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Fair Chance Employment: Leveraging the Workforce of the Future

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

A group of fifteen adult men and women of diverse ages and ethnicities,  wearing clothing and holding props associated with diverse professions (technology, medicine, construction, architecture, education, etc.), stand smiling and looking up at the camera.

A proactive Fair Chance Employment strategy is the competitive edge for today’s businesses.


  • 1 in 3 adults of working age in the U.S. have a criminal record that may be a barrier in their job search and career development

  • Companies as diverse as Target, BMW, Barclays Events Center and Macy’s have thought they were in compliance, but have been sued for discrimination against applicants with a criminal record

Legal compliance is a starting point, but full inclusion of people with criminal records in the workforce requires widespread organizational change.

Over just the last year, in partnership with M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, MindOpen Learning Strategies has been honored to deliver first-of-its-kind training to nearly 200 human resource professionals and hiring managers on how to leverage this traditionally under-valued workforce population

The training provides the unique opportunity to:

  • Examine biases in a controlled environment, avoiding potential real-time issues

  • Exchange diverse perspectives with colleagues

  • Get feedback and insight into unique industry-specific, role-specific challenges

  • Get ahead of the issues and concerns that company stakeholders might have about this population

  • Develop as a professional, honing strategic, collaborative, and documentation skills

  • HR professionals can earn continuing education credits

Timing is Everything: How It All Started

I first heard Toney Earl, Jr., and Tarik Greene, who serve as M.A.D.E. Transitional Services Executive Director and Executive Deputy Director, speak at a REAP Reentry Business Association breakfast in the Spring of 2017. Both formerly incarcerated themselves, they founded M.A.D.E. to break the cycle of recidivism through evidence-based counseling, employment services, and transitional housing. I knew that our work was interconnected—but I couldn’t have guessed that Toney would lead off our first conversation by asking:

“Do you know anyone who writes curriculum? We’re outreaching to employers to hire our job seekers coming out of prison, and the employers are interested, but they have a lot of questions. We promised the employers we’d give them a training.”

If you know me, you know that (with input from brilliant educator Robin McGinty ) in 2011 I created a labor-of-love curriculum, focused on employer readiness to fully include people with criminal records in their workforce. At the time, nothing was available that acknowledged how behavioral change was required on the employer side. Narratives were focused on deficit-based redemption of formerly incarcerated people showing that they ‘deserved’ work. Meeting Toney and Tarik was like finding the missing piece to a puzzle.

They felt the same way. I’d already developed the curricular content but didn’t have a platform, and they had the platform and demand from employers but didn’t have a curriculum. We decided to deliver it as a team, continually improving it together, and co-facilitating.

Like many perfect meetings, ours had taken years of preparation.

Lost Colleagues: A Result of Mass Incarceration

I have never been incarcerated and do not have a criminal record—which is not to say that my choices and struggles as a teen and young adult did not include illegal activity. My race and class privilege protected me from getting caught up in the criminal justice system, but I had the freedom of not thinking about any of this as I developed my career path in young adulthood. In my mid-thirties, however, the demographic disparities of mass incarceration really hit home for me. I was working in mental health program development within city and state correctional systems, and was also involved as a performer in prison-based arts programs. In both capacities I was meeting men and women exactly my age who had been incarcerated as teenagers. So similar to me in skills and insight, and with a patience and perspective that I didn’t have, these individuals were literally starting at negative-ground-zero in forging the kind of human service careers at which I was already mid-level. These were the colleagues that I wanted to work with, except they weren’t going to be my colleagues.


While continuing to work full-time, to refresh my own sense of purpose and to gain new tools for creating positive change, I had entered Fielding Graduate University’s doctoral program in Organizational Development. The experiences described above led to the formulation of my dissertation research question:

What barriers and supports do formerly incarcerated people experience in entering the human services workforce?

My research study consisted of 25 human services professionals, all of whom were formerly incarcerated, about their career entry and advancement experiences. Their statements revealed two very important points. First, while their incarceration history produced disadvantages, it also built professional strengths, specifically self-identified abilities including:

  • stress management;

  • ability to maintain a nonjudgmental stance when working with diverse populations; and

  • trauma sensibility.

The above are obviously key components in working effectively in re-entry employment programs and human service hiring and staff development, as well as in most employment settings where these elements may be known as “soft skills.”

Second, my interviewees’ statements revealed that while currently and formerly incarcerated people received lots of counseling, coaching and mandating for all the ways necessary to prepare for the workforce—creating what subject expert Dr. Douglas E. Thompkins has cautioned can become a re-entry industrial complexthis didn’t translate into jobs. In 2011 most employers were simply not prepared to accept formerly incarcerated people into the workforce. In more than one case, the leadership potential in an employee with a Master’s Degree earned while incarcerated was cancelled out by the same person’s murder conviction from 25 years prior. “Who is most qualified?” is the most important question for hiring at any level of experience, but most applicants with criminal records were being screened out before their qualifications could even be assessed.

Convinced, Professionally Speaking

My research convinced me that professionals with incarceration histories offer impactful leadership and informed insight. From my admittedly insider’s (biased!) perspective I especially see the value-add of formerly incarcerated people’s insight into social problems and human services organizations’ responses and processes.

Times Have Changed—Maybe

Seven years later, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a New York Times bestseller. The fair chance hiring policies encapsulated in Ban the Box have been implemented by 31 states, the District of Columbia, and over 150 cities and counties. Under President Obama federal agencies were directed to delay inquiries into job applicants’ records until later in the hiring process. The most progressive policies, like New York City’s 2015 Fair Chance Act, which makes it illegal for most employers in New York City to ask about the criminal record of job applicants before making a job offer, really incentivize action on the part of human resource and hiring managers.

Not only that, Johnny C. Taylor, new president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), has made bold calls to action for HR, urging that the HR gatekeeping role be taken seriously in order to open possibilities for full employment to formerly incarcerated people.

And Yet…

You only have to look at what’s happening every day (from Starbucks to backyards to Yale) to see that assumptions of criminality among people of color are everywhere in our society, causing immense harm and suffering. The research of Devah Pager and colleagues collected in Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration makes clear there is no greater stigma than a criminal record, and no greater proxy for unconscious bias. How does this translates to the workplace? Still, over 75% of incarcerated individuals are still unemployed over a year after release.

It's Not About Bleeding Hearts

It isn’t only unconscious bias against that needs to be dealt with. Efforts to “do the right thing” can also go badly awry. For example, even the most experienced professionals may surprise themselves with their decisions when emotions are involved, as we found in one recent training. A participant diverted from our model decision-making process, unwittingly ignoring the specific recommendations around assessing an applicant. The participant advocated for placing someone with a recent credit card fraud conviction in a telephone sales position, where she’d be processing credit cards. His proposed hiring analysis would not stand up to public opinion or to a negligent hiring suit, but he was intent on giving the applicant a “second chance” despite the risks. Transparent, objective analysis, including transparency with the client, is what is needed. Effective hires are good business, not "bleeding heart hiring".

Informed Actions = Effective Outcomes

M.A.D.E. and MindOpen Learning work together so that we can provide the best possible training around hiring formerly incarcerated people to HR professionals in the private, non-profit and government sectors.

The ratio of population to incarceration, plus new laws, make a compelling case for this as the crucial moment to become your organization’s expert in safe and effective recruiting of formerly incarcerated people. I am extremely proud of what M.A.D.E. and MindOpen have co-created. We are optimistic and excited about the possibilities our training opens up for business, and for our society.

Knowing that fair chance hiring is good business is one thing. Understanding how to get hiring managers to see the often unconscious attitudes that get in the way of fair chance hiring, and to discuss those attitudes openly is another. No one does this as well as M.A.D.E. and MindOpen in their Leveraging the Workforce of the Future training. I wish this was around when I was a corporate H.R. director.

-Lewis Maltby, President, National Workrights Institute

If you would like to discuss options, simply want to know more, or know someone else could benefit, please get in touch!



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