The Great Untapped Hiring Source | Net Impact

The Great Untapped Hiring Source

Net Impact member Sonja Skvarla runs A Social Ignition, assisting both nonprofit and for-profit clients who work to remove barriers to employment for people with criminal records. At a time when we're seeing a near record-setting ratio of job applicants to openings, companies are looking for the best fitting employees. They want the employee that will learn, grow with the business, and be invested in the outcome. Despite this quest, most companies automatically exclude 7% of working-age adults in their search.

This excluded group has years of hands-on work experience in all kinds of industries, demonstrates a better-than-average understanding of how those experiences have shaped their ability to work in teams, and possesses the creativity to look at solutions from unconventional angles.So why would employers dismiss these candidates without as much as an interview, opting instead for an employee poorly matched with the job, who has a higher chance of leaving for greener pastures, increasing turnover, and slowing down productivity? This 7% represents the percentage of working-age adults that have a felony conviction on their record.

Breaking the stereotype

The words felony conviction conjure up all kinds of visuals and stereotypes, which often lead to fear and false assumptions. It might surprise you to learn that you can expect some of the same things in a resume from a convicted felon that you already do from your current candidates. Even those with a criminal record and time in prison can have an impressive resume. Dave Dahl, creator of Dave's Killer Bread (and self-proclaimed four-time loser), spent more than fifteen years behind bars. He is adamant that a person's opportunity to change their future starts inside prison, not the moment they get out, referring to correctional institutions that offer educational opportunities, work experience, or chances to lead recovery groups.

People who have been involved in illegal activities in the past often understand essential business concepts. For instance, those in drug sales understand markets, return on investment, supply chain development, and risk management. They can manage their workforce in high-pressure, high-stakes situations. Some of our highest performers are former felons, says HR director Deb Alstock. The truth is your company can access this extended pool of qualified applicants by taking out some of the guess-work.

How to hire qualified applicants (hint: it's not their record you should worry about)

Start with an open mind.
Set an intention with your hiring staff to think holistically about the position available and realistically about all the skills truly required to be successful. Does it require a certain level of technical skill? An increased level of social or soft skills?

Search your area for an alternative staffing agency you trust.
There are organizations in just about every city that support the transition of men and women into the workforce from incarceration or probation. Each one prepares people in a different way. A few examples are:

    • New City Kitchen (Portland, OR) prepares people for jobs in the food industry.
    • Delancey Street (cities across America including San Francisco, CA) is a program that gives men and women high-level experience in a variety of business roles.
    • The Safer Foundation (Chicago, IL) is a high-volume organization getting people prepared for more entry-level and labor positions.
    • The Alternative Staffing Alliance is a great resource for finding organizations in your area.

The key is to find an organization that you connect with, shares your values as a company, and that you can trust to send you the most suitable candidates. If you decide to forgo the agency affiliation, take the time to design your own criteria.

Whether you use an agency or handle vetting candidates yourself, it is important to set and apply the same standards to all interviewees. There are a variety of criteria and curricula that can be used to screen candidates depending on which skills you value most. You may be amazed to find that people with a checkered past are sometimes more qualified or capable than those with a clean record. Dave's Killer Bread works with WorkSource and All Star Staffing to vet their production staff before interviewing them in-house. They have worked together to fine-tune the process, so that Dave's gets candidates that fit its benchmarks, regardless of background.

Ask yourself: what does the position actually require?
One major difference that interviewing managers may need to consider is a potential employee's appearance. Society tends to make assumptions about people based on the brand of suit or presence of visible tattoos. As one man at Delancey Street told me, As much effort as I put in to turn my life around, my past is literally written all over my face. His tattoos from hard days in prison were poking out of his suit on his neck and hands. Yet had you heard him talk, you wouldn't question hiring him. Trust those instincts.

Share your experiences as you go.
Few companies talk publicly about whether or not they hire people with criminal records. Even those that do don't like to share, for fear that their customers will think of them differently. But Dave's Killer Bread customers are drawn to the brand both for its killer bread recipes and for its social mission to employ those that other companies won't even consider. As we have seen time and time again, by sharing our experiences, we raise the competency of all parties. Shared experiences allow for change throughout the larger system.

Overall, an open hiring practice is the best thing for business. It improves the likelihood of best-fitting, highly motivated employees. It creates a rich environment of truly diverse backgrounds and supports a community of employed individuals more apt to purchase your goods and services. So start by hiring one person with a background you might not have considered before. After a successful hire, be intentional about including others with similar backgrounds in your workforce. Start with one. Be successful. Repeat. Over the long haul, practices like these will heighten your best-fit hiring capabilities across the organization. The result is a more sophisticated human resource process that increases your ability to manage and respond to the whole workforce. Ultimately, we realize that all people come to a job with baggage from past experiences. The difference is that people with felony records are often more willing to talk about how their experiences motivate them to be more dedicated to their work. Skilled employees are often a company's most valuable asset: so let's stop excluding qualified candidates, and recognize them for the human resource they truly are.