Photo courtesy of Cristina Watson, Dave’s Killer Bread/Flower’s Foods.

Baking organic bread, making pizza, serving up hot chicken wings—these may be mouthwatering images, but at the Second Chance Summit on June 8, they provided a window into innovative businesses that are looking beyond the stigma of a criminal record and giving workers with records a fair chance to work.

Employers and community and government representatives gathered in Seattle for the summit—part of a series hosted by the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation—to share best practices and lessons learned from their talent acquisition strategies. Their common refrain was this: “Hire the best people to do the work.” And don’t be deterred by the stigma of a job candidate’s contact with the criminal justice system.

The business leaders and human resource professionals who spoke at the summit emphasized that they hired people with conviction records because they understood that “people are just people.” If you start with that premise, then it becomes clear that a record is not a proxy for someone’s character or aptitude for the job.

In fact, repeatedly, employers shared stories of how their most driven, talented, and high-performing employees happened to be formerly incarcerated people. In some respects, these anecdotes aren’t surprising. Research has highlighted how people with felony convictions were promoted faster and to higher levels in the military.

And once you understand the adversity and obstacles that a record poses in every facet of life, then you can imagine the resiliency and determination that’s needed for an individual with a record to succeed.

Having a record translates into repeatedly being denied jobs, locked out of the housing market, rejected from educational loans and institutions, and blocked from civic participation, just to name a few barriers. Research shows that people of color with records face even steeper penalties.

A screening of the film, The Return, portrayed this struggle for two men who came back to their communities after years of incarceration. One of the men profiled in the film, Bilal, exemplified the untapped potential of our incarcerated community. Despite the obstacles in his way after his incarceration, Bilal, who was featured at the Second Chance Summit, eventually did find the right workplace, and he excelled. Not only was he named employee of the year (out of a pool of 4,000), he rose to become a manager. As Bilal explained during one of the panels, he found not just a job, but a career.

In this vein, several employers at the summit spoke of their desire to create more than entry-level jobs. To them, hiring people with records is not a tactic to find desperate employees who could be paid and treated poorly. Rather, they set out to create a mutually beneficial relationship with their employees. Being a fair chance employer is part of a larger philosophy: treat your workers with dignity, invest in their growth, and your business will be repaid with loyalty, retention, and a healthy work environment.

With 70 million people in the U.S. with some type of record, it’s urgent that our country come to grips with a criminal justice apparatus and punishment model that condemns a huge swath of our community to poverty. The Second Chance Summit offered a pathway to envision a different future: One in which businesses are active participants in helping people overcome an unfair stigma so they can work toward success.


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