Shedding Preconceived Ideas About Workers with Criminal Records

Managers describe success in hiring people who were formerly incarcerated

By Michelle R. Davis
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Shedding Preconceived Ideas About Workers with Criminal Records

Ron Stefanski admits that the first time he decided to open the hiring process to applicants with a criminal history, he had some preconceived notions.

He said he expected to get job seekers who were uneducated or violent. The reality was very different.

"I just made a huge mistake. I've found they're really good employees," he said. "Their chances are few, so when they get a job, they are spot on."

Stefanski is the founder of Chicago-based Jobs For Felons Hub. Aside from the hiring process, when he'll ease applicants' worries by telling them he's focused on their skills and not their past, managing these employees isn't significantly different from managing anyone else, he said.

Stefanski created the job site after helping a relative with a felony record search for work and realizing how difficult it was for people with a criminal history to find meaningful employment and break into the workforce.

Giving People a Purpose

About one-third of adults have a criminal history, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and about 650,000 people are released from prison every year. Many find it difficult to find work, but some companies offer what's often called second-chance employment. Managers at these companies need to be equipped to help second-chance hires succeed.

"As an employer, we need talented people who come to work on time and are trainable," said Genevieve Martin, executive director of the Dave's Killer Bread Foundation, which helps other companies hire employees with felony records. About one-third of employees at the Milwaukie, Ore.-based Dave's Killer Bread (DKB) have criminal records. [See also, "Hiring People with Criminal Backgrounds Is Easier Than You Think," SHRM Online, March 2019]

Cristina Watson, brand manager for DKB, said that when she began working for the company, she knew she would be among people with criminal records—something she had never experienced. "You fear what you don't know," she said. "But the first thing I realized here was that every person is just an individual, with different backgrounds and challenges that motivate us and give us purpose."

Managers should avoid preconceived notions and take cues from employees about how much of the past is up for discussion, said Jason Landraitis, a general manager in the greater Seattle area for MOD Pizza, a well-known second-chance employer headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. Some employees are vocal while others are more private about details, he said.

"It is a big place of insecurity for a lot of people," he said. "They have felt a lot of judgment and eyes on them because of their experiences."

In addition, managers may need to be flexible and patient. Some employees have lost their driver's license and rely on public transportation, so they may not be able to work certain shifts, he said. Others are struggling to find housing, and they may need to honor court dates or mandatory meetings with parole officers, he said.

But generally, Landraitis said, hiring someone with a criminal background "is a big win on both sides if you're doing it right." He noted that he hired someone with 20 years of deep leadership experience he normally wouldn't have been able to land. The person's criminal history made it difficult for him to find a position.

"Once you get these people comfortable and engaged, they are often incredibly thankful for the extra time and attention and care," he said. "They're dedicated and invested."

Production manager Fernando Burciaga has seen that play out at Great Northern Instore, a merchandise display manufacturer based in Chicago. When he was assigned a worker who was tall and imposing and had tattoos, Burciaga admitted the employee looked "intimidating."

Because a previous manager hired the employee, Burciaga learned of the worker's criminal history later. But quickly, Burciaga said, he realized the employee was smart, meticulous, hardworking and curious.

Burciaga said he took the same approach he would with any employee and helped the worker play to his strengths. The employee got a promotion, in part based on his meticulous work, and was assigned to a job for which attention to detail is important. Burciaga also homed in on the way the employee learned best and determined that hands-on learning, rather than worksheets and printouts, was a better way to teach him new skills.

For Linzie Rocker, a squad captain at the MOD Pizza in Canyon Park, Wash., who has a criminal record, the opportunities she's had at work have changed her life. After being released from jail and before working at MOD, she applied for many jobs—most with little chance for progression. In each interview, as she explained her background and that she was ready to change her life, she "could almost feel the energy switch, and [the interviewer] would cut it off very quickly."

Rocker's probation officer told her about MOD Pizza's second-chance hiring perspective. When she told the hiring manager she was on active probation, his reaction was different. "He didn't make me feel ashamed about it," she said.

After a short time with MOD, she got a promotion.

"I feel I'm needed and wanted here," she said. "I have the chance to show other people that [even though] I made some not-so-great choices in the past, I can still turn my life around."

Michelle Davis is freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. 

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