This article is part of a larger series on Hiring.
Whether you have found a great candidate with a felony in their past or are actively seeking to give second chances, make sure to follow a structured hiring process to avoid violating any employment laws. First, you’ll need to determine if your job opening and industry is suitable for a felon. Then you’ll go through the typical hiring process, keeping in mind specific elements in each step to help you successfully hire a felon (such as posting to niche job boards and avoiding illegal interview questions).
If you want to proactively join the growing list of felon-friendly companies, consider using a job board like ZipRecruiter. It targets felons and companies that hire them by identifying jobs as felony friendly on the ad and sending a weekly list to anyone who signs up. And even better, some 80% of employers who post a job on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate through the site within the first day. You can start out posting your jobs for FREE.
Need general information on how to hire an employee, felon or not? Check out our guide to hiring new employees.
Step 1: Determine if a Felon Can Do the Job
Regardless of the type of employee you want to hire, many jobs can be done by felons. This doesn’t mean, however, that they can do any job. There might be some jobs or industries where felons are excluded because of their background.
Applicable for Felons
Potentially NOT Applicable for Felons
Construction or landscaping workers
Restaurant or retail staff
Delivery or trucking services
Call center work
Legal, education, and other licensed work*
App developers, web designers, online marketing
*Some states prevent felons from holding jobs which require a license, like a lawyer, teacher, or doctor.
You may also want to consider the specific crime and how it relates to your job. For example, if you need to hire a payroll specialist, you may not want to hire someone convicted of theft. Or, if you run a daycare, you can and should reject anyone convicted of child abuse or sexual abuse. However, be careful about how and when you exclude them from the application process, as some states forbid employers from rejecting candidates outright because of their criminal history—more on that below.
With a few exceptions, you cannot explicitly choose to not hire someone because of a felony. You cannot have a blanket policy that you don’t hire felons—that will be a recipe for disaster and compliance violations. We recommend keeping the door open to this potentially large pool of applicants as many great workers have made mistakes in the past, and you may even get some tax and financial benefits for doing so (which we will cover later).
Step 2: Write the Job Description & Set Salary
A clear job description is crucial to ensure that you make the right hire. It should include the skills required to succeed in the role (both hard and soft skills), the duties to be handled, and legal compliance information, like whether the job is exempt or nonexempt.
Need help crafting your job description? Use our free job description template to help.
You’ll also need to set a target salary for the open role. Take note that you can’t put a lower salary range for a position just because you’re seeking to hire a felon—that’s illegal.
Use online resources to conduct market research for the open position—our top recommended salary comparison tools should help with this. See what other companies near you are paying for workers with a background similar to what you’re looking for, keeping in mind that the more experience you desire, the more you’ll have to pay.
If your business is hiring an employee in certain states, you may need to put your target salary range in your public job posting. Check your state laws to see if you need to comply. Verify whether asking about a candidate’s past salary is allowed in your state as well.
Step 3: Post Job Ad
From your job description, you create your public job ad. You’ll want to post your ad on the best job posting sites to make sure your position is seen by as many potential applicants as possible.
If you’re actively looking to hire felons, you can post your job on multiple felon-friendly job boards:
Don’t just copy your job description either—your job ad should be an enticing description of the role, including both hard and soft skills. Check out our guide on how to advertise a job for the best results.
Make sure your public job ad doesn’t ask or make statements about prior criminal activity. Many states and cities have enacted ban the box laws, which prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. To ensure you don’t violate these laws, avoid mentioning anything in your job ad about felonies. However, you can state in your ad that you will run a background check.
Making Your Job Ad More ‘Felon-Friendly’
Many companies choose to put language in the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement at the bottom of descriptions and ads—but if you’re actively seeking to hire felons, you could put this at a more prominent location.
You could use simple language like, “We consider all qualified applicants, regardless of criminal history.” Or you could be more in-depth with your language: “We welcome applicants of diverse backgrounds, including those with criminal histories. While we do run background checks, we remain compliant with all applicable state and federal laws, and will consider for employment all qualified applicants with criminal histories.”
Step 4: Screen Resumes
Screening and reviewing resumes typically involves cross-referencing a candidate’s skills and qualifications with your role’s requirements and duties. For a more detailed explanation, check out our guide on how to screen resumes.
Tips for Reviewing a Felon’s Resume
You may wonder how to compare resumes when you have applicants with a criminal history vs candidates without. The best advice we have is to put the thought out of your mind and not put effort into searching for signs of criminal history. Simply evaluate based on the skills and qualifications that candidates have listed. Don’t try to infer anything other than what’s stated on the resumes you’re reviewing.
You might consider a lengthy gap in employment as a possible sign that your candidate is a felon. Gaps in employment, for whatever reason, are considered unfavorable to employers, but this can often limit one’s candidate pool. You are allowed to ask about gaps in a resume, as there are many reasons that may occur, but if the candidate answers that they were incarcerated, we advise you to move on with your questioning and probe no further.
Step 5: Conduct Interviews
There are countless questions you can ask during an interview, but remember to keep your questions focused on your role and the candidate’s experience, as ambiguity can lead to compliance issues. For instance, there are also some illegal interview questions related to crimes you must avoid, such as:
- Have you ever spent a night in jail?
- Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
- Have you ever been arrested?
For more information on what to do, check out our in-depth guide on how to interview someone for a job.
Legal Considerations When Interviewing a Felon
Only in very limited circumstances may you ask anything related to a criminal conviction.
Let’s use a truck driving company example. You’re looking to hire a new truck driver. When interviewing candidates, you might ask them if they’ve ever been convicted of a DUI.
Is this legal? It depends.
The question may be allowed in some states, as it is directly related to the candidate’s ability to perform the core duties of the job. If they’ve been convicted of a DUI, they may not be able to hold a trucking license, so they can’t do the job.
However, be aware that some states have eliminated a company’s ability to ask even these types of questions during the interview process. Our recommendation is to simply avoid asking any criminal questions and wait for a background check to uncover any disqualifying information.
Step 6: Call References
Ask each candidate for at least three supervisory references. Make sure you speak with at least two previous managers as they give you wonderful insight into how the applicant did their job and what it was like to manage them.
You will have limited time with each reference, so ask direct questions, such as:
- Could you depend on this employee to get their job done on time and accurately?
- Was the employee punctual and dependable?
- Tell me about the biggest challenge with managing this person.
- Why did they leave your company, and would you work with them again?
Step 7: Run a Background Check
You should also run a background check when you’ve decided on a final candidate. Not all positions require a background check, but for certain jobs—like those requiring a special license (like truck drivers) or those where a criminal conviction may directly relate to a type of work (like banking)—you’ll definitely want to run one.
Before running a background check, get the candidate’s approval. If you partner with a background check company, it can give you a template form to send the candidate.
Don’t forget to check your state’s laws—some require background checks to be done after a job offer has been accepted. Get in touch with a background check company (see our top recommendations) to avoid compliance issues.
Legal Consideration of Rejecting Based on Background Checks
Be aware that rejecting people for a job based solely on their criminal history may violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from treating candidates with similar background differently because of their race, national origin, color, sex, or religion. The EEOC also makes clear employers cannot use policies or practices that reject candidates based on criminal history if it significantly disadvantages people of a protected class.
So what do you do?
- Treat candidates of different races and genders the same.
- Consider the type of conviction and the time since the crime.
- Consider how the crime relates to the job you’re looking to fill.
- Ask the candidate about the crime and give them a chance to discuss it with you.
The last point is an important one to expand on. The EEOC requires you to take this step if you’re rejecting a candidate because of a criminal conviction. You must give the candidate the opportunity to explain the crime and why they should not be excluded from consideration.
Step 8: Make a Job Offer
When you’ve gone through all the above steps, you’ll have a candidate you want to hire. Call them to give them the good news so you can gauge their excitement level and discuss any final details like salary and start date.
Once you and the candidate have agreed to all the terms, write a formal offer letter. Make sure the letter includes:
- Job title
- Salary and pay frequency
- Start date
- Reporting structure
Include the full job description with the offer letter. Having the candidate sign off on their ability to handle the duties of the job lets you more easily hold them accountable if they fail to meet your expectations. Send the offer letter to the candidate and give them several days to review, sign, and send it back. Once you’ve received the signed offer letter back, it’s time to begin the onboarding process.
Now that you’ve hired a felon, should you let your other employees know?
Generally, the answer is no—you should not share someone’s criminal history without their permission. Unless the new employee’s manager needs to know about the felony because it’s related to the employee’s work, we do not recommend sharing background information.
Why Hire Felons
Some people simply made mistakes in their youth or got caught up in the wrong crowd. Hiring felons can provide those individuals with a much-needed opportunity; it also has benefits for your company.
Your company could see financial benefits from hiring felons. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a federal tax credit offered to employers who hire felons for full- and part-time employment. The WOTC will calculate your credit based on the number of hours a felon works for you and how much you pay them.
Check your state and city departments of labor, too. You may be eligible for local tax credits when you hire felons. Many of these tax credits are targeted to small businesses.
Nearly 15 million Americans are convicted felons and not on probation. That’s a large bucket of potential employees you can pull from to fill your position.
Excluding these people significantly reduces the number of potential applicants for your job. It also reduces the likelihood that you’ll find the right employee quickly. By including felons in your applicant pool, you give yourself a good chance of finding the best employee fast.
Hiring felons can also be the right thing to do. Giving someone a second chance can give them a new lease on life. You’re providing them an income, a way to financially support themselves post-conviction, and giving them a way to re-enter the workforce and general society.
You have the opportunity to help the person, and they have the opportunity to help your company. It’s a win-win.
Many well-known companies, including Chili’s, Walgreens, and Ace Hardware, regularly and publicly hire felons. Doing so can benefit everyone involved. Your company may get tax credits, plus you’ll get a great and qualified employee. The felon has a new chance to establish themselves as a member of society and can provide for their own financial support.