There’s a serious stigma associated with formerly incarcerated individuals in the workforce, although it has recently become clear that this stigma is unfair and based on falsehoods. By ignoring the largely untapped workforce the formerly incarcerated population represents, employers are missing out on a group of hardworking individuals who could solve many of their problems.
Why Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Is Advantageous
In the wake of the “Great Resignation,” during which millions of workers quit their jobs, America faces a workforce desperate for new employees. At the same time, the unemployment rates for formerly incarcerated men and women are 23% and 18%, respectively, compared with 4% for those who have never been incarcerated. Thus, for many industries, the unemployed labor force of formerly incarcerated individuals could be the solution to their urgent labor needs.
Employing formerly incarcerated individuals could also have a profound impact on the community. For example, recidivism rates are nearly half of those among formerly incarcerated individuals who are gainfully employed with a full-time job after being released from prison as opposed to those who aren’t. As such, by providing job opportunities to formerly incarcerated individuals, businesses have the opportunity to also make the community a better place by preventing them from committing crimes and returning to prison.
It’s also important to note that discrimination against formerly incarcerated individuals disproportionately affects people of color. One study shows that black Americans are incarcerated at a rate nearly five times that of white Americans, and further studies reveal that black Americans receive significantly harsher sentences than their white counterparts. When it comes to formerly incarcerated individuals, a commitment to inclusivity can also be seen as a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion on a larger scale.
To support formerly incarcerated employees in the workplace, employers must create a supportive and inclusive work environment. Although inclusivity in the workplace has become the norm regarding race and ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation, many workplaces haven’t extended this inclusivity to formerly incarcerated individuals. The transformation to a more inclusive workplace for this underrepresented group will be a multistep process.
Of course, the first step for employers to provide more and better work opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals is to implement fair hiring practices. Although several jurisdictions—and even the federal government—have instituted “ban the box” laws that prohibit employers from asking questions about applicants’ criminal history, many states still leave this up to individual businesses.
This means employers must look at the qualifications, skills, and potential of formerly incarcerated individuals rather than their criminal history. Except in extremely limited cases, avoid automatic disqualifications based on past convictions.
One mistake many employers tend to make is thinking that, because formerly incarcerated individuals have that “employment gap” on their résumé, they lack skills and experience. However, while they served their time, formerly incarcerated individuals likely had a job and learned valuable soft skills like work ethic, perseverance, and sometimes even job-specific skills. Some even had the opportunity to participate in educational and vocational training to prepare them for the workforce.
The federal government also offers support to companies that actively employ formerly incarcerated individuals. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit, for instance, is a program offered by the government that provides employers with a tax credit of up to $2,400 for hiring and employing individuals from certain “targeted groups,” one of which is “qualified ex-felons.” With this, employers have a direct financial incentive to hire formerly incarcerated individuals to bolster their anemic workforce.
Employers that seek to employ formerly incarcerated individuals also have a tremendous resource at their disposal with community-based reentry programs. Many nonprofit and governmental organizations exist to provide formerly incarcerated individuals with the skills, training, resources, and experience they need to succeed in the workforce. By partnering with these organizations, employers can ensure their applicants are qualified and prepared.
However, the work of supporting formerly incarcerated individuals in the workplace doesn’t stop with merely hiring them, as formerly incarcerated individuals may struggle to readjust to the workplace after spending years in prison. Providing them with mentorship and guidance throughout their reintegration into society can help ensure they are successful, not only in their jobs but also in the rest of their lives.
Some workplaces have also found success by offering resources to their employees such as employee resource groups (ERGs), which serve as a way to connect employees with their peers and leaders to share resources with one another. Although communities traditionally served by ERGs include black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ employees, workplaces with many formerly incarcerated employees could benefit from implementing this type of initiative.
The Bottom Line
Hiring formerly incarcerated individuals offers numerous benefits to employers, but it requires a commitment to supporting them in the workplace. By providing formerly incarcerated employees with the resources they need to succeed in the workplace, employers can help not only this underserved population but also the community and workforce as a whole.
Trent Griffin-Braaf is the CEO and Founder of Tech Valley Shuttle. He has grown his business from a hotel-based transportation agency in 2016 to a fully customizable company specializing in workforce transportation. He now owns two of the larger black-owned businesses in the Capital Region. He has been highlighted in Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes 1000, and The New York Times for his work and was recently named the 2023 SBA Upstate NY Small Business Person of the Year for expanding his ride services during the pandemic, filling a critical community need. He was formerly incarcerated, and since his release, he has dedicated his career to creating opportunities for others in the same position through Tech Valley Shuttle. His ultimate goal is to be a resource for others by shifting how organizations perceive and hire from underrepresented groups.