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Organizational Change
5 Lessons Learned from Employing a Second-Chance Workforce

About half of our employees have a criminal record, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from working with them. If your business is considering hiring formerly incarcerated people, the following lessons may help you avoid common obstacles to building a positive environment, so both your new employees and your business can thrive.

If you met Carlos Arceo today, you wouldn’t guess he’d been in prison. He has a thriving career as second-shift manager at US Rubber Recycling — a sustainable fitness flooring and underlayment manufacturer in Colton, Calif. In just over two years since his release from prison, Carlos has risen through the company’s ranks, earned the respect of his direct reports and put himself on the path toward a bright future.

Too many people like him don’t have this opportunity. Nearly 70 million Americans have a criminal record; and even after they’ve paid their debt to society, many remain marginalized. Incarceration brands those it touches, trapping them in a cycle of unemployment and poverty, which can lead to recidivism. Groups such as the Second Chance Business Coalition tout the benefits of second-chance hiring and offer resources that help ease the transition to employment for people with criminal records and their employers amid a growing movement of support for the practice.

But success requires more than good intentions — being open to second-chance workers isn’t enough. Success means hiring formerly incarcerated people and building work environments where they can thrive.

About half of our employees have a criminal record. Since I began leading the team in April 2019, I’ve learned valuable lessons from working with them, which I applied when revamping our own second-chance hiring program, newly dubbed Bounce Back! If your business is preparing to make the leap to hiring formerly incarcerated people, the following lessons learned may help you avoid common obstacles to building a positive environment so your new employees can succeed and your business can grow as a result.

Check your biases

I realized early on that we as an organization needed to recalibrate our expectations and work to eliminate preconceived notions. Hiring Carlos did not make sense on paper. He was 37 years old when he applied; and he had never held a job before. Despite the odds, he proved himself an adaptable, hardworking, smart and highly motivated team member.

Consider how difficult it must be to bounce back after spending time in prison: Upon release, many of our employees have no money or resources. They may be alienated from their family; and many must shun former friends to avoid returning to old destructive habits, leaving them without a support system. The mental and emotional fortitude it takes to start a new life from scratch and apply for jobs despite frequent rejection is a strength.

These employees are working toward a fresh start and must not be judged for past mistakes. Rather, employers should view them as they are now and recognize their potential. Many of the Bounce Back! employees who work with us for more than a year exceed my expectations — and many surprise themselves, too.

Create a positive work environment

Many employees, regardless of their prior status, feel like they’re in a fishbowl when they start a new job — this feeling is amplified for formerly incarcerated people. If second-chance employees feel as if others are judging them for their past, their tenure will likely be short. Make them feel welcome from day one, for who they are now.

Positive reinforcement goes a long way. Our Bounce Back! employees have pointed out to me that many ex-felons have dealt with negative feedback their whole lives. Their confidence in their own abilities is frequently low, and it takes time to build that up. Meet them in a new job with gratitude for positive actions and gradually entrust them with new responsibilities; and they can begin to reverse their negative self-conceptions, building confidence in themselves and trust in the workplace.

Equally important is making sure all employees feel that they’re part of the team. Integration can be tricky; but we work hard to build a single culture that focuses on potential. Every one of our employees, regardless of their background, wants to do their best. And we as a company want to build something great. By treating the past as irrelevant to those goals, we are building the future together.

Teach teamwork

Bounce Back! employees tell me that prison is an environment where selfishness equals survival. Most jobs, however, require mutual support and collaboration.

Being an inclusive team leader and actively seeking contributions can help resolve that dissonance. Crowdsourcing ideas from our second-chance employees has given us useful feedback and made people feel seen, heard and acknowledged.

Encouraging outcome-oriented thinking is another powerful strategy. One way we’ve done this is to show every employee when and how the team succeeds and outline learnings from every failure, supported by data. This helps employees understand how their individual contribution impacts the larger context of team and company growth.

Get professional help

Many of our employees’ lives changed for the better the day we contracted psychiatric rehabilitation counselor Nancy Lambert. Before I hired her as our full-time human resources manager, she came to the factory once a week to meet confidentially with any of our employees who wanted her help resolving issues inside or outside the workplace. She also scheduled calls throughout the day or after hours. Many of our Bounce Back! employees were imprisoned at young ages and never had the chance to learn the life skills most of us take for granted. After release, emotions are raw and many of our second-chance employees struggle to meet the demands of daily life. Nancy brings significant prior experience working with incarcerated people, and her expertise has made a big difference in our second-chance team members’ overall success and ability to contribute to business growth.

Accept that it won’t always work out

I won’t sugarcoat this. Working with second-chance employees is challenging — and not everyone will be a success story; many fail during the first 90 days. It takes a while for a formerly incarcerated person to build confidence and foster new habits to avoid slipping back into self-destructive patterns. The turnover rate for our second-chance employees is higher than average and can be heartbreaking. Many employees who don’t work out perform well at first but can’t keep it up.

I can’t lament the ones who don’t make it, though. Watching and working with those who succeed at building a new life is enormously rewarding and a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity.