Words of Wisdom: Discovering a Different Diversity

People’s past mistakes shouldn’t preclude their future successes.

By Arte Nathan November 21, 2017
Words of Wisdom: Discovering a Different Diversity

Coming of age in the 1960s shaped my perspective. I lived through some of the defining events of the 20th century: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, the Beatles, Vietnam, Richard Nixon, the anti-war movement, Watergate, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Against this backdrop, I graduated from Cornell University with a degree in industrial and labor relations and entered the world of HR. I’ve witnessed a great deal of change since then.

Throughout my career, I’ve had an opportunity to compare notes with lots of HR professionals. We all work hard to learn about best practices, do what’s right and accomplish meaningful things. Many have asked me about the work I’ve done on applicant tracking and mass hiring, the paperless systems I’ve created, and the landmark collective bargaining agreements I’ve negotiated. Ultimately, however, the thing they seem to be most interested in is how and why I became so passionate about hiring people with criminal backgrounds.

Supporting Those Left Behind

It all started when I was working with Steve Wynn in the 1980s to open casinos that employed thousands of employees. I had always been mindful about recruiting a diverse staff, but in this job it was a mandate. Our Atlantic City gaming licenses required us to meet hiring quotas for women and minorities. There were also recommended targets for inner-city residents in other jurisdictions where we sought to expand. 

Around this time, I met the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, then-pastor of the largest Baptist church in New Jersey. He introduced me to faith-based initiatives that were designed to help hire and support minorities, women and others who had been left behind. He defined diversity in economic terms and encouraged local businesses to recruit individuals who were both unemployed and underemployed. 

Soaries went on to become New Jersey’s secretary of state, and he helped to shape the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which promoted workforce diversity through a variety of state and local initiatives. Meanwhile, I became the first chairman of Nevada’s Workforce Investment Board. It was in that capacity that I began to understand the needs of those who have been left behind in the employment market due to a criminal past.

During that time, a Las Vegas politician asked Wynn to consider hiring one of his constituents. He and Wynn subsequently invited me to meet the applicant, who was waiting for us in Wynn’s office.

Meeting Tony

There, the politician introduced us to a tall, buff, tough-looking man named Tony. He had a shaved head and one eye … with no eye patch. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. The politician encouraged us not to judge a book by its cover—but this cover was a little difficult to ignore! 

After a few minutes of small talk, Tony pointed to his eye and said, “You want to know, don’t you?” Then, before we could answer, he boasted, “Knife fight. I won.” 

Well, that broke the ice. As we listened to Tony tell us how much he wanted to turn his life around, we couldn’t help but be impressed. He wanted a second chance, and we gave it to him. He had no experience in the world of work, and we had none working with previously incarcerated individuals. Like most employers at the time, we conducted extensive background checks and regularly rejected applicants who had felony convictions. 

I talked with some ministers and parole officers and partnered with job coaches at the local Workforce Investment Board’s One-Stop Career Center, and together we developed a 12-month training and mentoring program. Meanwhile, Tony kept his promise to work hard and stay out of trouble. He bought an eye patch, got along well with his co-workers and was promoted several times.

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Embracing Second Chances

I was so moved by Tony’s experience that I became an advocate of offering second chances. I got involved with a program run by the Nevada Department of Corrections that gave worthy first-time, nonviolent felony offenders an alternative to incarceration. 

It was run like a Marine Boot Camp. The people who operated it became adept at changing offenders’ attitudes and outlooks. I started attending their training and graduation ceremonies. Over time, I hired more than 300 of the program’s alumni.

I would always advise managers, as well as this group of prospective employees, that a program like this takes a lot of hard work. Helping these individuals successfully transition into the workforce requires a lot of coaching and mentoring—which in turn necessitates training for managers. 

The program ran for eight years. Attrition was less than 15 percent, and recidivism was under 10 percent. We learned that, given the right support and encouragement, individuals with criminal backgrounds could become just as successful as other applicants. It wasn’t always easy, but it was the right thing to do.

The Work Continues

After retiring from the gaming industry, I joined the board of Hope for Prisoners (H4P), a Las Vegas nonprofit that facilitates reintegration services for people exiting various segments of the judicial system. Its founder and CEO is an ex-offender-turned-minister who has organized training and transitional support services for more than 1,800 individuals. The goal is to make the rest of these people’s lives the best of their lives. 

H4P’s success is due in large part to its unique partnership with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department: Officials and officers participate in training and mentoring with a goal of ensuring that graduates of the program never re-offend. This program model has attracted national attention, and H4P has begun to train members of other communities and public safety agencies across the U.S. on how to help rebuild individuals, families and communities. 

Today, many of the program’s graduates are becoming mentors to others. More than three-quarters have found jobs, and the rate of recidivism among them is 6 percent. 

The national tide seems to be turning as well. The federal government, more than half the states and numerous cities have adopted so-called ban-the-box legislation, which prohibits employers from asking candidates about criminal convictions during an initial employment screening. 

Many company leaders who have hired people with criminal histories have found that they consistently come to work, have a positive attitude and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their efforts to successfully re-enter society.

Many company leaders who have hired people with criminal histories have found that they consistently come to work, have a positive attitude and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their efforts to successfully re-enter society.

I know from experience that it isn’t easy to bring forth a proposal for a program like this to senior management. Those we report to often don’t want to take on the added work and risk, and those who report to us are often fearful about being around people with criminal backgrounds. 

Take it from me—it’s worth it. We as HR professionals feel rewarded when we can satisfy our professional responsibilities while giving back to our communities. We can do both by providing meaningful opportunities to those who have earned a second chance.

When I started in HR, diversity was defined in terms of race, gender and age. But my career has taught me that achieving real diversity means affording the opportunity to work to everyone who is ready, willing and able to do so. 

Arte Nathan is president and COO of Strategic Development Worldwide, an HR and organizational development firm. He divides his time between Las Vegas and the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. He served as chief human resources officer for Steve Wynn’s gaming companies from 1983 to 2006. 

Read more Words of Wisdom from seasoned HR leaders.

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