Seeking employment as a convicted felon is not an easy task. So, it’s encouraging to learn that in 2020, the majority of the largest companies worldwide are actively hiring ex-offenders worldwide. Two smaller companies that pioneered this effort are Nehemiah Manufacturing in Cincinnati and Televerde, a sales and marketing company that provides training and employment for currently and formerly incarcerated women in Arizona and Indiana.
- How can business leaders work collectively to eliminate barriers for people with a criminal record?
- In 2018, the Clean Slate campaign was launched to automatically clear certain criminal records after a certain number of years. Utah and Pennsylvania have already adopted versions of it. How can this initiative gain more traction at the state and federal levels?
- Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, removed criminal history questions from its job application nearly a decade ago. As a CEO, would you follow this example? What steps could it take?
- “This isn’t a problem of aspirations, it’s a structural problem involving discrimination and a lack of opportunities available to people who have been to prison,” said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “It really takes employers who are willing to let go of their biases in pursuit not only of equality but of the best candidates.”
- Nehemiah Manufacturing spends about $120,000 a year on its social-service team, not including the standard human-resources tasks the team also handles. When asked “can I cut some of this stuff and make a little more money? I sure don’t want to,” said says Dan Meyer, Nehemiah’s chief executive. “This is a business model about a social enterprise making money.”
- “There is a feeling that they’re not as good as some people on the outside because they are incarcerated,” said Televerde CEO Morag Lucey. “They’re working to understand they are absolutely capable of participating within the company and society. It’s empowering them to feel like they have a voice and a purpose.”
Nehemiah Manufacturing was founded a decade ago with the idea of creating more opportunities in a struggling part of Cincinnati. The privately held company started hiring workers with a criminal record in 2011, at the request of a local nonprofit. It was a difficult beginning, with many employees continuing to struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, and even homelessness.
Now, workers with criminal records make up around 80% of the company’s workforce about 180 employees—and Nehemiah has learned that offering a job to people trying to turn their lives around is only half the battle. Hiring people with a criminal past can pay big dividends for companies, such as closer community ties and a loyal workforce. But keeping them on the job is often a challenge.
Nehemiah added the support of a social-service worker to help employees with anything from finding housing to staying clean. “They were thinking that providing jobs would fix things,” said Dana Merida, who initially provided social services for Nehemiah employees a few hours a week and now heads the company’s three-person social-service team. But some of them would take a break and never come back, she said. Overtime, Nehemiah became more deliberate about identifying candidates who are likely to be good, reliable employees and has developed a more formal system for providing them with support.
Today, Nehemiah’s annual turnover stands at roughly 15%, well below the 38.5% average for consumer-products companies, as reported by Mercer’s 2019 U.S. Turnover Survey. Nehemiah says it had operating income of $5.7 million on sales of $59.4 million in 2018.
“We found that the population we were hiring who had criminal backgrounds were our most loyal people,” said Richard Palmer, president of Nehemiah. “When we were looking for people to work overtime, come in on Saturday or go that extra mile, it was the second-chance population that was saying, ‘I’m in.’”
Nehemiah spends about $120,000 a year on its social-service team, not including the standard human-resources tasks the team also handles. It donates about $150,000 a year to nonprofits including City Gospel Mission, which sends job candidates to Nehemiah and provides drug-treatment classes and rehab programs to the company’s employees.
Televerde, is a sales and marketing company that works with the Department of Corrections in Arizona and Indiana to provide call center jobs for currently incarcerated women — and provide jobs for some of them upon their release. Televerde’s clients include tech giants like SAP, Adobe, Microsoft, and Dell.
Since its founding about 25 years ago, Televerde says that it has employed 3,000 incarcerated women. After their release, they have the possibility of getting hired with Televerde for a full-time role. Today, about half of Televerde’s workforce at the headquarters in Phoenix are former Perryville inmates.
Televerde says that when it hires inmates, it doesn’t ask applicants for any information about their crimes, following a “don’t ask, don’t tell” hiring practice. The company now has eight contact centers, five of which are staffed entirely by incarcerated women from prisons in Arizona and Indiana. To a visitor, it might look like any other call center — except the employees are all wearing orange.
These women are also less likely to return to prison, a cycle that many former inmates may be trapped in. Nationwide, the three-year recidivism rate is 68%. Televerde says its formerly incarcerated employees have a 6% recidivism rate. It also offers continued support for these employees through life skills training, a mentorship program, and other initiatives.