‘This is an investment in a talent pool that you can’t afford to overlook’

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On this episode of the PAWcast, business strategist Jeff Korzenik ’85 discusses his book, Untapped Talent, making a strong case for why smart companies will meet the coming global talent shortage with second-chance hiring. And he lays out a road map for how to do it right, with tried-and-tested strategies he says will give people, who may have never had a first chance at success, the tools and support they need to become some of the best workers that employers will find.



Liz Daugherty: A criminal record can stand firmly between a potential new hire and a company that needs to fill an open job. But should it? In his new book, Untapped Talent, business strategist Jeff Korzenik makes a strong case for why smart companies will meet the coming global talent shortage with second-chance hiring. And he lays out a road map for how to do it right, replacing well-meaning but overly simplistic solutions like “Ban the Box” with tried-and-tested strategies. He says these can give people who may have never had a first chance at success the tools and support they need to become some of the best workers that employers will find. 

Jeff, thank you so much for coming on the PAWcast.

Jeff Korzenik: Thank you. What a pleasure to be here.

LD: So what made you decide to write this book?

JK: I think frustration played a big role in it. I had collected this body of knowledge and experience and insight. I was speaking around the country. In 2019, I did 141 flight segments. And yet, it wasn’t enough. And so, I realized: Businesses needed a guide to how to do this right. And I also felt that it would help get me a seat at the table in some of these discussions about policy and about the appropriate way to approach this from a business perspective.

LD: You do. You say very early on in the book that while there are moral reasons to consider second-chance hiring, just sometimes called fair chance hiring, you are focusing on the business reasons. So, make your case: Why should employers try this?

JK: They should try this because this is a viable talent pool. Nineteen million Americans have felony convictions. When you have a talent pool that big, you’ve got a lot of possibility of good employees. I’m not saying everyone. I’m not saying even necessarily the majority will be good employees. But there is a process, techniques, experience that allows employers to go into this talent pool. And they’re going to have to start seeking this out. We have a demographically-driven labor shortage that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. And this is one of the most overlooked and largest opportunities to acquire talent.

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LD: You talk about that in the book. You talk about this global talent shortage, and I’m not sure everyone realizes that this is on the horizon. What’s going to be happening to the labor market in the next, I don’t know, 10, 20 years?

JK: Well, in the United States, we actually had a demographic advantage known as the Millennial generation. We had this mini-Baby Boom. The Millennials, though, are now largely all in in the labor force. And we just stopped having enough children in this country. It’s — this is true across the developed world. And so, we have this growing population that has a demand for goods and services, but we are running out of people who are of working age to provide those goods and services. If you look, say, in the United States, our fertility rate — the fertility rate is the number of children a woman will have over her childbearing years. To replace your population in a developed country, you need 2.1 children: Mother, father, that’s two and then an allowance for infant and early mortality. In the United States, we’re down to below 1.8 percent. Or, excuse me, 1.8 children. So, we’re not even replacing our population. And immigration is a partial solution but incomplete because this is true of almost all of the developed world and much of the emerging world, as well.

LD: So, we have this population of people who are incarcerated. We have people who are incarcerated and coming out of prison. And yet, there’s a mismatch, right? These people are not always getting the jobs or succeeding in the jobs that employers are trying to fill. So, why is that? Why is it that it’s so difficult for these people to get these jobs?

JK: It’s partially because of a societal stigma. When we hear “felony,” we tend to think the worst possible crime. You know, knife murder, guns. And that’s not reflective of the totality of the population with felonies. In fact, it’s quite telling, you mentioned incarceration, but fewer than half of the 19 million people with felony convictions in the United States were convicted of a crime of such threat to public safety that they even had to serve a prison term, to spend a little time in a county jail or fine or probation, community service, but not even a full prison term. So, that’s telling. The other factor is that many employers have tried this but don’t understand the accommodations that are needed, the gaps that exist in the life experience, the work experience of this population or of many in this population, and so they’ve had a bad experience. So, you’ve got fear on one hand and a stigma. And then, on the other hand, you actually do have some who’ve tried it but had a bad experience because they didn’t follow the right model.

LD: Where, like, the employee maybe didn’t come to work on a day that they were expected. And there’s a lot of things that could be happening behind the scenes, right? I think — I was struck in the book when you were talking about the challenges that these people face. Before they even hit the stigma, we’re talking about leaving jail, maybe, with no money, no transportation, without access to their birth certificate, a driver’s license. Basic things. A cell phone. Things that you need to be able to get a job and then do that job.

JK: Right. There are huge obstacles to overcome. They kind of fall into what I call hard and soft categories. Soft categories are often, I mean, very, very real skills. You know, how do you negotiate time off with a boss? What do you do if your car breaks down? All of those things that we take for granted — showing up on time, dressing appropriately — if you’ve never had a strong history of work and successful work in your family, how would you know? Most of us learn from a parent or from two parents or their friends and had great role models. That’s not true for many in this population. 

And then, you have those hard barriers. And some of those are practical barriers, as you pointed out. Do you have transportation? Do you have housing? Do you have a cell phone? Do you have the ID? And then, there’s another layer, and that’s governmental-imposed restrictions, what are broadly called collateral consequences. So, these are the punishments that continue after you have paid your dues and served your sentence. It is believed that across states and cities and the federal level, there are 44,000 collateral consequences that create restrictions for people trying to get ahead.

LD: Can you give me a couple of examples of those kinds of restrictions?

JK: Sure. Very often, you might not be permitted in public housing. So, if you want to stay with a parent, housing is a big challenge for people coming out of prison. You might be assigned to transitional housing for a period but — that’s really part of your, part of serving your sentence. But then, you’re on your own. Where do you go? You might have a relative who’s in public housing. You might be restricted from staying with that relative. So, that would be one example. 

A very common example is professional licensing. In many states, if you have a felony conviction, you might be barred from getting a barber’s license. And, you know, I get if you’re Sweeney Todd and murdered someone with scissors, that might be appropriate, but we have overly burdensome restrictions. Many industries restrict people with felonies in their past and in some cases even misdemeanors. So, there’s a whole array of these restrictions that get in the way of people, who want to rehabilitate themselves, actually doing so.

LD: So, I can see how we have employers, would be looking at this and going: these people might not make great employees because of all of these problems. And you talk in your book about policy a little bit towards the end. But that’s not the meat of your book. The meat of your book is how businesses can work with the system, hire these people, and turn it into a great situation. So, let’s get to that. What is it that businesses should do? Talk about some of these strategies that you’ve seen work that you think that businesses should use.

JK: Sure. I’m going to back up a little bit and talk about why this works and what the business gets in return. The idea here is not to hire the employee of last resort but to create a pathway to highly engaged and loyal employees. That’s a recipe for productivity and profitability from the standpoint of the employer. This is a business proposition. But to do that, you have to identify who from this big pool is truly ready to turn their life around and be — and rebuild their life and be a good employee. And then you need a process for filling the gaps that they may have, whether it’s the basics of how to dress appropriately, how to show up on time, or whether it’s something a little bit more advanced like lack of exposure to technology and the need to become more educated. 

Employers are used to this in theory, right? You can go to, oh, say, a lesser school like Harvard and Harvard Business School and look to recruit there and identify who’s a good fit for your company and then find the gaps that they need to thrive. But Harvard Business School graduates have been picked over. This is a population that has not been picked over. That’s one of the reasons it works. You have diamonds in the rough here that you could not find very easily elsewhere. 

I think the reason this works, in the end, is a matter of human nature. I think all of us, your listeners — you, me — can think of a time that, in our lives, when we fell down and were less than we wanted to be. We did something that was below our standards for ourselves. People of character, and that includes many people in this population, want to prove to the world and prove to themselves that they are worth more than their worst mistake. And so, this is where the dedication and what employers typically call — refer to as grit comes from in this population. And from an employer’s standpoint, and I’ve managed people throughout my career, it’s very attractive to have people with grit.

LD: I would imagine, especially now, right? Especially when we’re dealing with, you know, what’s been happening in the world with COVID and the pandemic. I saw grit come up a few times in the book, this idea that you’re dealing with people who, if they can get through all of these obstacles, imagine what they could do for your company, right?

JK: You know, I’ll give you a quick example. During the worst of the pandemic, I called the second-chance employers that I — the CEOs that do this and I said, “OK, now you got massive unemployment, you got your pick of workers, are you doing anything different?” And to a person, they all said, “No. Our second-chance employees are a critical part of our talent strategy.” And some of them even observed that in the pandemic, they outshone their peers. 

Jeff Brown runs Brown’s Super Stores in Philadelphia. He’s got about a dozen grocery stores, half of which, incidentally, are in food deserts. And so, he’s providing great groceries, modern grocery stores in places where people believe they couldn’t. Part of the secret to his success is 500 of his 2,500 employees are second-chance hires. And he observed, in our conversation, that the pandemic was keeping some employees at home. They didn’t want to come to work in his industry. He said his second-chance employees are used to navigating risk in their life. And the pandemic was just another risk to navigate. In fact, one of the Philadelphia TV stations interviewed one of his employees and this man kind of showed his dedication. He said, “Look, if I don’t — yeah, of course I’m worried. But if I don’t go to work, my community doesn’t get food on the table.” Think of that level of engagement for a grocery store employee. It’s fantastic.

LD: So, you give lots of examples of companies in your book. When this works, and it works really well, what does it look like? 

JK: Sure. One of the challenges is there’s no master national solution but there is a model of success. And it involves two processes. Process number one is that — identifying who’s ready to work. And typically, that involves some kind of partnership, often with a nonprofit or a government agency working with groups that get to know the individual before they apply to your company. And these become, essentially, your referral sources. So there are a lot of workforce development agencies that work with people coming out of prison. They work with those people for months. They get to know them. They might offer transitional employment. They might offer temp jobs. And they become the filter for these employers. They can figure out who’s truly ready and who’s a good fit. So, you build those pipelines. Sometimes, it’s even parole officers, by the way, can get to know the employer, certainly get to know their clients, and can make referrals. 

The other part also involves partnerships. And this is filling those gaps that these individuals might need. So, some of the best employers have some kind of intake form, often done by — they might have a social worker, a psychologist on staff, or a life coach. Those are typical titles you see at the workplace. And they will start by asking, you know, do you have stable housing? Do you have transportation? Do you have outstanding debts? That’s a big one, or fines that might be related to whatever judicial penalty was meted out. And they help the employee solve those issues. Many good companies offer a whole array of services. This population needs, yes, those services, but they also often need a navigator, someone in the company who knows how to direct employees. There’s even a set of companies in western Michigan that — it’s up to, like, 25 or 30 companies now that have created a separate nonprofit that they fund that essentially is a social service network for their employees and direct services. And they have some — an algorithm to determine what return on their investment they get. And they found it’s a better than 200 percent return on the investment they make in funding this nonprofit.

LD: Oh, wow. You made comparisons in the book to other benefits that employers are accustomed to providing, which I thought was interesting because an employer might look at something like having social workers and psychologists on staff, helping to pay for cars for people, and say, “This is prohibitive, this is too expensive.” But they’re already providing a lot of things for their existing employees, right? 

JK: Right. I mean, those of us of a certain age remember when health care was not a standard benefit. And if you look at the costs of benefits like health care, and before it had a government mandate behind it, you know, it’s an enormous cost employers were doing because it was needed to attract and retain talent. We’ve seen major corporations move their headquarters to follow the talent. I took a quick look just at the news headlines: McDonald’s moved its headquarters from a suburb of Chicago about an hour west into a neighborhood that attracted young workers, young professionals that they wanted to attract. Their new building cost them something like $250 million. So, businesses make these accommodations and investments all the time. This is actually different in the sense that when you’re going after this population, you have so many government agencies and nonprofits that are there to help you bear the cost. So, it’s actually a very cost-effective type of accommodation in terms of talent acquisition.

LD: So I said earlier that this book, you get into policy a little bit. But it’s not the focus. But I would like to mention the “Ban the Box” movement just because I think, for anyone who’s not very familiar with this issue, it might be the only thing that they’ve heard. So, can you tell me: What is it and why do you say it doesn’t go far enough?

JK: It’s not that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s that it’s actually sometimes counterproductive. And I’m not an enemy of “Ban the Box.” It’s become this polarizing policy, that you’re for it or against it. I’m for what works. And the real problem is that so much of this comes down to the employer level, and policy can help but can’t resolve it. I was on Capitol Hill last week and I spoke before one of the subcommittees of the House Financial Services, and we talked about this. And my point was even if we had the best policy background in the world, it’s still up to employers to make that decision: Do we go forward? And it has to be done in a way that works. 

Specific to “Ban the Box,” “Ban the Box” prohibits employers from asking up front about a criminal record. The second-chance employers that I work with typically do voluntarily ban the box. They do, for various reasons including a negligent hiring liability, you need to know who you’re bringing in. And so, “Ban the Box” says that you cannot ask about a criminal record until you’ve made an offer of employment contingent on a satisfactory background check. The problem is, with “Ban the Box,” is that if you are determined not to hire people with criminal records, you find avoidance strategies. And we did a quick thumbnail study. It looks like “Ban the Box” states, one proxy employers might use is: “I don’t want to hire anyone with big gaps in their employment history because it might mean they were incarcerated.” Or there is some scholarship that suggest that employers are avoiding neighborhoods, resumes from neighborhoods that might suggest higher rates of criminal activity. 

So there’s some evidence that “Ban the Box” actually hurts the job opportunities for people without a criminal record but live in communities that have high rates of incarceration. And so, it’s actually counterproductive. Overall, there is some evidence it seems to work in some places, government employment, works less well in the private sector. 

But I think there’s a bigger issue, and that is that you have to look over time. What my work has shown me is that employers who don’t go about this right with an intentional practice of how you support these employees, will not have a successful experience. So, they might, because of “Ban the Box,” be more likely to give someone a shot. But there’s a high probability that giving someone a shot without the intentional focus on support won’t end up with a very good experience. Might work, might not work. The problem is in what I term “the undifferentiated model of employment” for this cohort. If you have, you know, half terrible employees, half great employees from this process, which is about how it works, well, you could say, “the average of good and bad is average — that’s OK.” It’s not, because as an employer, every employer knows that one bad employee undoes the good of multiple good employees. And so, people who might have given it a whirl because of “Ban the Box” and show up as a success in the “Ban the Box” statistics over time may actually turn away from the practice. Employers have to go about this with intention and with knowledge of how you recruit successfully from this talent pool. 

LD: Well, and hopefully with the idea that this is going to be good for their company.

JK: Absolutely. One of the hallmarks of the successful second-chance employers is that this is a profitable strategy. And if we want to scale this kind of employment as citizens to address this really deep societal need and tragedy, we better have profitability or you can’t scale it. So, there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Just to go back to policy, you know, one of the challenges that I found with “Ban the Box” — and, again, I’m not against it. I just don’t think it’s very practical, it’s very effective. People who hear about “Ban the Box” and don’t know to dig deeper think, “Oh, problem solved. Oh, we enacted ‘Ban the Box,’ problem solved.” There are no quick policy solutions. And to the degree some of these policies are presented as, “Oh, we fixed it,” or the media believes, “Oh, it’s fixed, we’re a ‘Ban the Box’ state,” we really do harm to the actual people who need our help. 

And this isn’t to say there aren’t good policies. There are good ones. There’s some that are increasingly being pursued. Michigan, for instance, did one of the most comprehensive clean slate initiatives, automatic expungement under certain conditions. Employers are blind to the past and people have to be — you know, there’s terms of how you get this automatic expungement: generally lower-level crimes, time has passed without a new arrest or conviction. These are really very effective policies. So, there are good policies, but they tend to be a lot more subtle than just “Ban the Box.”

LD: So there are no easy silver bullet solutions here.

JK: Right. And, you know, when I speak to business audiences, and that’s my primary audience for this, I think they get that. I don’t say everyone’s perfect. I don’t say this is the pathway to golden employees. I say this is an investment in a talent pool that you can’t afford to overlook. But like any investment, you’re going to make mistakes, there’s going to be trial and error, and there are going to be not 100-percent-perfect outcomes. And they all get that. And I think being upfront about that makes it more likely that they will give this a whirl.

LD: You mentioned, too, in there that the business community is used to knowing that they have to work for something. If you offer them, hey, this is a quick fix, they’re going to be skeptical. But if you say, hey, this is a great thing for you but you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, they say, OK, I’ll listen.

JK: Yeah, you know, I think one of the challenges here has been sort of mismatches between the advocates for second-chance hiring, in some cases, and the actual employers. And they don’t speak the same language. And one of the things that I’m hoping my book will do is help bridge that. And you’ve also seen some nonprofits that get this. There’s a wonderful, wonderful nonprofit in Nashville, Project Return, that ended up hiring a team to essentially sell their reentry support and services to the business community. And they realized that they, as traditional social service nonprofit professionals, were great at what they did but didn’t seem to know how to communicate with the business community. And this has now gone on — they have a social enterprise, which is a temp staffing agency where they are providing workers on a temp basis to employers who are second-chance workers. They are providing all the wraparound services. The employers get a chance to get to know the employees. And, you know, I can’t speak for them but I would assume the goal is to get some permanent employment. That’s a great fit. So, a lot of people in the nonprofit community are, particularly the visionary folks, are coming to understand: Business speaks a different language, business has to do this in a profitable way, and not just for, you know, businesses will write checks to charities but they have to hire people who can add value to their enterprise.

LD: I think probably the best, best way for businesses to become interested in this is to see it work, see someone who did it, who profited from it, and then be able to say, hey, I think that I could see myself doing this. You’re watching what’s happening with these companies. Is this catching on? Are you seeing more—

JK: It’s absolutely — the interest is absolutely catching on. My fear is that this labor shortage we’re going through right now will get employers to just give it a whirl. “Well, OK,” and they’ll approach this like they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel instead of approaching this cohort, this demographic as a true talent pool. What do we need to identify, how do we need to support —that’s a true talent strategy. Instead, I’m worried that employers will — OK, let’s lower — you know, quote-unquote lower our standards. It’s not lowering standards. It’s tackling a different demographic. 

There is growing interest. I’m hoping that my work and the work of allies like the Second-chance Business Coalition, the Society of Human Resource Management, the National Association of Manufacturers, all groups that are involved in promoting the good process of second-chance hiring, the viable and long — and the process that will work over the long-term, I’m hoping we can redirect some of that interest into doing — not just doing it but doing it right.

LD: Well, that’s where your book comes in because you say you’re trying to fill that gap. The interest is there, the talent pool is there, what’s missing is the instruction manual.

JK: Correct. And there are a number of great online resources. Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation has an online set of videos. Checkr, a background check company, has an ebook. But I think — and then, SHRM, Society of Human Resource Management, the big trade association for HR professionals, has a wonderful certification course that’s very, very well done. But I like to think, anyway, that my book is not only the most comprehensive single source but it is also the one that highlights businesses that show — so, it shows that this is actually not a theoretical model but something that truly works.

LD: Well, we’ve gone through a lot of my questions. Is there anything else that you want to add or that you think people should know?

JK: You know, I think there’s a lot of interest in this. People can be involved. A lot of people want to be involved and there’s not always easy ways to do it. One of the challenges that second-chance employers have is that they fear that there’s a reputation backlash. People won’t come to their place of business or buy the goods and services because they’ll fear that either some kind of public safety fear, who am I dealing with? Or, more typically, they’ll fear that it’s an inferior product: Second-chance somehow means second rate. And that is not true. 

So, if your listeners know of a business that’s giving second-chances, patronize them. You know, I steer people to I Have a Bean coffee roasters, which is almost wholly staffed by formerly incarcerated people, and they have a website. Dave’s Killer Bread has bread in most parts of the United States. They’re a second-chance employer. 

If we could change the culture around second-chance hiring and the perceptions of people who’ve made mistakes as somehow subhuman, if we can change that perspective, that’s something all of us can contribute. And it’s people in the arts have a role, arts is a business. I served on a board of an arts venue that started some second-chance hiring on their team. That’s been great. There’s a play coming to Broadway. Clyde’s is the name of the play. It’s the Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote Sweat, for instance. This will be the first play on Broadway that focuses on reentry. 

So, we need cultural change. All of us kind of dictate culture. And so, I think that there’s a real opportunity for all of us to contribute.

LD: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

JK: Thank you. 

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