Agencies Can Wipe the Slate Clean for the Formerly Incarcerated to Fulfill DEI Promises

Opportunities to correct decades of inaction include championing life-changing legislation and inclusive recruiting efforts

For all the pledges we saw in 2020, we’ve seen little real action. Even while they complain of a “war for talent,” agencies aren’t doing enough to change how they recruit and promote talent.

As a rule, agencies are ignoring a large, cross-cultural population full of talented individuals who would help inject fresh perspectives into their teams by the very design of their recruitment and hiring practices: formerly incarcerated people who face the barrier of background checks.

Formerly incarcerated people are not a separate population apart from the rest of society—they are important members of our society, all too familiar with its worst bigoted impulses. They are our friends and family, our community members.

And yet, too rarely—in this industry in particular—are they our co-workers. All too often they have been blocked from entering our industry, even as agencies try to position themselves as inclusive drivers of cultural progress. 

How do I know? 

Twenty years after being incarcerated, I’m now the chief marketing officer for a design and marketing company that’s part of one of the industry’s major holding companies. My success and good fortune, however, is all too rare. 

But there is hope. Agencies that have failed to live up to promises to address systemic racism internally made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have an opportunity to champion a historic measure that could transform millions of lives and can completely overhaul antiquated recruitment practices. Here’s how.

It’s more than a job—it’s a second chance

My perspective was shaped by my own experiences of being incarcerated at the age of 17, when I was sentenced to a year in prison. I was extremely fortunate to have a family to support me, and a first employer willing to give me a chance. It’s because of my experience that I know the power of an employer offering that first opportunity, while so many others with my circumstances were turned away without a chance. 

It shouldn’t take someone with my background in the C-suite for agencies to extend compassion to the formerly incarcerated. After all, they’re limiting their own opportunities as well. 

Less barriers, more action

Among the approximated 5 million formerly incarcerated people in America, the unemployment rate in 2018 (when the only such study was conducted) was around 27%—higher than the 25% unemployment rate at the peak of the Great Depression. Due to the systemic racism of the justice system, this disproportionately affects people of color. 

Agencies and their clients alike—and New York-based agencies and businesses in particular—now have an opportunity to correct decades of inaction and support formerly incarcerated people. By vocally championing legislation like Clean Slate NY (included as part of a state budget due on April 1), agencies would be supporting legislation that automatically removes criminal records from eligible individuals, in addition to defending it from any provisions limiting its scope and anticipated attacks once it passes.

Formerly incarcerated people lose up to $500,000 in earnings over the course of a career, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. This kind of legislation removes primary barriers that the formerly incarcerated face in rebuilding their lives, one which prevents them from even having the opportunity to build a profitable career or find a home.

The time to act is now.

Be the change

If agencies really want to make a difference in connecting with people of color impacted by injustice and reshape their hiring practices to become more equitable, they need to support the large population of talented formerly incarcerated people who could inject new perspectives into both the marketing industry and the business landscape more broadly. 

Agencies don’t need to wait for legislation to change their own practices, however. They can revisit their own hiring and recruitment practices to ensure they aren’t disqualifying formerly incarcerated people based on their records.

While these agencies struggle to keep up with the demand for talent, they continue to impose barriers to this large source of untapped potential that could also help them fulfill unmet promises to create more diverse and equitable companies. 

The work we do deserves no accolades, no pats on the back. In our hearts, we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing as people from the same communities our youth are struggling in today. If we don’t come back to bring our goals, experiences and knowledge to the community, what’s it all for?

For more info on the Clean Slate legislation, visit