Hiring and the Formerly Incarcerated Job Candidate: Listen, Listen, Listen

Christine Johnson on

I am going to say some words that put together terrify many employers.  Here we go:

Formerly incarcerated people need employment.

I know by starting off with those words I have already lost some of you.  But don’t go. Hear me out.

I had an opportunity last week to participate with other HR and business colleagues in a pilot training program for formerly incarcerated persons re-entering the workforce.  All involved – participants and volunteers – felt our 2 hours together were useful, productive, educational, and worth continuing.  I am proud to be part of a group that sees an opportunity to help bring more workers to our community and help remove roadblocks for workforce re-entry.

I realized driving to the training though that I had a couple of subconscious, preconceived thoughts about the folks in this program.  I thought I might not be able to relate to them.  I saw the gap between their current unemployment and future employment as beyond huge to a point of almost unachievable.  I assumed they did not want to work.  I was wrong on all accounts.

In listening the stories of the program participants, I am reminded that we are all vulnerable. Where one bad decision or tragic situation will force us off our path work path, sustainability, and success.

As employers, we should at minimum listen to any person’s story to see how that person took a challenge, learned from it, and has set a new achievement goal.  And while not every formerly incarcerated person will be able do this, I believe we, as employers, at least owe them a chance.

I also saw how a roomful of caring, motivated thought-leaders in the workplace can work together on the spot to add value and concern for others in a less fortunate situation, making those in transition feel more like their inner rock stars, at least for a few minutes.  A smile and a sincere thank you were the greatest form of payment any of us volunteers could receive.

Not every formerly incarcerated person may be the best candidate for a position in your organization.  However, in a labor market where employers cannot find qualified employees, let’s not shut the door on hearing the story of someone who did serve time.  You might be surprised what you hear in their story if you are really listening.

To paraphrase what a colleague of mine said to one of the candidates who said he only was a “painter”: “When you say you are a painter, I hear someone who can climb ladders, understands mixing, and knows the supplies needed to get the work done.  That not only applies in painting, but in manufacturing jobs as well.”

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