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Employment

Lessons from the correctional facility

On Friday, I was privileged to attend the Forsyth Correctional Center as part of Project Re-entry, a program that helps prepare former offenders for reintegration into the community and workforce upon release. 

It was a great learning experience and an honor to speak with 12 gentlemen currently in the correctional facility about resume and interview tips, as well as how to prepare for work upon release. These individuals were all very kind, personable, and receptive to coaching.

Several thanked me and said they appreciated me coming to speak to them. Most of them made eye contact, gave a firm handshake, and had a genuine smile. 

In other words, they all had good soft skills – something that many employers say is lacking from the workforce today. 

All of them wanted to be there, and they had been willingly and happily learning from Project Re-entry. Clearly the program has been doing a good job. 

These men will be better prepared for the workforce than many students coming out of college or even high school, because they have learned to be coachable and learned how to market themselves for the workforce. 

Here are a couple of things that we discussed that I believe would be beneficial for anyone who has been incarcerated to know. If you know someone who could benefit from this, please pass it on. 

Also, pay careful attention if you are an employer. 

Inmates have good work experience

If you were previously incarcerated, it is important to include any job experiences you had while in prison on your resume or application. For employers, it is important to be aware of a candidate’s job experiences while they were incarcerated.

Everyone I spoke to at the correctional facility held a job while staying there.  

The jobs usually involve working with their hands and doing something requiring some physical activity. The jobs hardly pay anything, but nonetheless the inmates do have jobs with actual responsibilities. All of them are highly practical and helpful jobs that can benefit them later in life. And in prison, ghosting your employer is not an option. 

Over the years, I’ve talked to several candidates who had felonies who didn’t include their work history on their resume. This leaves a big “gap” on the resume that makes many hiring managers pause or even skip the resume completely. 

They might be losing out on opportunities because they have a gap in the work history on the resume, and not because of their criminal record. 

Inmates are often more coachable

Sometimes, past experiences and challenges, including incarceration, can shape and strengthen an individual’s character. Some who have been incarcerated may have developed stronger character as a result of their experiences.

Many employers still have rules against hiring candidates with a record. Others take a more nuanced approach, choosing to avoid hiring candidates who had a record that could be risky for that specific position. For example, it is understandable if a retailer wants to avoid hiring someone who has an embezzlement or robbery charge. 

However, it’s less understandable if an employer refuses to hire someone who has a conviction that is not germane to the position. 

If you are a candidate with a record, be aware that some companies will not hire you. But be aware that there are still many who will be open to hiring you. Ultimately, managers care much more about whether someone is coachable, dependable, and has a positive attitude than whether they were incarcerated. 

My suggestion for employers is to avoid having a hard and fast rule simply based on a felony conviction. By all accounts, use the background check as part of the process and as a risk management tool. But don’t allow it to be the main determining factor. 

Pay careful attention to these six character traits: 

  1. Positive attitude.
  2. Coachability and being able to take constructive criticism.
  3. Dependability.
  4. Initiative.
  5. Strong work ethic.
  6. Gratitude. 

The character of an individual today matters more than what they did in the past. I understand that it’s hard, if not impossible, to assess the character of someone in just one interview. But you can tell a lot by seeing whether they are truly repentant for their past choices, whether they are thankful for the experiences they have, and whether they are eager to get to work. 

My experience meeting the men at the Forsyth Correctional Center has shown me that there are many individuals with criminal records who are still hardworking and capable of making positive contributions in the workforce.

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