For hundreds of thousands of Americans, this experience is all too common: You fill out job application after job application and never hear a word back.
In today's impacted labor market, jobs can be hard to come by for just about anyone. But it's even harder for those who have to check the box indicating they've been convicted of committing a crime. At that point, no matter your skills, relevant experience, passion and character, your résumé is almost guaranteed to be tossed aside by a significant number of potential employers.
Some small businesses, however, are bucking that trend. In fact, they actually go out of their way to hire ex-convicts. And it's paying off.
One obvious advantage to hiring ex-convicts is the potential tax incentives. A company can be eligible for a few thousand dollars in annual tax credits through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit if an employee was convicted of a felony and hired within a year of release from prison. There's also Federal Bonding Program money distributed by each state, which insures an employer against potential theft for the first six months an ex-convict is on the job.
Giving ex-convicts opportunities can also be an inspiring way to give back to the community and contribute to social change. More than 650,000 U.S. prisoners are released each year. Two-thirds of them are arrested again within three years, according to the National Institute of Justice. Giving former inmates access to steady jobs is a proven factor in reducing the recidivism rate.
Taking a chance on ex-convicts can also be a boon to the entire small business landscape.
Helping employees learn how a small business works opens other doors for them. For motivated, business-minded ex-convicts who can swing it, opening companies of their own is an attractive way to avoid spending a lifetime explaining away a previous incarceration to potential employers. With years of real-world experience and the help of dedicated resources like The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, hard workers can strive to shed the "felon" label and start ventures of their own. In turn, they'll create more jobs and boost the economy.
But there's another reason to take on ex-convicts, one that's more persuasive than any financial gain or community benefit. Simply put, many small business owners say ex-convicts make good workers.
Take organic bread company Dave's Killer Bread, which employs about 100 ex-convicts.
"Overall the ex-felons' performance rating is slightly higher than non-felons," CEO John Tucker told Fast Company. "Most people think it's the opposite: that the ex-felons are a challenge, are difficult. That is simply not the case."
In Hawaii, an agricultural park manager took a chance on an ex-convict after struggling to find other laborers.
"He has just been a model worker," manager Wayne Ogasawara told Hawaii Business. "I just can't believe how a man who has wasted 20 years of his life can be doing what he's doing now. He's punctual, listens to instructions — you'd be surprised how many young guys don't have any listening skill. Since then, I've taken on three more men out of the prison system and I've had nothing but good luck."
The gesture of offering an ex-convict his first job out of prison often means the recipient is grateful to be employed and eager to work hard. Many ex-convicts have probation restrictions (meaning there's an officer to hold them accountable), get to work on time, and are focused on learning new skills. There are serious consequences for those who don't stay out of trouble, and they know it.
Better yet, these punctual, motivated individuals are routinely passed over in the job search without even a second glance. Acquiring new talent hidden in plain sight is a good way to get a leg up on competitors.
Of course, it seems easier to take the safe road and pass over ex-convicts. But no hire — with or without a prison record — is totally risk-free. Saying yes to an ex-convict is an opportunity to show people internally and externally you're the kind of manager who isn't afraid to take chances on people, and improve your business in the process.