During her time in prison, Emily O’Brien came to the conclusion that it would be difficult to find a job after her release, so she developed an idea for starting her own business.
Now as chief executive of her company, Comeback Snacks, O’Brien makes a point of hiring people with criminal records.
That makes her something of an exception in Canadian business.
A new report being released Wednesday says many Canadian companies remain unwilling to hire people with criminal records, even when they have the skills or experience needed for the job.
“When I was in prison, I met people in there with so much talent,” O’Brien said in an interview with CBC News. “I really think that businesses are missing out.”
The report is based on interviews of 400 hiring managers at Canadian companies, conducted on behalf of the John Howard Society of Ontario, a non-profit agency that advocates for humane responses to crime and its causes.
More than half of those interviewed said their businesses run criminal record checks on job candidates, and roughly four in 10 of those said they automatically reject anyone with a record, regardless of the specifics.
“It didn’t matter whether the record was old, what type of offence it was, whether it was relevant to the position,” said Safiyah Husein, senior policy analyst for the John Howard Society of Ontario.
Stereotypes and biases
Some four million Canadians have a criminal record on the books, according to a federal government estimate.
“That’s our neighbours, our friends, our family,” Husein said in an interview. “Hiring people with criminal records is really vital for a successful reintegration. It allows people to support themselves and their families, it prevents future reoffending.”
Three-quarters of the hiring managers who participated in the interviews said they had never knowingly employed anyone with a criminal record, despite the latest figures from Statistics Canada show more than 700,000 job vacancies across the country.
Husein says stereotypes and biases held about people with criminal records are at the root of the reluctance to hire.
“People generally believe that somebody with past criminal justice involvement would not be trustworthy, would have a risk of further incidents on the job, and this is just not the case,” she said.
Husein points to research cited in the report from the U.S. and other jurisdictions that suggests people with a criminal past have lower job turnover, equal or better job performance, and no higher risk of workplace misconduct than employees without a record.
“People that had experience hiring people with criminal records actually had very positive views of them,” she said.
Report urges federal, provincial policy changes
The report urges changes in policies at the provincial and federal levels, as well as changes in practices among businesses.
In Ontario, there are currently no provisions in the Employment Standards Act governing how employers use criminal record checks in hiring. Refusing to hire someone on the basis they have a criminal record is not considered discrimination under the province’s Human Rights Code, even if the record is unrelated to their job duties.
The report suggests companies adopt what are called “fair chance” hiring policies.
Emily O’Brien, founder of Comeback Snacks, on the challenges that people face finding a job after serving time in prison.
This would include not conducting record checks on applicants until they are given a conditional job offer. When a would-be employee does have a record, the hiring manager would assess whether that record directly relates to the job duties and would adversely affect their work.
O’Brien says “a combination of bad characters, bad substances, and just going through a really tough time emotionally” led to her conviction for smuggling narcotics into Canada.
“How can I make a comeback? How can I turn this around?,” O’Brien says she asked herself during her prison term. “And as I was talking with my other fellow inmates, I realized that we all had so much potential and we all just needed another chance.”
Her company is small, and the manufacturing and distribution work is contracted out to larger firms, so she doesn’t currently have full-time staff. But she does hire people part-time to help with marketing events, such as in-store sampling and festivals. And since she launched, the company in 2020 has hired eight people who’ve been through the justice system.
“They have been the best, they have been so reliable,” said O’Brien.
“When you come out of prison, if you just get that one chance, you’re going to work so hard to keep that, because that might be the last one you get.”
The interviews with hiring managers were conducted by a research team led by Kemi Anazodo, an assistant professor at at the University of Windsor’s Odette School of Business, as part of a larger study focused on employment and reintegration issues.
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