How to Successfully Hire Returning Citizens

Formerly incarcerated people can help solve tech’s labor shortage, our expert argues. Here’s how to recruit and hire this unique workforce demographic.

Published on Dec. 07, 2023
How to Successfully Hire Returning Citizens
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Nearly 2 million people are missing from the American workforce compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

8 Resources to Help Hire Returning Citizens

With not enough workers and a push for diversity, equity and inclusioncompanies have begun to see the value of integrating underrepresented populations, including returning citizens, or formerly incarcerated persons, into their workforces. However, doing so requires organizations to first make fundamental changes to accommodate the unique needs of this section of the workforce.

These individuals, who are motivated and often even compelled to rejoin the workforce, struggle to achieve gainful employment because of the stigma of their past. Companies that look past this record and see the more important aspects of their history will be rewarded with skilled and passionate employees to bolster their workforce.

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Benefits of Hiring Returning Citizens

Returning citizens are a largely untapped demographic that can fill the labor shortage we face in the United States. 

Although reports show that there are more open positions than unemployed people to fill them, around 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are without a job a year after their release.

Furthermore, returning citizens are willing and eager to work, making them ideal employees for many businesses. Because of their difficulty finding new jobs, the turnover rate among returning citizens tends to be lower, they tend to be more loyal and dedicated to the company, and also often have an interest in their development personally and within the company.

Businesses can also affect the lives of their formerly incarcerated employees — and the community as a whole — by supporting them in the workplace. For example, several statistics show that recidivism rates tend to be lower among formerly incarcerated employees who maintain a job after their release than those who remain unemployed.

How to Recruit and Hire Returning Citizens

Being more inclusive when it comes to returning citizens starts with the job description. Job descriptions must be clear and inclusive about their expectations of future employees. 

For example, rather than asking for a specific number of years of experience or a particular degree, focus on the skills that will allow them to thrive in the role. The essential factor to consider is whether a person will be able to do the job successfully, regardless of their background.

Many jurisdictions have instituted ban the box laws, which require employers to remove conviction and arrest history questions from job descriptions and delay background checks until later in the hiring process. These laws are created to encourage employers to look first at the candidate’s qualifications, not the stigma of a conviction or arrest record.

That is crucial, as nearly 75 percent of the U.S. prison population is serving time for non-violent offenses. As such, returning citizens should not be automatically excluded from consideration for positions due to their past conviction(s). 

There are some exceptions. For instance, a returning citizen with a recent theft conviction might not be fit for a cash-handling position. In the transportation industry, sex offenders would not be suitable for a job that calls for close contact with youth, but would be a candidate for a role in sales or marketing. 

Exceptions aside, there is no reason that returning citizens should not be considered for most job opportunities. Companies should think outside of the box when it comes to employing returning citizens, no matter the nature of a person’s criminal history, as long as the company and its customers are safe and in compliance. 

Recruiters must also keep an open mind when considering returning citizens for jobs. One of the biggest stigmas associated with returning citizens is the resume gap, but just because a returning citizen has a gap in employment doesn’t mean their time spent behind bars was wasted. 

While behind bars, many inmates have a prison job or participate in vocational or educational training. These opportunities provide valuable experience that can help them hold a job when they return to the workforce. Vocational training options for inmates vary by location. In Washington State, for example, programs include one- and two-year vocational certificate courses and shorter courses like bookkeeping and building maintenance, while Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin offers distance learning opportunities to inmates across multiple states.

Additionally, Alabama’s J.F. Ingram State Technical College provides post-secondary technical education to state inmates through three campuses co-located with prisons, funded by the state budget. Indiana’s Department of Corrections tailors vocational training to address high-demand occupations facing a worker shortage, according to data from Zoukis Consulting Group, a criminal-defense law firm and consultancy for those impacted by the justice system.

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How to Be an Ally to Returning Citizens

When employing individuals from underrepresented communities, including returning citizens, businesses and their leaders must legitimately act as allies rather than simply being performative. Employees will know if they are only hired to meet a diversity quota or cash in on a government financial incentive, such as the Federal Bonding Program or WOTC credits.

Although these goals and resources do a fine job of encouraging companies to invest in their underrepresented employees, businesses must put their money where their mouth is and support their returning citizen employees once they hire them.


Allow for flexibility

First, businesses must allow returning citizen employees a level of flexibility due to their extenuating circumstances. For example, some employees might have strict hours they must be home, must check in with their parole officer certain days a week, or are entirely dependent on public transportation to get to and from work. 

Other employees might have other responsibilities, such as caring for family members, that may restrict what hours they can work. Allowing these employees to have flexible schedules could go a long way in making them more successful in the workplace.


Invest in upskilling

Companies can further make returning citizen employees feel more accommodated by investing in training and upskilling programs. Emerge Career, Crop Organization and Next Chapter Project all upskill and reskill formerly incarcerated persons in various industries. These types of programs can help bridge the gap between the knowledge a returning citizen has and what they need to be successful in their role. After all, an investment in your employees is an investment in your business. Thus, investing in programs that will help them build skills to thrive in their positions will benefit the business as a whole in the long run. 


get help from nonprofits

Businesses employing returning citizens also have a tremendous resource at their disposal in the form of organizations that connect returning citizens with opportunities to allow them to thrive upon reintegrating into society. For instance, 2nd Chance 4 Felons  provides links to staffing agencies and companies that hire felons, and CEO Works connects employers to vetted employees.

Conconnect also connects returning citizens to employers looking to hire justice-impacted persons. These range from offering additional training and guidance to returning citizens to providing direct job-matching services, helping them overcome some of the most common barriers to their potential employment.


Train managers and teams

On a personal level, managers should be aware of any bias or stigmas they have surrounding returning citizens. These biases are not their fault; the media has demonized the incarcerated for years and the images and stories widely shared have reflected those views. 

The first step that managers can take is to understand the criminal justice system and how it works. Next, managers need to have stories and references from those who have been formerly incarcerated so managers can start to view returning citizens in a different light.

When it comes to colleagues, no one should know who is, and who is not, justice-impacted. True inclusion means not isolating team members for lived experiences. The person on the team who is justice-impacted can choose to share, or not share, that information with their colleagues. 

It is clear that companies are making a massive mistake in overlooking returning citizens for job opportunities. Although successfully employing these individuals requires a commitment to supporting their unique needs, it is an investment that will pay off for businesses in the long run.

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