“Checkr Coffee Break: Fair Chance Hiring”: Margie Lee-Johnson with Checkr (Video + Transcript)

May 5, 2020

As we look at 2020, are your company’s hiring practices set up for successful fair-chance hiring in this critical moment in our history? In this session, you’ll learn about today’s hiring landscape, understand that women are the fastest growing populations in our prisons, and uncover your potential business impact and increased ROI through fair chance hiring.


Transcript of Elevate 2020 Session

Angie Chang: Hey, welcome back. Right now we are having Margie Lee-Johnson, who is the VP of People at Checkr and previously she was a Senior Director of Global People Operations at Twitch. And in this Checkr Coffee Break we will hear from her about today’s hiring landscape and understand that women are the fastest growing population in prisons and uncover potential business impact and increased our life through fair chance hiring. Welcome, Margie.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Thank you. Hopefully everyone can hear me. I’m going to assume that’s a yes. First of all, I wanted to just start by telling you that I am working from home today because of coronavirus. We are now working remotely. And I have a four year old who is at home sick, so if you hear some movement or potentially yelling, that’s her. She’s being her fantastic four year old self.

Margie Lee-Johnson: I have 15 minutes and I have a lot of content. So if you don’t mind I’m going to jump right in. And I’m excited to talk to you about diversifying your work force and increasing your social impact through fair chance hiring.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So a little bit about Checkr. So we are a technology first background checking company. We are headquartered in San Francisco. We have our second headquarters in Denver. And it’s interesting because when you talk about fair chance hiring and that is hiring people that may have had conviction histories or formerly incarcerated, people often wonder why would a background checking company be so interested in this?

Margie Lee-Johnson: And it’s important to know that we’re a mission driven company and as a background checking company we run 1.5 million background checks a month. And we realized that there were a lot of people who were qualified to do work that were being excluded from work because of their conviction history. And when you think about that, it really seems a little bit of counterproductive in terms of what we’re doing. But our goal is to make the right decisions based on the right type of work. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit more.

Margie Lee-Johnson: But our mission at Checkr is that we believe that everyone deserves a fair chance at work and we have become a fair chance employer as well as an advocate. And we specifically look for ways in our product to remove bias from the background checking process.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So when we talk about fair chance, the movement, because there is a movement, and we’ll talk about that in a bit more detail, but when we talk about it, we oftentimes frame it with the journey of civil rights. And I want to just do a quick run through from the 1960s to where we are today, which is actually 2020.

Margie Lee-Johnson: 1960s, we all know about the Civil Rights Movement and the outcome, but we rarely focus on the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was really a fight for equal employment and included a fight for equal employment for people regardless of their race, their ethnicity, their gender, their religion. And we oftentimes romanticize the Civil Rights Movement. We have a tendency to think about the March on Washington, the inspirational, I Have A Dream speech. But in the beginning it was really hard and it was really unpopular. And it started with a small group, a small movement of people, that were really dedicated to making a difference.

Margie Lee-Johnson: And when we think about this population, we eventually came together and acknowledged that our nation was acting against our values and we stood up together for what was right, despite furious opposition. And citizens of the US came together and effectively organized for civil rights for all people, which is really a luxury that we enjoy today and sometimes take for granted today.

Margie Lee-Johnson: When I look at this image, it’s one of my favorites. We actually have a mural in our Checkr office based on one of these pictures of people joining hands during the Civil Rights Movement. I always look at–pick out the white guys because they had really nothing to gain and they risked so much in this movement. I just think it’s a real testament to Americans banding together when we really believe something is fundamentally wrong.

Margie Lee-Johnson: And then we get to the ’64 Civil Rights Act which outlawed and banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and it was signed into law to give these protections to marginalized groups and give people equal access to work. It was a game changer for employment. And it, for the first time, paved the way for real federal protections for these marginalized groups. And that was only 56 years ago.

Margie Lee-Johnson: We’ve come quite far as a nation and we still have a little bit of work to do, but what’s interesting about the civil rights era and the ’64 Civil Rights Act is it’s basically just how we do business today. Every single employer in the US has an equal opportunity policy and standard practices. They state it when you go and apply for their jobs. And 63% of Gen Zers expect to work at diverse employers. It has fundamentally shifted the way that we think about going to work and how we employ people.

Margie Lee-Johnson: But who did we leave behind? When you think about where we are today, fair chance, which is basically hiring people with conviction histories, it’s a grassroots movement and it’s pretty much unpopular, and it’s about giving people, again, equal access to employment. And when we think about fair chance, think about the fact that these are people that have already paid their debt to society, served their time, and are reentering our communities. And just like in 1964, it’s not popular yet.

Margie Lee-Johnson: And I think about this early days in this movement, we’re really starting to gain momentum and I’m hoping that as we talk about it and encourage other employers to think about it and more and more companies step forward and say, I’m signing up to do this, and we take away the stigma, and we start to make it commonplace.

Margie Lee-Johnson: This is a statistic on formerly incarcerated people, and when we think about fair chance, I don’t necessarily know if we really think about it in the context of the fact that people that were formerly incarcerated and when they re-enter our society, they all have a hard time finding work, but it disproportionately impacts previously incarcerated African-Americans and women.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Women are the fastest growing population in our prisons and when they come back into society after having served their time, Hispanic women, African American women, and white women are disproportionately impacted by unemployment. And it’s a proven fact that the number one cause of recidivism is unemployment. It’s as simple as that.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So when you think about 2019, or 2020, need to update my slides, this is actually a picture of a Checkr employee. We encourage our employees to go on prison visits and there’s a specific program that we partner with called Defy.

Margie Lee-Johnson: And this is one of our Colorado visits, our HQ in Colorado visiting women who are incarcerated going through the Defy program. And it’s an incredible opportunity. We’ve actually hired some folks from the Defy program at Checkr.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So again, this is one of our prison visits, one of our employees at our Defy prison visits in Colorado. And we again have hired some folks from the Defy program. But what’s important to remember, or to know rather, is that one in three Americans have a criminal conviction. That’s 2.3 Americans, I’m sorry, 2.3 million Americans, who are reentering our communities every year have criminal convictions.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So when we think about this population, we have a tendency to feel somewhat distanced by it, but it’s really close and these folks are our friends, our neighbors, or people you may go to church with, siblings, parents, future colleagues. So it’s really important to humanize it and think about this population that is so dramatically impacted by unemployment when they re-enter our communities.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So when I talked about earlier about a lot of companies are starting to make a public statement that they’re fair chance employers. We’re really challenging the status quo. JP Morgan came out about four months ago and made a commitment that 10% of their hires are going to be fair chance. It’s an incredible story.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Slack also has made a commitment to be a fair chance employer. We actually just went to a Bridge Award ceremony, which celebrates innovative employers in the Bay area, and we won the 2019 Bridge Innovative Employer of the Year and just handed off the reins to Slack, both of us for recognition for being fair chance employers.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Also, celebrities are very talkative about it, very energized by it. So John legend and Common and Van Jones actively advocating fair chance employment. And even the White House is engaged with the First Step Act, which is a policy around the movement towards fair chance hiring.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So there’s just a lot of groundswell of employers stepping up and what is very energizing to me as more and more companies come out and publicly state that they’re fair chance employers, I hope other people are less nervous about it and really start to consider it.

Margie Lee-Johnson: When we think about fair chance employers, people have a tendency to think that you’re bringing people in as tokens and that old view on affirmative action, and that’s not really the case at all. What we talk about is lowering the barriers, not the bars. And SHRM reports, which is the Society of Human Resources Management, reports that 82% of managers and 67% of HR professionals who have hired fair chance talent believe that the quality is the same or higher than their workers without records. That’s very much Checkr’s experience as well.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So for Checkr, 6% of our employees are fair chance. We have a 79% retention rate, and 44% of our fair chance employees are promoted. So they have a tendency to stick around a lot longer, and they’re seeing a tremendous amount of success at Checkr, which is so exciting.

Margie Lee-Johnson: One of the things that’s important is when we talk about our diversity statistics as a company, and we’re very open with this, all of this is published on our blog, we include fair chance talent in our diversity statistics. We have a specific hiring goals, diversity hiring goals every year, and it includes fair chance talent. So I’m really proud of our statistics here. But again, if you want our full demographics, I would encourage you to go and download our diversity and belonging ebook.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So what can you do if you’re inspired by this? Become a fair assessor. A fair assessor is, we actually have a class on this, so anyone who’s doing it at their company, background checks with their company, or knows who’s actually making those decisions on what’s meets company standards or not, I would encourage you to ask them to become fair assessors. And that is conducting an individualized assessment with each background check. It’s looking at the nature of the job, the time since the conviction, and the nature of the offense, and it’s giving people really the opportunity to tell their stories and looking at it on the more than face value, but really looking at the details and considering the nature, time, nature test.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Also remove bias from the candidate consideration process. So one of the tools that we use at Checkr, and of course we use our own product, is that we look at our jobs and we say, hey, we don’t have any people that drive on behalf of the company, so we don’t worry about people with DUI convictions, as an example. So we have the ability to say, don’t even show me the records or report that there is a record that needs to be considered if it meets these criteria, because as a company, that’s not the type of work that we do and that’s not something we want to be concerned about.

Margie Lee-Johnson: But there are different areas like, hey, we have a lot of people data and so if someone happens to have a conviction of any type of forgery or identity theft, those are things we absolutely want to take a very close look at. And then fair chance talent, again, should be part of your diversity metrics. We feel very strongly that companies should look at what they’re doing on this particular front and maybe they’re, without even recognizing it, their policies or their practices are disproportionately impacting this population. If you’re looking at it, then you’re aware of it.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Also, talk to community partners, talk to other companies that are practicing, that are fair chance employers, and these are the programs that we work with, Defy Ventures, I mentioned earlier, runs programs within prisons. CEO is a great nationwide community partner that we engage with. The Second Chance Center, all of these folks, all of these organizations, work with folks that are formerly incarcerated or may have been justice-impacted to help them build their skills to go into the work environment. And they really don’t have a tremendous amount of employers that are keenly interested in doing this work.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So I would encourage you to get engaged and see if it’s something that your company would really like to be interested in. And of course we’re always available if anyone who would like to chat with us, we will share with you what our practices are, what’s worked, a lot of our learnings through the journey.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So I know that was super fast, but I had 10 minutes. My apologies for my slide issues, but if anyone has any questions, I’d love to answer them.

Angie Chang: So we do have some questions and I think we have time for just one. Do you think there are sufficient programs to help the currently incarcerated population gain both technical and soft skills to help them once they finish their sentence?

Margie Lee-Johnson: Say that slowly, one more time please. That’s got a lot packed in it.

Angie Chang: Yeah. Do you think there are sufficient programs to help the currently incarcerated population gain both tech and soft skills to help them once they finish their sentence?

Margie Lee-Johnson: The answer to that is there’s not enough, and it varies pretty dramatically. So The Last Mile is a organization that’s headquartered [crosstalk 00:15:17].

Angie Chang: I can see you.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Thank you, I got the video up. See, tenacity. Is headquartered in the Bay area and they have a program that they run in San Quentin to help folks that are incarcerated learn how to code. And we actually hired a gentleman, and I would encourage all of you, he’s been very vocal about his story, so if you ever do any Google searches on Checkr and fair chance it will likely come up. The prison he was in in California didn’t actually have computers, so he went through The Last Mile Program and he learned to code with pen and paper, and he was in a medium security prison and he asked to be transferred to San Quintin, a maximum security prison, because he wanted to actually code on a computer and that’s amazing to me.

Margie Lee-Johnson: And he was transferred. And for the first time he got to code on a computer and he’s a software engineer. He’s fantastic. And we hired him. He was released from San Quentin, went and worked for The Last Mile, did a lot of work with them, came on with us as an intern and we’ve hired him and he’s just amazing.

Margie Lee-Johnson: But there’s not enough of those programs. And to actually go through a program that’s teaching you how to code and to learn to do it on pen and paper is just beyond my comprehension. So there are programs. There aren’t enough. They’re really tough for people to get into.

Margie Lee-Johnson: When I was on a prison visit in Colorado, it was a level five, so their most maximum security prison in Colorado. There was a gentleman who had already been incarcerated for 30 years and the Defy Program was the first program he was able to get into. He had an incredibly long sentence and they prioritize the limited number of slots, understandably, based on your release date, and for 30 years he wasn’t able to get any education beyond just what he checked out of the library.

Margie Lee-Johnson: So there aren’t enough. There’s a tremendous amount of interest from these folks, and whatever we can do, please make donations to The Last Mile, make donations to Defy, because their limitation is not interest, it’s really funding, because they’re all privately funded.

Angie Chang: Okay, thank you for that. So, we’re going to be wrapping up this Coffee Break. Thank you so much,, Margie for your talk and thank you for joining us today. We are going to take a five minute break now and then we’ll be back with our next speaker.

Margie Lee-Johnson: Thanks everyone.

Angie Chang: Thank you.

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