Here’s why the background check is an ineffective hiring tool

Formerly incarcerated people rarely get the chance at tech jobs, let alone make it to the C-suite. HR experts say it's time for that to change.

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Tech companies' background checks can exclude qualified candidates.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Over the last year, executive search and DEI consultant Cecyl Hobbs started to encounter an unusual problem. Some people who participated in racial justice protests were subsequently arrested, leaving a record that might show up on a background check. For what felt like the first time, companies had to ask themselves whether that kind of record should affect their future candidates' job prospects, and how their professed commitments to racial justice were going to play out in the hiring process.

The problem was so unusual because in general, there are almost no corporate executive candidates who have been formerly incarcerated or who have a criminal record — almost no one who has spent time in prison has ever made it that far (with a few exceptions, notable for their rarity). "They get filtered out far before that," Hobbs, who works at Russell Reynolds Associates, told Protocol.

Despite "ban the box" laws in states like California — laws that prohibit companies from asking applicants to identify criminal records during the initial application — tech companies haven't become havens for formerly incarcerated people; background checks conducted later in the hiring process are still pro forma, and often have the same result of keeping people out of jobs they are otherwise qualified for.

Former incarceration or a criminal record are rarely indicators of a person's fitness, ability or qualifications for a specific job. The reasons people end up in prison often have little to do with those qualifications, especially for people who make choices as young adults that land them in jail mostly because of where they live or their racial background.

The hiring system today is structured to help HR teams find the least "offensive" and lowest-risk candidate for a job, not necessarily the person most fit for the job's responsibilities, Hobbs explained. "The risk framing comes from a belief that past behavior as documented will indicate future behavior and decision-making, but the reality is that we've got much more data through a well-designed interview recruitment assessment and referencing process that provides a better picture and deeper picture for how a person makes decisions," he said.

Changing that seemed almost impossible a decade ago, when Chris Redlitz founded The Last Mile to provide computer science education to incarcerated people. The idea of providing a computer to someone in a prison was deeply controversial at the time; now, The Last Mile not only runs successful and rigorous education programs inside prisons, but it has also placed its graduates at tech companies like Slack and Zoom, where they've stayed for years and received multiple promotions.

"I think it's just time, you know. We're 11 years into this, and now I think there's far less trepidation," Redlitz said. "And now there's actually a lot of enthusiasm because the results have been so positive."

The pilot program that placed Last Mile graduates at Slack, called Next Chapter, has become its own nonprofit, while The Last Mile is now designing a national reentry and career-placement program based on the success of the same model.

But to get to a world where background checks are more of an afterthought, and placement programs like The Last Mile aren't the only way into coveted Silicon Valley jobs for people with nontraditional career paths, Hobbs said that board leaders and company executives need to fundamentally rethink how they hire. The meaning of "traditional" needs to change.

Bitwise Industries provides tech training programs for people who were incarcerated and then hires some of the graduates into its own tech consulting arm. The company operates off of the philosophy that there are plenty of qualified workers who aren't being hired because of those artificial barriers, and takes advantage of that need for its own business. "What we're talking about is the bias in the hiring system in and of itself. A background check is only one element in the way that bias shows up. Educational attainment and prioritizing degrees is another area that doesn't allow folks to have access to those tech roles," said Michelle Skoor, the chief workforce officer at Bitwise.

While top-tier tech companies like Facebook and Apple don't struggle for qualified candidates, small and medium-sized businesses and cybersecurity companies have long complained they can't find qualified talent. The idea that there is a labor shortage for qualified tech workers and software engineers frustrates Hobbs, who said that artificial barriers like background checks and college degree requirements prevent otherwise qualified people from obtaining available jobs that companies and government employers both need filled.

"Executive teams have to go back and do a bit of first principles around what sort of culture are we trying to build here, and what does that imply about the hiring decisions we make? Are we really opening ourselves to think fundamentally differently about hiring and teams that we're building?" Hobbs asked. "This is a subset amid a broader set of questions about what's the company of the future. That ties into talent decisions — what does it mean to be an employer of choice?"


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Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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