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Defying the conventional wisdom regarding hiring people with criminal backgrounds

And why ex-offenders excel as entrepreneurs

Biases and stereotypes. Man, that’s a hard one. We all have them and each of us is influenced by them. Biases and stereotypes allow our brains to process information and make decisions quickly based on limited information. Most of the time, they are harmless: I don’t like tomatoes -> I should probably not eat that sandwich. It’s raining -> I should probably drive more cautiously. (By the way, 77% of weather-related fatalities are due to wet pavement.)

But when our biases and stereotypes cause us to make irrational decisions—that is, not logical or reasonable—that’s when we need to stop and reassess how our attitudes impact our behaviors, possibly to the detriment of ourselves or others. Let’s take employing people with criminal backgrounds.

Data specifically on unemployment or employment rates for people with criminal backgrounds isn’t readily available. Suffice it to say, unemployment is high for ex-offenders, as are the barriers to employment. Even a highly qualified candidate can be passed over for a job offer because of an unrelated criminal history. And it’s not even stated that it’s because of the criminal history. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, whether knowing it or not, someone allowed his/her biases and stereotypes about people who have been in jail to cloud his/her hiring decision.

I firmly believe in criminal justice. But, once one has served one’s sentence, I believe the debt to society has been paid. I also firmly believe that, like the best anti-poverty program is employment, I believe the answer to recidivism (i.e., the likelihood to reoffend) is a job.


The article, Some Fundamental Truths This Entrepreneur Learned Mentoring Prison Inmates, highlights a program called Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth. According to the article:

Inmates enrolled in the program are approaching the backend of their sentences, typically after about 10 years in jail. They suffer the stigma of their past indiscretions and struggle to be recognized for who they have grown to become and truly are. What attracted me to volunteer is the Defy program's success reversing their self-defeating way of thinking.

More than 10,000 prisoners are released from jails every week in the U.S. but two-thirds are rearrested within three years. In contrast, fewer than five percent of EITs who complete the Defy program return to prison. To date, the Defy program has helped more than 550 incarcerated individuals across 24 states prepare for life after prison. Defy has financed and incubated 165 startups founded by EITs who have created more than 350 jobs in their communities.

It’s obvious that ex-offenders would succeed as entrepreneurs. Not because they have special skills, characteristics or tendencies that make them better entrepreneurs than the rest of us. No, it’s because they are precluded from succeeding in regular employment. No one will hire them. No one will give them a chance.


Funny thing is, as the labor market tightens, some employers are rethinking their positions on hiring people with criminal backgrounds. There’s already not enough people to do all the work that needs to be done without unnecessarily excluding people from the candidate pool.

However, even if employers institute a “policy” to be open to offering employment to ex-offenders, it’s still the biases and stereotypes of the individual decision-makers that must be addressed. It doesn’t have to be the director of HR, it can be a hiring manager or a clerk in Talent Acquisition that can dismiss a candidate because the box was checked indicating the candidate has been convicted of a felony. (In Ohio, that’s still a thing.) And the fact that the box was checked doesn’t even have to be the stated reason—it doesn’t have to be any reason.


We need to talk about the issue. We need to remove the stigma. We need to make it so people can feel comfortable about the prospect of hiring a former offender. At the same time, we need to make it clear that it’s not OK to continue to punish people by denying them employment. We need these people IN the workforce positively contributing to society. We need everybody who can work at work.

If you’re interested in learning more about the issue, here are a couple of resources:

The original article, Some Fundamental Truths This Entrepreneur Learned Mentoring Prison Inmates, written by guest writer, Kyle Slager, first appeared on on September 6, 2017.

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