Second Chances

By Carol Patton, Human Resource Executive Online.

Ever on the lookout for specialized talent, companies are turning to an unlikely source of labor: people with criminal pasts.

Joel Andino works as a morning merchandiser for the Pepsi Bottling Group in Mechanicsville, Va., where he writes orders and stocks store shelves with Pepsi products at large retailers such as Kmart and Wal-Mart. Over the last three years at Pepsi, he’s received three promotions while attending Virginia State University for a master’s degree in special education. He’s always on time, rarely takes time off and performs his job with pride.

Andino may be the ideal employee. But some employers would never consider hiring him because of his past. Andino spent three years in prison.

At age 22 in 2002, he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 11 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Va. To reduce his sentence, he voluntarily attended the prison’s boot camp for six months, where he says he learned discipline and an appreciation for the negative impact his behavior had on his family. In 2005, he was released to a halfway house.

During the next year, he applied for seven entry-level jobs, but never moved past the application phase. “I kind of felt they didn’t want to take chances with felons or people coming out of prison,” Andino says. “We all make mistakes in life. We all change. Pepsi looked for the positive in me instead of the negative.”

Always looking for specially skilled workers, some employers, such as Pepsi, are turning to an unconventional source for talent: ex-offenders. Many successfully hold jobs in a variety of industries, including construction, manufacturing and hospitality. Some even end up as role models. This unlikely match offers benefits to both sides. They help HR fill jobs — often jobs no one wants. In return, HR offers them a second chance.

Standard Treatment

The number of people incarcerated in local jails and state and federal prisons in this country exceeded 2.2 million in 2006, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s almost as many as those making up the entire population of Nevada. Nearly 650,000 inmates are released each year, living and working in communities across the country.

No one really knows how many are hired each year. Most are treated no differently than the rest of the employees. Many companies claim they don’t track that type of data. But some that do believe ex-offenders compose a very small percentage of their workforce.

At Hunter Douglas based in Upper Saddle River, N.J., fewer than 1 percent of the company’s 9,000 employees throughout North America were previously incarcerated, says Betty Lou Smith, vice president of corporate HR for the manufacturer and marketer of custom window fashions.

“We go through our normal recruitment process, asking if they had [job-related] experience before serving time,” she says, adding that recruiters also explain the job’s purpose and the training they’ll receive, and discuss work schedules and job requirements. “We don’t give them any break or treat them any differently.”

Many of the company’s job openings are for cutters and material handlers, which are hard-to-fill positions. Since there aren’t many fabricators or manufacturers of window coverings in the United States, Smith says, it’s rare to find applicants who possess these skills.

Approximately 3 percent of Hunter Douglas’ job applicants have criminal records, she says. Some come through temporary agencies and then land full-time jobs with the company. But all new hires are assigned a mentor for 90 days.

According to Smith, no one but the hiring manager is aware of the individual’s past. Mentors act more like friends, often assisting new employees with difficult tasks or answering questions they’re too afraid to ask their supervisor for fear of being reprimanded or terminated.

She tells the story of one employee who was hired through a temporary agency. He was a teenager when he committed armed robbery, but was tried as an adult and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

When he applied for a full-time job, he was up-front about his criminal past and simply wanted a break.

“We wish we could clone him — he’s one of our star employees,” Smith says, adding that he’s worked for the company for seven years. “He’s the highest-paid worker in his job category. He’s so proud of his work station.”

In cases involving ex-offenders, Smith says, it is especially incumbent upon recruiters to not allow personal biases to interfere with their hiring decisions.

Schneider National Inc., based in Green Bay, Wis., considers when the crime occurred, how it relates to the job the person is applying for and how honest the individual is about the crime, says Gilberto Herrera, enterprise recruiting manager at the trucking company, which employs more than 22,000 employees nationwide.

For example, an individual who hijacked a truck two years ago would not be hired. But if someone was incarcerated five years ago for a single drunk-driving offense, he says, the person would be considered.

Like Hunter Douglas, Schneider doesn’t create special recruiting or training programs for ex-offenders, who often apply for truck-driving positions. They complete the company’s standard four-to-six-week training course and are assigned a leader or mentor who keeps an eye on them for 90 days. Other than those who did the actual hiring, no one — direct supervisors included — is told about that individual’s criminal background.

While Herrera’s company doesn’t track the number of ex-inmates it hires, it considers them a viable source of talent. Many employers are reluctant, however, to admit they employ ex-offenders, fearing a backlash from their workforce, customers or community. Herrera says people with criminal pasts aren’t going to disappear from society and do have the right to work.

“This needs to reviewed and continually evaluated,” he says, referring to best practices for hiring ex-offenders. “Sharing of information is critical. A lot of organizations collaborate on other things. Why not this?”

Risky Business

Back in 1998, Allied Waste Services in Chicago, which provides collection, recycling and disposal services, wanted to outsource the sorting function of its recyclables. It contracted with Safer Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that helps people with criminal records find jobs and transition into the workplace, says Bob Kalebich, general manager of the Chicago facility.

After one year of working with more than 200 temporary sorters, “We found out that a lot had realized that they had made mistakes [in their pasts] and were looking somehow to better themselves,” he says. “A lot of them had education and skills we could use.”

Since then, the company has hired 10 ex-offenders through the foundation for positions that include mechanics, drivers, equipment operators and lead supervisors. But what Kalebich didn’t expect was a drop in employee turnover.

Before working with the foundation, turnover stood at roughly 10 percent. Now it’s 3.5 percent, he says, adding that his company has 120 employees and another 220 temporary workers provided by the foundation. He says many of these workers are grateful for their jobs and the company’s support, trust and confidence in them. Kalebich believes hiring them sends a message of good will. More than likely, he says, jobs prevent them from returning to crime, which, in turn, creates a stronger, safer community.

“Every time you go to the street to hire, you don’t know what peoples’ backgrounds are, what type of trouble they’ve encountered in the past or how they’ll represent your company,” he says. “You’re always taking a risk no matter what you do.”

So HR must apply common sense when hiring individuals with criminal convictions to avoid potential legal problems, says John Robinson, senior employment law partner at Fowler White Boggs Banker, a Tampa, Fla.-based law firm.

Some of his suggestions include:

  • Remove temptations. Don’t hire them for positions that may tempt them to return to their old ways. You may be setting them and your company up to fail. Robinson points to employers who hire people with a history of theft in jobs as cashiers or other positions that give them easy access to cash.
  • Avoid public risk. Is there a chance the public could be in harm’s way if this individual is hired for this position? Take individuals with serious drug or alcohol-related offenses. Robinson says it would be very risky — maybe even negligent — to hire them as truck drivers.
  • Get perspective. It’s much easier to forgive people who committed nonviolent crimes when they were young. Don’t only focus on the crime. Consider the age and circumstances of the individual at the time the crime was committed.
  • Check references. Sometimes, HR can get quality information from halfway houses or prison-release programs. Also ask about any temporary jobs that the person may have held.
  • Ask job candidates to describe their convictions. Then compare them to their background checks. Did they omit important information? Did they sugarcoat their crimes? Were there other crimes they were convicted for that they never mentioned? Robinson says these are all signs of future trouble.
  • Inform the supervisor about their past. This way, supervisors can better accommodate their needs, such as checking in with parole officers. But should you tell other workers about that employee’s criminal past? Only on a need-to-know basis, Robinson says.

“America is the land of second chances,” says Robinson. “I salute companies that do this, but I think you have to go in with eyes wide open.”

Changing Perspectives

HR professionals may be surprised to learn how many job applicants have criminal histories.

Of the thousands of employee background checks conducted each month by Clarifacts, a national pre-employment screening company based in Phoenix, between 5 percent and 8 percent have been convicted of a crime but may not have served jail or prison time, says Kevin Klimas, the company’s president. Their crimes run the gamut. Most ex-offenders tell the truth, he says. But some water it down. Those with multiple convictions may only admit to a lesser offense.

While the nature of a person’s crime is an important consideration for hiring managers, so is what the individual has accomplished behind bars or since being released from prison. During the interview, ask if they completed any programs, such as vocational training, drug rehabilitation or correspondence courses, or if they enrolled in college, says Ron Pilenzo, president and CEO of The Global HR Consultancy, an HR consulting firm in Hobe Sound, Fla.

He says a considerable number of ex-offenders come from poverty-stricken homes, are high-school dropouts or drug addicts, and possess minimal job skills — all factors in an employer’s reluctance to hire them. Almost 68 percent are re-arrested within three years. To reduce the recidivism rate and decrease $60 billion in federal corrections expenditures and more than $38.2 billion needed to maintain the nation’s state correctional system, key changes have been introduced.

More prisons are now offering training in vocational trades. At other correctional facilities, such as those in Virginia, inmates can enroll in online college courses and degree programs, he says. Currently, approximately eight states, including Arizona, California and Oregon, support call centers in state prisons, according to the Enterprise Prison Institute in Bethesda, Md., which creates employment and training opportunities for ex-offenders.

The Second Chance Act of 2007, which is still pending in Congress, gives money to states for re-entry programs and grants to nonprofit organizations to provide mentoring and transitional services to ex-offenders.

Employers can also receive a tax credit through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program — of up to $2,400 — for hiring individuals previously incarcerated.

Likewise, the 42-year-old Federal Bonding Program created by the U.S. Department of Labor, which provides incentives to employers to hire ex-offenders as well as other at-risk applicants, now covers any job in any state.

“From a social and taxpayer standpoint, every time we put someone behind bars, it costs $25,000 a year,” says Pilenzo.

“If we want to keep our taxes low and make people productive and reduce crime, we have to find these people jobs.”

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