HR Guide to Hiring Felons

May 4, 2010 - 11:51am

Your Loyal Employees: Reasons to Hire Ex-Felons


by Donald Nickels, originally posted at Payscale

After leaving my last position as a human resource manager for an online health organization, I never would have imagined where I would end up next. Possibly another HR job for another corporation or an office manager position at a law firm? Nope, I currently work for a federal work release program in the state of Washington. This is a residence hall where certain federal prison inmates, if selected, will come to finish off approximately four to six months of their federal sentence. While they live at work release, they are in the process of rebuilding their lives, connecting with support systems such as their families and loved ones, finding places to live, and most importantly, finding work.

Most criminal theory agrees that employment is likely to reduce the amount of recidivism of ex-offenders. In one article posted by Dave Anderson (JIST, 2008), he pointed out that “the New York Department of Labor found that 83% of offenders who violated probation or parole were unemployed at the time.”

The importance of employment is also reflected in a common recidivism assessment tool called the “Level of Service Inventory – Revised,” which is used for individuals reentering society from incarceration. This assessment tool is an evidence-based practice that uses 10 factors that have been proven to indicate whether an ex-convict will reoffend. One of the heaviest rated factors is, in fact, employment and education.

Unfortunately, although most ex-convicts are willing to work, many employers are very much against hiring them. A study published by Richard Freeman of Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research cited another study from 2003 of businesses surveyed in four major cities. Only 12.5 percent of employers that were surveyed stated that they would “definitely accept” applications from ex-convicts.

This unwillingness to hire ex-prisoners is unfortunate for many reasons. One of the larger reasons being the obvious problem of ex-convicts being unable to obtain recidivism-reducing employment, but there are also unfortunate losses for the potential employer themselves.

Benefits for Companies that Hire Felons

The first and usually missed benefit of hiring an ex-convict is that they are hungry to work. The residents I currently work with (although they’re still technically inmates of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, when they’re at the work release they’re called residents) are usually coming out of sentences ranging anywhere from a year to several decades. Almost all of them have gone through the prison system, attending a wide variety of training programs designed to make them not only more educated but also more employable. Once they get to us, their focus is very strong on obtaining employment and getting a strong footing back in society. Once these residents find employment, they tend to be very loyal and very devoted workers. These are not your average citizens that might tend to take employment for granted, and they’re far from being hesitant about working from the bottom of the organizational chain up.

Secondly, and possibly even more attractive to employers, is the training these residents have received while incarcerated. Residents obtain training in anything from personal training to HVAC work to even inventory and warehouse systems. Although the training is designed to be skilled labor level, many residents I have personally dealt with have a wealth of skills which many other citizens might not be as fortunate to have. While they may not come out of the prison system at the top of their trade, they provide their potential employer a stronger set of skills from the start than most unskilled labor would.

As a side benefit, many residents that I have worked with have developed a strong understanding of authority from their incarceration. They appear to have developed the strong fundamentals of no-nonsense leadership. Additionally, after enduring such a hardship, there is something to be said about their ability to cope with stressful situations and environments.

Tax Breaks for Hiring Felons

Employers might also be missing out on something known as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. Found at the U.S. Department of Labor website (, this tax credit can be applied to employers who choose to hire certain classifications of people, which in this case is a felon or “an individual who was convicted of a felony and who is hired not more than one year after the conviction or release from prison.” The maximum eligible tax credit is $2,400 per adult hired, which is the same as the tax credit that is available for hiring veterans of the armed forces. Additionally, there is a Federal Bonding program which may provide the employer with a short term liability bond ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 at no cost to the employer. These bonds are designed to protect employers from the possibility of theft or dishonesty on the part of an ex-felon.

It’s understandable that many employers shy away from hiring ex-felons due to the stigma that is attached to former inmates who have served up to decades in prison. But employers should understand that, while an ex-felon may be out of prison, that doesn’t mean they’re not being checked on. Residents assigned to work releases or on probation are almost always given random drug testing, are consistently checked on, and in some cases, are even attending counseling or some form of therapy. When employers provide these people an opportunity to return to work and rebuild their lives, they’re not only gaining the loyalty of the ex-convict, but of that person’s family, multiple connected organizations, and groups of people through word of mouth alone. Potential employers should take a second and look beyond the stigma of being a felon, and carefully weigh the potential positives of hiring an ex-convict.


Donald Nickels

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