Jan 28, 201411:29 AMForward HR
with Diane Hamilton and Nilesh Patel
Why it shouldn’t matter that Gov. Walker shared a stage with a sex offender
(page 1 of 2)
At the Wisconsin State of the State (SOTS) address, Gov. Walker stressed that economic conditions were improving and introduced some workers who had secured jobs. The day after the speech, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column noted that one of the workers has a criminal past that includes a sexual offense and multiple incidents of drunk driving.
The comments from each political camp immediately focused on whether the individual was properly vetted or had a background check run on him. The Walker camp assumed the employer had performed an adequate background check and stated, “If we had been aware of this individual’s prior convictions, he would not have been invited to participate.” Similarly, candidate Burke stated, “I would make sure I’m vetting people I’m holding up as great examples of successes in Wisconsin.”
Of course, the governor’s team should have conducted a background check. However, what each side missed saying is that regardless of his past, this worker’s story is an example of a type of success worth recognizing, because he moved beyond a criminal past to become gainfully employed and a model employee.
Workers with an arrest or conviction record face a large hurdle to securing employment. There is the obvious aversion to someone who has not played by the rules or who has a troubled past. There is also a lack of faith in the person’s judgment and distrust of the person’s character. In spite of such hurdles, the worker at the SOTS secured a temporary position, performed well enough to move from seasonal work to full-time work, and received a recommendation from his employer for prime-time recognition by the governor. Why would that not count as a personal and economic success story worth highlighting?
Focusing on just the criminal past (even one with a sexual offense) and suggesting exclusion sends a troubling message to the public and to employers. It supports a continued bias against former convicts, regardless of what they are able to accomplish, and it can undermine workplace anti-discrimination laws.
The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of arrest or conviction records. While there are some limited exceptions, the law requires employers to ignore the arrest or conviction history unless there is a substantial connection to the job. That means an interviewer would have to resist the urge to summarily reject a candidate simply because of a criminal record, even if that record included sexual offenses. It also means the worker cannot simply be fired if the employer did not ask about the criminal history and it is uncovered later on. Instead, employers have to look past the checkered history, look at the person’s present abilities and character, and evaluate whether there is any substantial connection between the crime(s) and the task at hand.