Makeda Davis had an established career as a legal assistant before being incarcerated for nine and a half years. Even so, upon her release, would-be job opportunities quickly became closed doors. As soon as her criminal conviction came up, prospective employers ended conversations with her.

“It was like no one wanted to give me an opportunity — no one,” Davis recalled as she shared her story as a panelist at a recent CBS-hosted conference, The Business Case for Second Chance Employment. 

The conference — co-organized by Business Roundtable, CBS’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, Columbia’s Justice Through Code, and the Second Chance Business Coalition, which is co-chaired by JPMorgan Chase and Eaton Corporation — convened in early April with the aim of engaging the business community and business schools in advancing second-chance employment.

Davis’s story illustrates what second chances can make possible: After struggling to find a job that could support her family post-incarceration, she enrolled in Columbia’s Justice Through Code program and now works as a software engineer at Checkr.

Davis called upon business leaders and other conference attendees to consider changing policies and implementing programs to reduce the many barriers to career advancement that justice-involved individuals face. Around 80 million Americans have a criminal record — a quarter of the country’s population — and this group faces a 27 percent unemployment rate.

Davis made the case that in opening up a career opportunity to someone like her, “you’re not just giving a chance to just anybody. You’re giving a chance to someone who’s really, really working hard for this. This is not a handout; it’s not a freebie.”

Other conference panelists echoed Davis — including Fortune 500 CEOs, chief human resources officers, and government leaders.

“Verizon’s data shows that these [second-chance hires] are extremely loyal, thankful to the company for giving them an opportunity, and doing great work,” said Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg. He added that since expanding job opportunities to people with conviction histories, the company’s employee attrition rate has dropped and now beats that of its competitors. 

The CBS event was a new annual conference that will rotate among business schools, according to conference organizers. In highlighting the experiences and ideas of business leaders, researchers, government officials, and impacted individuals, the hope is to draw greater attention to the employment barriers formerly incarcerated people face — and the steps needed to remove them.

The inaugural Business Case for Second Chance Employment Conference offered five key takeaways:

1. Business leaders who ignore second-chance hires do so to their own detriment.

“Some think the easy thing to do would be to just say, ‘No, we don’t hire anybody with criminal convictions,’” said Patrick Peters, principal and office litigation manager at Jackson Lewis, a law firm with a practice that specializes in helping companies with these types of hiring decisions. “But over time, that’s not going to be a sustainable position, both in terms of the law and also in terms of the labor market.”

Businesses across industries are currently facing a market in which unemployment rates are low and job vacancy rates are high. At the same time, hiring needs for skilled talent are only increasing in many sectors — like tech, said Kerry Casey, global head of university recruiting, talent branding, and diversity recruiting at PayPal.

“How do we take this [labor market] situation and address our hiring needs? We’ve seen it as an opportunity to really rethink our hiring strategies,” Casey said. “In particular, we’re thinking about how we can find unknown talent in often overlooked populations, such as individuals with criminal backgrounds.”

Erich Wilson, chief human resources officer at Schnitzer Steel, said his company, which recycles end-of-life metal, instituted its own second-chance program because of similar hiring challenges. Job boards, partnerships with organizations like the military, and other traditional recruiting methods weren’t meeting the company’s hiring needs.

Over the past three years, 10 percent of Schnitzer Steel’s hires have been individuals with a felony background, and Wilson said the company has seen numerous payoffs, most notably in terms of higher employee retention among second-chance hires.

Damien Dwin, CEO of Lafayette Square, argued that companies that embrace second-chance hiring practices and programs are likely to see benefits in the capital markets, too.

“The cost of capital should be lower for employers who hire returning citizens,” Dwin said. “If you have less turnover and higher productivity, you should be rewarded for that. If you can show you’re a preferred employer, you provide ballast to investors, and shareholders and bond investors will reward you financially for that.”

2. In shifting widespread attitudes and policies around second-chance hiring, the human case may be the strongest one.

Over the course of the conference, many business leaders and decision-makers who had taken steps to boost second-chance hiring acknowledged that the impetus to do so had been sparked by a personal connection.

Michelle Kuranty, executive director of new joiner experience at JPMorgan Chase, said that for the financial institution’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, the initiative to increase second-chance hiring “all started with a human.” While in Chicago, Dimon had spent time with one of the bank’s workforce partners, where he’d heard the stories of justice-impacted individuals and the details of their struggles to reenter the workforce. “The biggest thing he kept hearing was that they wanted jobs, they wanted opportunity,” Kuranty said.

As CEO, Dimon had the power to effect major change within the Fortune 50 company — and he did. In 2019, JPMorgan Chase announced its formal Second Chance Agenda, a multipronged approach that involves hiring practices like “banning the box” — that is, removing the requirement to disclose criminal records on job applications — and devising individualized job-screening practices. The initiative has also involved teaming up with community workforce partners and advocacy groups to build out second-chance programs and ensure fair hiring practices.

As with Schnitzer Steel, 10 percent of JPMorgan Chase’s new hires over the past three years have been individuals with criminal records.

3. It’s not all about hiring.

Internal and public policy changes that allow more qualified individuals with conviction histories through the door is obviously a key part of the conversation about second-chance employment, but it can’t end there, panelists said.

One other important consideration is the creation of programs for upskilling or reskilling employees who are eager to advance their careers. At Schnitzer Steel, such programs have been enormously popular and successful, Wilson said. Since most of the organization’s jobs are skills focused and don’t have specific academic requirements, many employees are eager to continue their education when offered the chance. 

As a first step in building their internal education programs, the organization surveyed employees about the skills they wanted to learn and pursue, for their development both within the organization and personally. Based on those survey results, the company developed a curriculum of over 300 courses in several languages that covered topics ranging from the academic to the technological. Since introducing the courses almost a year ago, they’ve been watched by employees roughly 2,000 times.

Another important consideration is training the people already within an organization that’s planning to expand second-chance hiring—especially those who will be doing the hiring and supervising of people with conviction histories.

“Part of what companies can do is make sure that the people who are going to be implementing this work understand the collateral consequences of justice involvement, and what it means to come out and to have some instabilities that may impact the workplace,” said Matt Joyce, a partner at Envoy. He explained that this could include unstable housing or appointments with probation and parole officers. Joyce said he recommends that organizations looking to expand second-chance hiring seek support from a community partner to help navigate it: “We can’t expect large companies to become social workers or to have the skills of reentry counselors or job coaches.” But organizations can team up with those who do.

Finally, business leaders can think about other skills or offerings they can contribute to help expand second-chance hiring. For Universal Pictures, for example, that meant lending the company’s power as a storyteller, said Hoai Scott, senior vice president of human resources for the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group at NBCUniversal.

“Hollywood has been known as the informal ministry of propaganda — we put narratives into the world and sometimes they include harmful stereotypes,” Scott said. “And so we really felt like we had a responsibility to be part of the change; we needed to lean into our superpower of changing narratives.”

In partnership with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Universal Pictures produced a PSA to raise awareness about fair-chance hiring.

Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt, left, with Professor Dan Wang, the Lambert Family Associate Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School.
Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt, left, with Professor Dan Wang, the Lambert Family Associate Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School. (Photo: Leslye Smith)

4. Public policy matters in achieving scale.

Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt said at the conference that upon assuming office, he set a goal for his administration: to make Oklahoma “a top-ten state in everything that we do.”

He realized, in laying out this goal, that his state had the worst incarceration rate in the country.

“I said, this doesn’t make sense,” Stitt said. “Either we have worse people than everywhere else or bad policies, and I know Oklahomans — it was bad policy.”

In Oklahoma, 6,700 people are released from prison every year. A focus of Stitt is to make it easier for that group to reenter the workforce after their release. The administration spearheaded new efforts to set up training programs for trucking, manufacturing, and other industries within prisons, so returning citizens could get to work quickly.

“I would encourage [other governors working on this issue] to get their business community, their education community, and the Department of Corrections together in a room and talk about, how are we training this workforce?” Stitt said.

5. Everyone can do something.

Peters, of Jackson Lewis, offered his top three steps for businesses eager to institute fairer business practices:

First, ban the box, like JPMorgan Chase, Verizon, and Schnitzer Steel have done. Verizon’s Vestberg said that since banning the question for job applications in 2015, the company has offered jobs to 60 percent of the people with criminal records who apply to the company.

Second, run background checks only after extending an offer. “That way, you’re not factoring in any type of justice involvement in making that decision,” Peters said.

Third, get familiar with local hiring laws when navigating changes to hiring practices.

Dane Linn, senior vice president of corporate initiatives at Business Roundtable, offered additional tips for those who aren’t necessarily a top decision-maker at their company: Amplify the conversation about second-chance hiring on social media (especially in the month of April, which is #SecondChanceMonth). Ask around in your organization about what is being done to increase fairness in hiring. Finally, he said, check out the Second Chance Business Coalition website for 100 steps to take.

“Give someone a second chance,” said Davis. “It’s for them, it’s for you, it’s for everyone. And if you can’t give someone a second chance, if you can’t get your employer to hire someone who’s been justice impacted, join forces with other businesses or organizations that want to see this happen. Get involved in any way that you can.”