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2nd Chance Employers Give 2nd Chances (and employees love them for it)

Editorial Note: This is a guest post from Max Dubroff, an HR guy I met in Tulsa while attending the OKHR State HR Conference this year. We had a great conversation about 2nd chance employees and employers. I invited him to share his experiences with the PIC audience. You can connect with Max on LinkedIn and Twitter here,  www.linkedin.com/in/maximizer and here @HR_MAXimizer

I am only a few years past being cured of a prejudice.  As a veteran who had specialized in security and law enforcement, I came to my HR career never having worked with anyone with a felony record.  This facelessness made it easy for me to believe there was no need to give them a second chance.

In 2009, just after being hired as the HR Director for Buy For Less, a privately-owned grocery chain in the Oklahoma City metro, I had met some employees with felony histories who were skilled and worked hard for the company.  Moreover, they were extremely loyal, because the company had given them a chance when many others wouldn’t.  As many other organizations are learning, most were also more focused and successful.

In the time since, I helped the company transition from being a second-chance employer that considered applicants on their merits and gave worthy people a chance (as the EEOC requires) to tapping into talented people of character while in transition (A.K.A., pre-release). There were five key factors in our success that can help your organization be more effective at getting the most out of this un-tapped talent pool.

Results-focused logic

Unfortunately, many employers presume they cannot trust someone with a felony history.  Actually, they are missing the point, since a felony record is not a prerequisite to break rules or laws. There are many people without a prior record who do unacceptable things and there are many with a prior record who have put that type of behavior behind them and they are model employees. As an employer, I found most of the candidates who misrepresent themselves in the interview process and most of the employees who cause problems and steal from the organization do not have a criminal history.

Additionally, there is great information available to employers regarding the rehabilitation of people who have been incarcerated.  To make sure the workplace is as safe as possible, employers need to know who in the corrections system to call and the right questions to ask.  In Oklahoma, employers contact the case manager in the Department of Corrections and ask about the person’s misconduct history and the earned credit level.  This knowledge of what people did in the past and how they approached rehabilitation improves the chances for success, because things are more up-front.

Here’s a logic test for you … Consider the applicant who divulges no history of conviction, but actually has one the employer can’t see because the applicant had the means to get it expunged.  Now consider the other applicant who divulges a history of conviction, as requested.  Many employers would hesitate to consider the applicant who divulged; but, does the first applicant deserve a better chance than the one who didn’t have the means to get the records expunged?  Even more important, which applicant is being more honest?  Wouldn’t you rather know the history so you can deal with it directly?

Leadership support

Many organizations that are second-chance employers are that way because of senior leadership, and usually because of the hearts of those leaders.  They often recognize “The biggest difference between those of us without and those with a criminal history is that they got caught.” (David Prater, Oklahoma County District Attorney).

If this sentiment doesn’t already exist, the best first step to getting leadership support is the practical aspect of talent acquisition.  There are great benefits to being an organization that gets first pick from the untapped population of skilled and dedicated employees who are in the post-incarceration population.  As one HR professional put it when describing his company president’s excitement, “It was like we were the only ones who showed up to a job fair.  We had first choice and always got the best-qualified people.”  (Greg Dewey, VP of Corporate and HR, Tapstone Energy)

Strategic partnerships

Recidivism is a critical societal issue that employers can have a significant impact in solving.  Without a job to provide for needs and obligations, people with a record are more likely to lose hope and recidivate, falling back into a pattern of criminal behavior.  At this critical time in the life of people post-incarceration, they need to be on a new path—one which that person may never even have known could exist.

Unfortunately, many employers are not willing to open their doors to those post-incarceration, because they face so many challenges to success, including housing, transportation, screening, training and moral support.  This is why it is so much more effective to develop partnerships to help overcome these challenges.

Buy For Less partnered with Public Strategies’ WorkReady Oklahoma program and The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM).  These partnerships have enable access to people in pre-release status–a relatively untapped pool of people that most employers are not even aware of.  This partnership also accesses grants that take care of various training and the partners pre-screen the population to find the ones who demonstrated the best rehabilitation for the employer to interview and do additional screening.  Buy For Less does not hire the majority of the ones they meet with, mostly because they are not a fit; but, they get the best talent because they are there early and often.

Tolerance for messiness and imperfection

Not everyone will be on-board.  Even the agencies with the mission of supporting people post-incarceration might have individual employees who do not try to help solve things.  Also, there are managers who might not provide the same opportunities or discipline fairly and coworkers who may try to sabotage a second-chance employee.

Additionally, your strategic partners will be juggling numerous requirements and will need to learn your focus and priorities, sometimes through trial and error.  But, in the end, it is worth it because of the life-changing results. One key partner says, “There are people in management positions today who started out in an entry position while in the process of being released from incarceration and worked their way up by demonstrating their potential.”  (Shane Phillips, Employment Development Manager at Work Ready Oklahoma and It’s My Community Initiative)

Commitment to each individual

The big lesson for me from the very beginning has been that I need to consider each person as an individual. Just as there are people without a record who are not a fit for my organization, there are people with a record who are; so, I need a process that considers each person on his/her merits.

Through it all, it is about a person who is learning to trust and be trustworthy.  For example, people with a felony history have to decide whether to divulge the history, because they don’t know if they can trust you.  They have been told many times that employers are prejudiced, so many assume you probably are too.  This means you will have to communicate effectively and show integrity to earn the trust of those who are also earning trust.  When you partner with organizations that are already trusted, the relationship will start off stronger, because it will be open and honest.

Take Action!

Employers can succeed when they see post-incarceration employment as a cause that is important to society, taps into available talent for your organization, reduces your organization’s legal exposure and contributes to success.  You, as employers, can have a tremendous impact on society and your organization when you commit to being part of that.  What talent will your organization be able to bring on this year once you have gotten beyond the prejudice of prior convictions clouding your decision?

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