As I am writing this, unemployment is really low—so much so that many small businesses are having trouble finding employees. Some companies are finding that hiring ex-offenders is a way to address the problem. These people have done their time and need jobs if they are to re-enter society successfully. Because their backgrounds are very different from those of traditional employees, business owners and managers need to be aware of some key differences.
Evidence from Indianapolis
Indianapolis, Indiana has several small businesses that have successfully hired ex-offenders. This has been the subject of news stories and research by Professor Christopher O.L.H. Porter of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. One key is having community groups such as Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry (PACE) that work with both ex-cons and employers to ensure that both sides have their needs met. Another is the presence of social enterprises such as RecycleForce, an electronics recycling firm that almost exclusively hires former prisoners.
In fact, it was through RecycleForce that Professor Porter found his research subject. He was dropping off an old television for recycling and recognized that the workforce dynamics were not typical.
There are differences in managing ex-offenders. These are people who made a mistake and paid for it. Part of the price they paid was being removed from the norms of a workplace. It can be as basic as not knowing how to set an alarm clock because they haven’t had to for years.
Slack, which makes a popular workplace communication system, works with a program that trains prisoners in coding. It has hired graduates of the program after their release to help ease its own workforce shortage, getting both great employees and great publicity in the process. (I first learned about their program when Common mentioned it in keynote speech at QuickBooks Connect.)
Slack has a dedicated coordinator for the program who works with these employees on non-work issues. For example, it can be really hard for these people to get apartments, as many landlords do not want to rent to people with a felony conviction. Slack has made a corporate commitment to having a diverse workforce, and it faces a critical shortage of skilled workers in its core business area. Your small business probably has fewer resources than Slack. It’s unlikely that an Academy Award winner is going to talk about your successful program to an auditorium full of accountants, bookkeepers, and fintech employees who might be considering the purchase of your software. However, Slack’s experience shows that thoughtfully hiring ex-offenders can help you get things done.
Keys for Success
Both Professor Porter’s research and Slack’s experience indicate that the first key to success in hiring ex-offenders is working with a partner that understands the needs of both workers and employers. Start by talking to groups in your town that work with people coming out of prison. Some of these programs may be part of religious organizations, others are purely community based. These folks will have ideas for how you can work with them to get the workers you need.
In addition to community resources, many states offer tax credits for the training and support services that businesses offer to these workers. This can increase your payoff for the risk you are taking. And yes, the risk of hiring an ex-offender is higher than hiring an employee without a criminal background. Managing that risk can help you get a great employee while making a huge difference in someone’s life.
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