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Second Chancers

Second Chancer. Ex-offenders are a hiring opportunity.

By Jim Cory

Quality First Home, in Citris Heights, CA, does “a lot of training and a lot of certifying,” says president and board chairman, Gary Kluck. It’s one reason why the 13-year old company last year exceeded $50 million in sales. It’s also a “second chance company,” to quote executive vice president of marketing, Michael Licalsi. Meaning that Quality First Home is open to hiring previous offenders.

“I’m looking out the window at some [ex-offenders] right now,” Licalsi says.

Unlike national retailers, such as Target and The Home Depot, many home improvement companies aren’t big on hiring those who’ve “done time.”

“I would not hire them,” says the president of a ten million dollar window replacement company, “because [their record] shows a lack of good judgment, and there are others that we can hire that have the good sense not to put themselves in those situations.”

His view is widely shared. And owners have other concerns about hiring ex-felons. For instance, if the company’s working in the house—say remodeling kitchens and baths—sending someone convicted of a criminal offense can ruin its relationship with the homeowner.

“I’m hired based on trust,” says Brian Altmann, owner of Dutchess Building Specialists in Poughkeepsie, NY. “I’m guided by my responsibility to my clients. If I said I had a convicted sex offender coming to their home to work, unsupervised, how comfortable are they going to feel?”

Social Dimension

But the issue of hiring ex-offenders is bigger than one company and one owner. It’s a social and, therefore, a political problem. A 2003 study of businesses in four cities found only 12.5 percent of employers are willing to accept applications from previous offenders. That’s change somewhat. More companies today are willing. But survey data from a 2010 study titled “Ex-offenders and the Labor Market,” by John Schmitt and Kris Warner, indicate more than half of released ex-offenders remain unemployed a year later.

Roughly 800 different jobs or occupations are off-limits to ex-felons for life. For many, a criminal conviction means being sentenced twice: first to prison, then to unemployment.

At the moment, there are more than 70 million in the U.S. with an arrest or conviction record, and 60 percent of those convicted are incarcerated for having violated drug or immigration laws. Time magazine “found that approximately 39 percent of the national prison population is behind bars with little public safety rationale.”

Meanwhile, unemployment—at 4.4 percent—is at a ten-year low.

So, if you desperately need people but dismiss out of hand the idea of hiring someone with a record, it might be time to take another look.

Who Gets Hired

In many states—28 at the moment—it’s no longer legal to ask on an application form if applicants have been convicted of a crime. That’s something you ask about before formally offering someone a job. For instance, at Alure Home Improvements, on Long Island, “once we decide to hire someone we do a background check, and if there is any history of criminal activity we will sit down and discuss it,” explains president Sal Ferro. “It will not disqualify a candidate automatically.”

While Alure is “open to hiring ex-offenders” and has done so, Ferro says, the company draws the line at offenses involving sex or violence. Other “second chance” companies take a similar position.

“As long as it’s not a violent crime, and if they did their time and they’re not on the run, then at that point we want to understand what they did and we judge it from there,” says Brian Elias, president of Hanson’s Windows and Siding, in Troy, Michigan, one of the industry’s largest companies. “No home invasions, no violent crimes. And the reason why,” Elias explains, “is because we honestly believe that everybody deserves a second chance.”

Altmann recalls how he once made a job offer that he then had to withdraw when a Google search revealed that the candidate had been busted in a car smoking pot with two 15-year old girls. But companies find that the type of crime that would disqualify an applicant is the exception.

“If Charles Manson walked in, I might not give him a second chance,” Licalsi says. But, more typically, he points out, the company is interviewing someone with a DUI conviction.

“They tell me [what they did] and I say: so how are things going now? Have you worked since then? What do you want to do? Where do you see yourself in a year or two?”

Managing people successfully is about managing the individual. So if you find individuals who are motivated to work, who want to succeed, and have a bigger than average need to prove themselves, you may have locked onto something.

Licalsi says his hiring philosophy is, “we try to pull in the best people with the best attitudes. And sometimes some of those people don’t have the best past.”

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