I’m among the thousands of job seekers who have to check “yes” next to the criminal history question on their applications. I hate that box. Especially with online forms, that checkmark feels like an immediate consignment of 30 to 45 minutes of work to the virtual wastebasket — never mind the company’s boilerplate assurance otherwise. Of course, I can’t be absolutely sure what happens to my resume after I press “submit,” but I do know this much: every job interview I’ve landed since my release from prison came to me through a process that allowed me to disclose my criminal history in front of a person, rather than on an application.
Coincidence? Not likely.
According to research cited by the National Institute of Justice, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of job callbacks by almost 50 percent, though applicants' success rates improve substantially if they personally interact with a hiring manager at some point in the process. That's why I’m encouraged by the fact that earlier this month more than a dozen of the nation's top employers enthusiastically signed President Barack Obama's Fair Chance Business Pledge, calling on others to follow suit. The pledge states that “at its heart, America is a nation of second chances,” and it asks private organizations to eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records, beginning with “banning the box” — that is, delaying the investigation of criminal history until later in the hiring process.
No checkbox? Already my future looks a lot brighter.
Christians know better than any the transformative power of an unmerited second chance.
To be clear, this isn’t about limiting employers’ rights. It’s about organizations self-consciously exercising their prerogative of discretion in proper context — in terms of relationships rather than categories. Employers admit that asking about criminal history too early can unnecessarily bias them against ex-offenders, preventing them from objectively assessing their potential value for their organizations. They recognize that interviewers who get to know the person behind the offense are more disposed to work around a candidate’s tarnished past in order to secure a promising human resource, and that’s good for business.
It’s good citizenship, too. In the long run, such a relatively minor policy shift could significantly impact the problem of recidivism in our communities, which is why I hope Christians will embrace the pledge and apply winsome pressure at our places of work to expand the reach of restorative hiring practices. We know better than any the transformative power of an unmerited second chance, and Scripture already supplies the imperative in Ephesians 4:28. “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer,” Paul says, “but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” Two audiences are in mind here. First there’s the explicit command for the ex-offender: “Get a job so you can make amends.” Then there’s the implicit summons for the rest of us: “Let him labor.”
For broken people on the path to new life, barriers to employment are not merely inconvenient; they’re financially crippling and spiritually demoralizing. If we take the mission of the Fair Chance Business Pledge to heart, we’ll discover a very real opportunity to be salt and light within our organizations. And as we help ex-offenders find meaningful jobs, we do far more than keep men and women out of prison. We advance the work of a God whose love is most perfectly manifested in second chances.