Surprising Reasons it May Pay to Hire an Ex-Prisoner

Tapping into this under-recognized talent pool could benefit your business and community
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While your first impulse might be to pass on hiring ex-prisoners, there are incentives for businesses that give them a second chance. (Photo: Ralwel/Shutterstock)

In today’s job market, open positions can be hard to fill. But there’s one pool of talent you may be overlooking: people who’ve served time in prison.

For a person with a criminal record, finding employment can be difficult. By hiring one, you’re doing him or her — and perhaps the community at large — a favor. But you might find that you’re also doing your business a favor.

Here’s what you need to know.

Addressing the fear factor

The idea of hiring someone who committed a crime may well give you pause. But consider this: “Almost a third of American adults have some sort of arrest record or conviction history,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots membership organization that aims to empower low-income people affected by mass incarceration, HIV/AIDS and the drug war.

“If you say, I don’t want these people to work for me,’ then you’re removing a large portion of the applicant pool.”

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“When you see ‘Yes, I’ve been arrested’ checked on an application, don’t just automatically think that this person is a serial killer. Get to know the story before you judge.” -Heather Beaven (Photo: Heather Beaven)

Not every offense is truly a red flag for employers, said Heather Beaven, who ran ex-offender programs in Kansas and now leads the Florida Endowment Foundation. “When you see ‘Yes, I’ve been arrested’ checked on an application, don’t just automatically think that this person is a serial killer. It may have just been a teenage mistake, or an arrest for something that’s actually legal in a different state. Get to know the story before you judge.”

Beaven recalled a story of a youth she worked with who spent time in detention for stealing food to feed her siblings when her mother failed to do so.

What these applicants may offer

Former prisoners face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to rebuilding their lives. Beaven said these applicants will demonstrate immense loyalty to business owners who give them the chance. They may work extra hard to keep them happy.

“There are just so many things that are pulling formerly incarcerated people back in a direction they’ve decided to turn away from, it’s overwhelming. To be the person who gives a person their shot at what they’ve been preparing themselves for, you’ll experience a huge amount of loyalty.”

While any new employee will most likely require some training, a person who was incarcerated may have received vocational training and education in prison and through ex-offender programs that prepare convicted people for work.

“There are people who have gone through work programs that come through reentry organizations. There’s a lot of training and skills building,” said Aguilera.

Tax incentives

Small businesses owners can get a tax credit of up to $9,600 by employing people from certain target groups, including ex-felons, through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

“Big businesses use it regularly. Large corporations have people in human resources departments who do nothing but process WOTC forms. It is underutilized by small business owners, but it’s an important tool,” said Beaven.

Extra protection for businesses

The U.S. Department of Labor recognizes that businesses take a risk in hiring previously incarcerated people. Employers can avoid taking a loss if something does go wrong by working with the Federal Bonding Insurance Program.

“If you are hiring somebody who has just come out of incarceration, you can obtain a federal bond and that will cover you for $5,000. It covers any cost you incur as a result of something dishonest happening by the person you hired,” said Beaven.

This bonding program, which costs nothing for employers or applicants, aims to reduce the stigma ex-prisoners face by effectively “guaranteeing” worker job honesty. Employers will be reimbursed for any type of stealing, including embezzlement, forgery and merchandise theft.

Evaluating applicants

An honest conversation with applicants will help you determine if they’re right for your business. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about their criminal background, said Aguilera.

“The charge may look really scary and dramatic, but when you learn about the actual situation, you might have a different perspective. Having hard conversations and learning about what’s going on is a good step for hiring someone with conviction who you’re nervous about,” said Aguilera.

Beaven said formerly incarcerated people who are serious about rebuilding their lives will be prepared to talk to employers about their time in prison.

“The person coming out of incarceration will have had lots of conversations with their lawyer, case manager and others about how to answer questions about why they haven’t worked in last five years. They will be prepared to tell you what happened, what they learned and what they did vocationally and academically while serving their time.”

The one thing employers should always be wary of, said Beaven, is a job applicant who denies a criminal record. “If someone tries to not tell you their story, minimize it or lies about it, they may not have learned their lessons yet,” she said.

How to seek out ex-prisoners as applicants

If you’re interested in making a difference in the lives of formerly incarcerated people, Beaven suggested getting in touch with organizations that will connect you with motivated applicants who are ready to reenter the workforce.

“You can contact an organization like mine, or the Home Builders Institute, YouthBuild, Job Corps, places like that where we have these rich pools of deep talent, drive and desire. The participants are super hopeful they can navigate around their criminal history and have the lives they want.”

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