The Jean Valjean Effect — Would your Talent Acquisition Team Hire 24601 Today?

Jason Finkelstein
Jul 24, 2018 · 5 min read
Hugh Jackman portraying Jean Valjean in the 2012 movie Les Misérables.

If you’ve seen Les Miserables, you know the protagonist Jean Valjean is a good man. But would you hire him today, a convict of 19 years? You would if you knew his story: stole bread to feed his family, was caught, sent to prison, and became Prisoner #24601. When Valjean was released, he changed his identity because he knew society wouldn’t accept him. What if the year was 2018 instead of 1814? Not so easy today to create a new life from scratch and find gainful employment.

If you ran a background check on Jean Valjean today, it would tell you he has a criminal record with some details on the crime. Some companies have an absolute rule — you can’t hire an applicant if they don’t pass the criminal check. I recently met with a Director of #TalentAcquisition for a large company (100k+ workers) with a constant worker shortage in one of his facilities. He has more job openings than there are “eligible” job seekers in his town. To protect the innocent, let’s call him “Javert”:

“Javert, have you tried any creative ways to solve your shortage?”

Puzzled look.

“What about loosening your criminal background check requirement? That would open your candidate funnel!”

Looks at me like I’m crazy.

“Have you seen Les Misérables?”

A nod from Javert.

“You should be looking to hire Jean Valjeans! What if you’re overlooking star workers who simply made a mistake once?”

“Not an option. It’s against policy.”

“How will you solve your shortage?”

Blank stare.

“Empty chairs at empty tables!” (jk, I didn’t say this, but should have)

This is the Jean Valjean Effect. Passing over quality workers who have a criminal record, but are actually decent humans, hard workers, and could thrive if given a chance.

This isn’t just about hiring modern day Jean Valjeans to give second chances, but also to get companies the productive team members they need. There’s a great worker shortage, especially for hourly jobs. Yet there are 70 million Americans with criminal records!

With the rise of the #gigeconomy, there are more on-demand jobs requiring emotionally stable, agreeable, conscientious people — regardless of their past. While there aren’t likely to be 70 million Jean Valjeans out there, there are no doubt some. How do you identify the Jean Valjeans? How do we give these people a chance while protecting companies and their customers?

There are organizations trying. Defy Ventures, 70 Million Jobs, and Checkr are taking different approaches. Defy Ventures is very hands-on, offering training and mentorship for the currently and formerly incarcerated. 70 Million Jobs is a marketplace, helping job seekers with criminal records best present themselves while educating employers to be more open to hiring them. Studies have found that applicants with criminal records are less than half as likely to be called back for interviews, so engaging employers is needed! Checkr is a tech-forward background check company that has APIs and makes the process fast and easy for companies — they state explicitly “we want to help provide fair chances for the formerly convicted.”

This isn’t just about hiring modern day Jean Valjeans to give second chances, but also to get companies the productive team members they need. There’s a great worker shortage, especially for hourly jobs. Yet there are 70 million Americans with criminal records!

Each of these has different drawbacks, however. Defy Ventures is a brilliant program, but it relies on mentors who may not always be easy to find at scale. With 70 Million Jobs, their market education is critical, but there’s not really any software tool to help employers find the Jean Valjeans. And Checkr’s background screening tool is very streamlined, so it may encourage companies to over-rely on these as a silver bullet and trigger the Jean Valjean Effect. The vetting, mentoring, upskilling and market education from these companies is important, but isn’t enough. What’s missing to truly overcome the Jean Valjean Effect?

Enter #talentassessments. There are ones that measure skills and aptitude, but in a tight labor market where job seekers have power and new skills are needed all the time, this won’t help companies find Jean Valjean. Behavioral assessments, however — ones that measure personality and interest — are better pre-hire predictors of fit, performance, motivation, and even retention. These tests have been around for decades, but because they are word-based and long (30 min+), they have low completion rates and are not accessible to all socioeconomic groups (not everyone has a college degree with perfect literacy or multiple devices with big screens — many just have a mobile phone). To find Jean Valjean, employers must not just open their minds but open their searches across socioeconomic groups including those with criminal records.

2x2 matrix describing world of talent assessments and where to look to identify Jean Valjeans in the real world.

Traitify may have found a way to help employers — including gig economy companies — identify the Jean Valjeans at scale by using behavioral assessments that are fast, easy for job seekers, and mobile-friendly. The next-gen tests use human interaction with a series of images to create the fastest validated talent assessments in the market. Think Tinder for jobs… or really for employers to find their particular Jean Valjean, best suited to specific roles, among the sea of 70 million and beyond. By measuring behaviors, including personality and interest, companies can feel better about predicting performance even from groups with criminal records.

For the first time in 20 years, there are more jobs than workers to fill them (from the May jobs report). Talent acquisition teams can no longer afford to behave like Javert. At the end of the day, something has to change in the employment market to address the imbalance.

(originally published on HR Technologist: https://www.hrtechnologist.com/articles/recruitment-onboarding/the-jean-valjean-effectwould-your-talent-acquisition-team-hire-24601/)

“How will you solve your shortage?”

Blank stare.

“Empty chairs at empty tables!” (jk, I didn’t say this, but should have)

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