The City of San Francisco banned the use of criminal histories as part of the pre-employment process. Several other government jurisdictions have considered similar legislation. This trend is born of the idea that criminal histories may be racist (because minorities tend to be convicted at a higher rate than non-minorities) and that it exacerbates the unemployment problem – especially among those with criminal records. OK – so I am sympathetic to the whole concern about racism creeping into our judicial system and I understand how that can correlate to unintended job discrimination. But isn’t this more an issue that should be taken up at the judicial level? When it comes down to our responsibilities as hiring professionals, aren’t we the ones best suited to assess whether a person represents a “bad hire” for our companies? If a person represents a real risk to the safety of our employees or our customers or if the person could potentially abuse their position to hurt our company and our shareholders through fraud or theft or some other action that reflects poorly on the company – shouldn’t we try and reduce that risk? Of course we should!
But for me the more interesting question (and more difficult challenge) is how do we truly assess that risk and make smart hiring decisions about people with previous legal or drug problems. Should they all be damned forever and a day? Story ended. That would be the easy way to handle the problem. No need to worry about complex hiring procedures or concerns that people won’t follow the exact dictates of the company. We hire no one with a previous conviction or a previous problem with drugs. Period!
We’re better than that.
A previous conviction does not have to be a permanent sentence of unemployment. The real solution to the problem above is that criminal history alone should not be the only reason for rejecting a candidate. Yes – I understand (I am in the background checking business after all) that there are very real circumstance that mean zero tolerance (access to vulnerable populations like children or elderly for example) where the risk is just too great. But that is what I mean when I say that a criminal history record alone should not decide the hire/no hire choice. A criminal history record PLUS a high sensitive position – should mean no hire. Other situations such as repeat offenders, people with a pattern of multiple problems, a conviction along with lying on your resume might all be reasons for rejecting a candidate. Patterns and context should dictate hiring risk – not just single data points. Its people we are dealing with and people can make mistakes and still move beyond them. This is where our professionalism comes in. We use data to help make decisions – we don’t let data make the decisions for us.