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Hiring Formerly Incarcerated People

By March 19, 2024No Comments
Lady justice

Building a great team that is dedicated to your organization’s long-term vision can be a challenge. As a nonprofit, you may not have the ability to offer remuneration and benefits comparable to similar public and private-sector positions, which can shrink your pool of applicants. Additionally, finding people who are passionate about the goals of your organization can be challenging. Most job applicants are likely looking at the job market as just that; a market. You’re just one of several competing organizations, which can put you at a disadvantage.

These challenges have led some to rethink common tendencies and best practices, including on the issue of background checks. Imagine you’ve found a candidate who is a great fit, was well-liked during the interview process, and had solid references. However, once you run a background check, you see they were formerly incarcerated, and you get some basic information about their criminal history. This puts you and your hiring team in a difficult position, as you may feel some discomfort about hiring someone with a criminal past. More and more organizations are starting to rethink this stigma and take a more nuanced approach. Additionally, new laws have created structures and incentives for hiring and retaining formerly incarcerated persons (FIPs). Here’s what to consider when hiring FIPs:

Incarceration and recidivism

The incarceration rate in the United States has increased exponentially over the last 50 years, with most of the crimes being drug-related offenses. This has created a growing number of FIPs who struggle with employment, with up to 60% unable to find work within four years of release. Because there is a much higher recidivism rate amongst unemployed FIPs, this has led to a vicious cycle whereby former prisoners struggle to find work, return to crime as a result, and are subsequently arrested again. Research shows that many hiring organizations still practice bias against FIPs, exacerbating the problem and feeding this cycle.

Legal considerations

In an effort to help break the cycle, many states and cities have put “Ban the Box” laws in place. These laws vary in terms of requirements, but the central idea is that hiring organizations are not allowed to ask job applicants about any criminal history until a provisional job offer has been proffered. In other words, if you are in a state or region subject to a Ban the Box law, you cannot put any questions regarding an individual’s criminal history on a job application or ask about it during interviews.

The process, should you choose to run background checks, would be to run them after making a provisional offer and obtaining the applicant’s written consent to do so. Once it is run and you uncover any legal history, you are only to consider their history based on how it may or may not affect the particular obligations of the job they are applying for. An obvious example would be someone with a history of drug possession or use working in a capacity that puts them in contact with narcotics. Ban the Box laws are present in 37 states, so you should do research and speak with legal advisors about the particulars of the law governing your organization, if any. You should also make sure that the organization you use for background checks is accredited and has a good reputation — rescinding an offer based on erroneous or confidential information can expose you to legal risk.

Organizational considerations

Resources for formerly incarcerated individualsThere’s a lot to consider when addressing this issue, depending on the situation you are in. If you are hiring a single FIP or considering a program to hire many, you should research and speak with other organizations with similar programs. For a single hire, you are not allowed to disclose any background check information beyond the hiring staff, but for a program, you should be transparent about your reasons and aims with the current staff. FIP hires may require unique support to succeed at your organization, depending on their background and experience.

Internal communications

If you choose to address this issue and create internal guidelines about it, you should be open about it with your team and explain why this is important. There are numerous studies about FIP hiring programs and their benefits, with some striking success stories, including the United States Military. You should also take this opportunity to open your door to hear staff concerns and be ready to assure staff members that their safety and comfort at work are a priority. You can also work with legal advisors to come up with internal documentation and policies around FIP hiring, as well as internal resources that you can provide to your management and team members to help them understand the importance of having such a policy.

Supporting one or many

In response to legislation aimed to break the cycle of unemployment recidivism, many public and private sector organizations have set goals for hiring FIPs, often a certain percentage of new hires or a percentage of the organization as a whole. Whether you are hiring just one FIP or want to create a similar program to help break the stigma attached to FIP hiring, creating a supportive workplace means partnering with FIP advocacy groups to properly resource your FIP team members. Partnership programs, mentorships, and other training can help foster trust and investment in your organization while helping them gain invaluable skills and connections. If you are developing a program, you can pair new FIP hires with more veteran ones, who can help counsel them and guide them through any difficulties and concerns they have in the organization.

Get invaluable guidance from a team that has seen it all

Our team of nonprofit experts has many decades of combined experience in the nonprofit field, and we’re ready to bring our experience and skills to your organization. We can help you tackle these kinds of organizational concerns, identifying new resources you can utilize to bolster hiring, retention, or other mission-critical parts of your organization. If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch with us.


For more than 40 years, 501(c) Services has been a leader in offering solutions for unemployment costs, claims management, and HR support to nonprofit organizations. Two of our most popular programs are the 501(c) Agencies Trust and 501(c) HR Services. We understand the importance of compliance and accuracy and are committed to providing our clients with customized plans that fit their needs.

Contact us today to see if your organization could benefit from our services.

Are you already working with us and need assistance with an HR or unemployment issue? Contact us here.

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.


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