Jeffrey Korzenik is not your average banker. As the chief investment strategist and senior vice president at Fifth Third Bank, he is in charge of supervising the allocation of over $30 billion in investment assets on behalf of the bank’s clients. In addition to this not-so-meager task, he serves as the bank’s de facto economist.

But what makes Korzenik truly unique is his passion for promoting second-chance hiring—the hiring of individuals with criminal records. “You can’t manage investments well without understanding the economy, and you can’t understand the economy without understanding workforce dynamics.” According to Korzenik, the integration of marginalized workers, including those with criminal records, into the modern labor force is essential for continued economic growth and prosperity.

Indeed, with the unemployment rate hovering around 3.7 percent, employers are facing a tighter labor market. This fact—accompanied by recent policy developments, such as those that seek to limit employer liability for negligent hiring, as well as private sector and bipartisan political leadership—has led to increased employer interest in second-chance hiring. I spoke with Jeffrey to get his take on the topic.

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EM: Have you always supported second-chance hiring? If not, what was your path toward becoming an advocate for second-chance hiring?

JK: I only began focusing on this issue in recent years, although I believe I was sensitized to it from an early age. My father, raised in poverty and the first in his family to go to college, became a Harvard- and Yale-educated attorney and never lost touch with his roots. As a child I accompanied him on weekend errands, and he once introduced me to a friend who had been in prison for murder (a “crime of passion”). I recall my father telling me that this man had “done his time.” My own children went to a particularly diverse public high school in Chicago, and their classmates reminded me of the challenges faced by inner-city youth that can lead to bad outcomes. The “aha” moment came with a dinner at the wonderful King’s Kitchen restaurant in Charlotte that offers pathways to spiritual and professional redemption to those in need of a second chance. I began to seek out the models of reentry and second-chance hiring. As the labor shortage worsened, this became a way to help our employer customers while helping our communities—what better mission for a banker?!

EM: Why should businesses hire individuals with criminal records?

JK: For the same reason they should hire any other employee—because individuals with records can be very good employees and help businesses sustain and increase their profits. Often business owners take extra time to explore and implement this type of hiring because they are driven by a desire to provide opportunities within their communities or for reasons rooted in religious faith, but it only works if these individuals are profitable hires. Often, businesses that follow the processes pioneered by other second-chance employers find that these individuals tend to be strongly engaged and loyal. That’s a recipe for a very productive and profitable worker.

EM: Can you give an example of a time when you saw a company miss out by choosing not to hire someone due to their criminal record?

JK: I would never second guess an employer’s staffing choices, but I often hear employers lamenting the costs of employee turnover and the inability to fill openings while precluding those with records. I like what the CEO of a manufacturer in Northeastern Ohio told me about addressing his labor shortage: “I owe it to myself and to the growth of my company to consider every possibility.” Those who follow a thoughtful model of second-chance hiring have found it very profitable.

EM: From your perspective and that of your clients, what are the barriers to hiring individuals with criminal records?

JK: So much of this is about perceived risk—to fellow employees, to public reputation, to legal liability. Generally speaking, the models of second-chance employment that we highlight mitigate these risks. Beyond that, there are often hard barriers to second-chance employment: Governmental regulatory/licensing restrictions are commonly mentioned, but we also see rules written into contracts that prohibit vendors from bringing second-chance employees to customer worksites. Often these private-sector restrictions are not well-thought-out. For example, even if a company won’t consider hiring people with records, should that prohibition extend to the lawncare company that services their building?

EM: Let’s say you’re talking to an employer who isn’t yet ready to embrace second-chance hiring. What steps can they take now to start feeling out this idea?

JK: We like to offer up a set of suggestions we call “Bridging the Box.”

  • Realize that second-chance hiring can include very low-risk choices—being willing to hire someone, for example, whose conviction is in the distant past and has five-plus years of good work history.
  • In a similar vein, recognize that the indiscretions of youth may have resulted in convictions that are not real issues for employers yet still come up in a background check. For example, I know of a young woman in New York state charged with a felony because she was caught with two fake IDs trying to get a drink while underage.
  • Talk to employers that have long track records of hiring returning citizens successfully—one of my most effective ways of serving our customers is facilitating these types of introductions.
  • Learn what nonprofits are available to help. Local workforce investment boards and Goodwill Industries can be great places to start, as can faith-based institutions.
  • Review and eliminate restrictions placed on vendors for work done at your property.
  • Support nonprofits that effectively help returning citizens lead productive lives.
  • Offer amnesty to existing long-term employees in good standing who may have hidden a criminal record and live in daily fear that they may lose their jobs.

EM: A company has hired someone with a record. What can businesses do to support the success of these individuals, specifically formerly incarcerated individuals, in their new roles?

JK: It’s critical to understand that in many cases it is not just about hiring a person with a record, but also about helping them stay employed. Particularly with the recently incarcerated, these are simply the issues associated with poverty—transportation issues, food insecurity and housing are all issues that can disrupt employment. Employers do not have to take these issues on directly; simply offering a referral network to social service providers goes a long way. Employers may have to offer modest accommodations—like workweek flexibility to meet with a parole officer. One of the best things that employers can do is something that benefits all employees—make sure there are internal mentors and a strong culture of trust and open communication. Again, the payoff for employers is in low turnover, dedicated employees and higher productivity.

EM: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

JK: One of the truly gratifying elements of working on this problem is the way that the hope for better reentry outcomes bridges political and cultural divides. I like very much to think that this desire to offer second chances is part of what it means to be an American. Certainly, for my family—I am the son and grandson of immigrants—our country has been a land of second chances, and I want to see others get those opportunities.

This interview was conducted and condensed by R Street Criminal Justice Fellow Emily Mooney.