressively hires candidates with criminal histories. Now, if a company is suspected of discrimination due to a candidate’s criminal history, the FCO provides legal recourse—for candidates and businesses. 

“A candidate can ask to see documentation of the decision,” said Harriman, “to get a sense if the company was acting in bad faith.” If so, watchdog groups like the Human Rights Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can intervene.

Harriman suspects companies might be wary of hiring persons with criminal histories for fear of negligent hiring lawsuits. Previously, businesses were liable for any damages caused by the actions of an employee where it could be proven a hiring manager knew they were a “risk”. However, companies operating in cities with fair chance or “ban the box” laws can now defend themselves against such allegations by citing legal precedence. In this way, the FCO was designed not only to assist candidates with criminal histories find jobs, but to protect—and encourage—employers to hire them without fear of negligence suits.

However, legislation cannot be the only motivator for companies. Harriman urges employees to engage with their human resources teams to discuss policies and attitudes around hiring returning citizens. “The most impact comes when people get hired,” and continue to seek out this underserved minority.

In short: The more success stories we hear about individuals with criminal histories securing jobs and finding success in their positions, the easier it will be for others to follow.

To conclude SmartRecruiters’ Bridging Worlds event, all returning citizens in attendance were invited to apply for three job openings—Customer Support Representative, Influencer Marketing Manager, and Product Operations Specialist. With the promise of interview opportunities to come, this was a welcome step towards building a bridge that connects individuals with criminal histories to forward-thinking organizations.

“The more people understand the humanity of others,” said Harriman, “the more likely they are to hire them.”

Ed Kressy

Ed Kressy