Wow, what a response I received to last week’s post, Top 5 Ban the Box Myths! There are strong emotions on both sides of the ban-the-box debate. At the same time, everyone I heard from recognized the need to help former offenders successfully reintegrate into society. We simply disagree as to the means of achieving that goal.
I want to share one conversation that is consistent with many of the conversations I have with former offenders. My correspondent, let’s call him Joe, sent me this email after reading my post online:
I would like to hear from you personally based on your claim of the false pretenses about the injury the box causes to felons who check the box and end up with less than desirable employment.
I am a current releasee from federal prison and are currently going through the very thing you make claim does not hurt felons. I am a witness to the effect of the box first hand, especially watching others as they too, go through the vigorous modes of finding decent work. Pay is a big part of change. No one expects to get rich, but we all would like a fair shot at opportunity, not be limited to a box because persons such as your-self may consider those of us whom are convicted felons lower than you…or…is that comment just an assumption…Please share with me some remedies that can help my situation, and I will gladly put that advice to work.
Phone Number: xxx xxx xxxx
On receiving this message, I did a little research into Joe’s federal conviction (we are a background screening company, after all). Joe was indicted in 2002 for possession of 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) of cocaine with intent to deliver. He was convicted in federal court in 2006 and sent to federal prison for 14 years to be followed with 5 years of supervised release. Last year, he was sent to a residential reentry center (a halfway house).
For reference purposes, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, 25 kilograms of cocaine was worth about $1.4 million in 2002, which is to say, Joe was not a simple street-level drug dealer.
This is everything I know about Joe. His frustration is similar to that of former offenders I meet when I speak at “felony-friendly job fairs” or reentry-assistance groups.
Because he took the time to contact me and express his frustration with his current circumstances, I decided to reach out to Joe. I emailed him and then followed up with a telephone call. We spoke for about ten minutes and he promised to read the email. I hope that he receives it with the sincerity and goodwill that I sent it.
Dear Mr. Joe:
I did not address in my article whether the criminal history inquiry on the employment application causes injury to former offenders. Certainly former offenders, particularly those recently released or still under custodial supervision, are at a disadvantage when seeking employment. However, that disadvantage started well before the employment application.
With every hiring decision, employers are trying to determine how applicants’ past behavior predicts their future behavior. This is an imprecise process, but it is certainly much more accurate than ignoring their past and simply accepting applicants’ assertions about their skills, experience, judgment, integrity, and ability to conform to the employer’s expectations. Employers do not want to hire someone who will constantly be a management problem, much less someone who may commit a criminal offense impacting the workplace.
In your case, the reason you are having a hard time finding “decent work” is likely related to employers’ concerns that you are a convicted drug dealer in year nine of a nineteen-year sentence, including your supervised release. Many employers are understandably concerned about drugs in the workplace and would not want to expose the company, employees, customers, or public to the risks associated with hiring someone who may use or sell drugs in their facility, particularly if there are an abundance of job applicants with no criminal history. Additionally, significant past illegal behavior suggests to many employers that an individual will be difficult to manage or will require significant supervision.
I don’t know what kind of work you performed prior to your conviction or what type of work you are seeking. However, as you were likely in jail from the time of your indictment in 2002 until your transfer to a residential reentry management program last year, you probably do not have much work experience, which would make you less competitive with other job seekers who have actively been working for the last 12 years. Even for low-skill or trainee positions, employers are looking for some evidence that an applicant has a track history of showing up and performing satisfactorily. The absence of such a history places you at a disadvantage when compared to other job candidates.
I’m sure you can understand why employers would be wise to choose less-risky candidates with no or lesser criminal histories and verifiable employment histories.
Likewise, I understand the catch-22 you find yourself in. How can you prove that you would be reliable and honest employee if no one will give you a chance? It is the same position in which many young adults find themselves when entering the workforce.
As you asked for my advice, I offer the following thoughts.
First, imagine what you would like for your life to be like in five years. Where will you live? What income would you like? What education would you like to have? What kinds of friends would you like to spend time with? What would you like for others to think of you? Write all those details down and revisit them often. This is your goal.
When looking for work, apply for every job you can do. Take time to fill out the employment application carefully and neatly. Print, don’t write in cursive. I am often surprised by how sloppily some applicants complete the application. It is as though they are telling the employer that they don’t really want the job! The rare application with responses that are neatly printed, accurate, and complete always attracts employers attention.
Swallow your pride and take the best job you can find, regardless of pay or how demeaning you believe the work to be.
Then, have pride in your work. Show up on time every day and always be willing to bust your ass to get the job done right. Act with humility and integrity in every interaction with your employer and coworkers. Do not let lazy or poor behavior that is accepted in other employees ever affect how you do your job. Rise above your mediocre coworkers. Always be looking for something to do. In other words, be the best damned employee that employer ever had. In most companies, it really isn’t that hard to be exceptional. Give your boss a reason to say, “Now that Joe, I wish I had ten more like him!”
Get involved in a church, mosque, synagogue, or other community that will allow you to build relationships with people you admire. We all rise or sink to the level of our friends.
Never ask for handouts but always be willing to help. If help is offered, accept it with gratitude. You will benefit, as will the person offering to help.
From there, my experience has been that opportunities will open for advancement, either with that employer or another employer. In reality, most people who seem blessed or lucky actually worked hard and were open to the opportunities placed before them. I’m not saying that it will be easy. It may take years of hard work and setbacks to get where you want to be but why would you expect your situation to be any different for you than anyone else who is a success in life?
Read. Read every day. Read the newspaper. Read news and thoughtful magazines, avoiding common popular junk. Read books that motivate you to be a smarter, better person.
When you are able, enroll in classes. Always be learning something. Keep your mind nimble. If the job you aspire to requires a degree or specialized training, pursue that. Otherwise, just learn for the sake of learning.
Finally, never cast the blame for your current struggles on anyone else. Likewise, recognize the bad decisions you’ve made in the past and then set them aside. Don’t dwell on them. Set your mind to making good decisions starting now. Remind yourself to do this multiple times each day.
Accept that you cannot change the past. You have no control over the past – whether you had an absent or abusive parent; whether your teachers didn’t care; whether the criminal indictment was accurate; whether your lawyers were competent; or whether your sentence was fair. All that matters are the decisions you make today and the actions you take to put them in place.
Mr. Joe, I truly wish you the very best in your reentry efforts and in the rest of your life. I wish you every happiness. I would not have taken more than two hours from my busy day to respond to your email if I did not. I know that the suggestions above may seem trite against the challenges you face and if so, I apologize. However, I know of no other formula for success.
Perhaps someone else in Joe’s situation will find this post helpful. If so, know that I wish you the very best.