The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

May 15, 2016

Hiring Ex-Offenders

Incarceration rates in the U.S. are the highest in the world. And after they’ve “done their time,” ex-offenders enter a new kind of prison trying to re-instate their civil rights.  Finding housing and jobs can be a lifelong struggle.  Should  your workplace give ex-offenders a second chance? Dr. Ed Kropp offers five principles to consider.

View Transcript

Speaker 4: It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss. This is The Boss Show, with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.


Jim Hessler: I am Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development and the author along with my co-host of the book Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face. This is the show for anyone who is or has a boss.


Steve Motenko: I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy, the aforementioned co-host. I love that word, aforementioned. Any word that has more than 10 letters. As a Harvard graduate …


Jim Hessler: It’s a Harvard word.


Steve Motenko: Yeah.


Jim Hessler: I don’t know what I would use instead of ‘aforementioned’. It would probably be ‘duh’ or ‘huh’ or something like that.


Steve Motenko: Since you don’t have a college degree.


Jim Hessler: Since I don’t have a Harvard degree, I just can’t go there with you. I’m sorry.


Steve Motenko: Anyway, I am a personal coach and executive coach here in the Puget Sound region. As Jim said, co-author … As co-host of this show, co-author of that book that Jim talked about, which is a primer for leadership development that applies to any level of leadership. You might want to check it out. Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face. What are we doing today?


Jim Hessler: Today on The Boss Show, my question is if you’re a business employer, would you hire an ex-convict to work for you? Somebody who had been incarcerated for a crime, who has been in prison. We have an interesting guest, Dr. Ed Kropp, to talk to us about that after the break. Let me tell you why I wanted to do this show. First of all, Steve, do you know how many people are in prison in the United States?


Steve Motenko: I don’t, but you’ll tell me. Won’t you?


Jim Hessler: Six or seven million people. About one out of every thirty-one adults in the United States is in prison.


Steve Motenko: We incarcerate many more, percentage-wise than other industrialized nations. Right?


Jim Hessler: I believe that’s correct. I don’t have the exact numbers, but we are well-known throughout the so-called developed world for having a very high population of incarcerated people. That one in thirty-one adults is up from one in seventy-two adults in 1982. Not only do we have a lot of people in prison, but we have a much higher percentage of our population.


Steve Motenko: How much of that is due to the war on drugs? I know a lot …


Jim Hessler: Probably a lot of it, which I think actually feeds into the conversation today. Here’s two reasons I wanted to have this conversation. First of all, because I know Ed, our guest, well. We’ve had some conversations about this, but I remember years ago, I was conducting interviews for a company. I had an executive role and I was hiring in people to the organization. I interviewed a guy who had a felony on his record. He had to be honest about that. He couldn’t not tell me about that, because I would have found out about it anyway. I really liked the guy. I just thought he really had his act together. He had done something stupid as a young man. He had some marijuana in his car. He saw the red lights.


Steve Motenko: Marijuana?!


Jim Hessler: I know. He saw the red lights on the police car and he tried to outrun the policeman, which is a felony. This guy had a felony on his record. I really wanted to hire him and the company policy forbade me from doing it. I could not hire the guy and I’ve always regretted that and always wondered up where he ended up. The other thing is we do our 13-month leadership workshops and about six months into a workshop last year, one of our participants confided in me that he was a convicted felon. I’m not going to mention the company or the name of the person, but this guy really impressed me as well. I was so pleased that our client had given this guy an opportunity. He was flourishing and is still flourishing to this day.


  That made me wonder. As business people, we have to consider this question of what we do as a society about this huge number of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people we have in our community. Clearly, their successful entry or re-entry into the workforce is a really potentially important part of this bigger question of how we as employers can help or whatever, whatever we should do about this. Our guest after the break will be Dr. Ed Kropp. I’ll give you a little bit more information about Ed, but he’s taken a particular interest in this topic of rehabilitation and how people get out from underneath the cloud of their past. Steve, have you had any experiences with this?


Steve Motenko: I haven’t had experience hiring ex-convicts. I had experience … This is something you may not know about me. I taught guitar.


Jim Hessler: You’re an ex-con?


Steve Motenko: No. I probably should have mentioned that to you.


Jim Hessler: Yeah, yeah. It never came up.


Steve Motenko: I taught guitar at a minimum-security prison many, many years ago, and was just blown away by the quality of people that I was teaching. Just their quality as humans, even though obviously they had made mistakes. It pointed me to the subconscious biases we all have probably in addition to our conscious biases about convicted felons.


Jim Hessler: We’ll talk more about hiring ex-cons when we come back from the break. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Speaker 4: It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. The Boss Show continues.


Steve Motenko: Welcome back to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. Today as our guest on The Boss Show, we have Dr. Ed Kropp. Ed is an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and he’s also a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has a very interesting CV. Let’s just leave it there, but our main reason for speaking with Ed today is because he’s a literacy volunteer at the Bucks County Correctional Institution in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, meaning what, Dr. Kropp? Tell us about that.


Ed Kropp: Yeah. It’s a medium-security facility. People are brought in there for all levels of crimes. The more severe move on to other penitentiaries, but actually people can serve up to 15 years in that facility. There’s all sorts of types of former crimes that have been committed that are represented in that facility.


Jim Hessler: The fact that you’re working with them on literacy has to indicate that a lot of them are there who don’t have a high rate of literacy. That might explain partly why they’re there to begin with, huh?


Ed Kropp: Exactly right. Literacy is connected directly to criminal activity. It’s interesting that people are released with no ability to read job contracts or to understand ads for employment and so forth. The starting point seems to be to develop their ability to read and understand, and then take it to the next level beyond that. We also work with a program called Personal Decision-Making, which helps them to see through the various scenarios what the impacts of their decisions are relative to certain acts that they commit. Basically what we’re hoping for through this volunteer work that I’m doing is to … For people that are released, that at least they have a modicum of literary talent or literacy talent, and also some ability to understand the impact that their decisions have on their lives.


Steve Motenko: Ed, what called you personally to do this work?


Ed Kropp: Well it was an interesting story. I was down in Washington D.C. and had a little bit of time on my hands. Being an avid reader, I thought, “Well, maybe people need help with literacy. I’ll be glad to volunteer.” I went to the literacy program down in Washington D.C. and during one of the training sessions, they asked if anyone was interested in working in the prisons. Of course being military, I had some dealings with people that got in trouble and ended up in the brigs. Prison wasn’t a … I didn’t feel intimidated by working in the prison. I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” Found that it was such a rewarding experience, because the inmates were so grateful that someone was taking their time to help them develop those kinds of skills that would enable them to get jobs, to work, to be productive and so forth. It was very rewarding.


Jim Hessler: Ed, the recidivism rate that I’ve read about, it’s approximate, but it says about two-thirds of all prisoners end up back in prison within three years. The reason we’re talking about this on a show about business is because one would have to assume there’s a big difference in the recidivism rate among ex-cons who are able to find a decent job after they’re released. That’s got to be a big factor on who ends up back in prison and who doesn’t.


Ed Kropp: Absolutely. There’s another impact to that as well. That’s the neighborhoods to which they return. The people in well to do neighborhoods that perhaps had drug convictions or whatever else, they find the job market a little bit easier because of where they’re returning to. What happens when people are reduced or returned to areas where there’s high unemployment, active crime, these people find jobs very, very difficult to obtain. Obviously there’s a connection between the recidivism rate between well to do communities and communities that are poor.


Jim Hessler: When we come back from the break, I’d love to talk about not only the potential advantages to the employer, but also to the community for helping these ex-convicts land on their feet. It’s a difficult thing to have accomplished, but there’s so many benefits to it. We’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Ed Kropp after this. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Speaker 4: Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show on KOMO News.


Steve Motenko: Why, I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy. Welcome back.


Jim Hessler: I thought you were asking, “Why am I Steve Motenko?”


Steve Motenko: Why am I Steve Motenko?


Jim Hessler: There really is no answer for that. I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. Our guest today is Dr. Ed Kropp, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and also a literacy volunteer at a prison in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Kropp, tell me, is rehabilitation a myth? Is it possible to rehabilitate criminals? Some people believe it’s not possible.


Ed Kropp: No, it certainly is possible. There’s a lot of success stories out there. The problem really is it’s a three-legged stool. The first problem is finding a business that is willing to hire former ex-offenders. By the way …


Jim Hessler: Yeah, thank you. Ex-offenders is a better term. I actually meant to ask you about that, so thank you for that.


Ed Kropp: Yeah.


Jim Hessler: Yeah.


Ed Kropp: Ex-offenders is a good way …


Jim Hessler: Yeah, thank you.


Ed Kropp: The three-legged stool is really the business that is willing to hire the person, the person himself, and his or her skillset at applying to certain jobs. Then there’s a community aspect as well, because obviously recidivism is a very, very expensive proposition for the taxpayer. The more people we can rehabilitate either in prison or immediately upon release and have them become productive, taxpaying citizens, the better off we all are. I think we have to examine all three legs of that stool. Obviously we’ve been focusing a lot on the ex-offenders and getting them ready for the job market, wherever that might be and whatever skills they might have. That’s not an easy task. A lot of it falls to the parole officers in various jurisdictions to try to stay with them and help them and contact businesses and say, “Would you be willing to hire this person?”


  If there’s any parole officers that are listening in, they’ll realize that their load is extremely heavy. They just can’t do the kind of work. It really does take volunteers. It takes people that are interested. Frankly, Jim and Steve, it’s a one for one proposition. I’ve been working, for example, with one individual for over 10 years. I’m proud to say that he is an outstanding, taxpaying, drug-free, crime-free person who is now starting to fit into society. Those are the success stories that you like to dwell on. On the other hand, there are stories where it’s not quite as successful. You work with the individual, you help them develop a resume of job experiences, you teach them what to say during the interview, you help them understand what the appropriate dress codes are and so forth. Either they’re not interested in maintaining employment or this duality of which is more profitable, work or crime?


Jim Hessler: Yeah, right. Exactly. That $11 an hour job versus the money I can make going back to my old way of life. Really the word that comes to mind is coaching. This is really an opportunity for somebody to be a good coach. You mentioned you’ve worked with somebody for 10 years.


Ed Kropp: Yeah.


Jim Hessler: Sometimes it takes … I still grow every day and learn new things. We’re all always learning, but I think the learning curve for somebody in that situation is probably a lot longer. When we come back from our next break, I’d like to ask you to help us look at this from the employer perspective.


Ed Kropp: Sure.


Jim Hessler: What are some of the things they should be …


Ed Kropp: I’d be glad to.


Jim Hessler: … looking at and considering, if they’d like to be open to this possibility. More with Dr. Ed Kropp. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Speaker 4: KOMO News. The Boss Show is back on this northwest lifestyle weekend. Here’s Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.


Steve Motenko: Welcome back to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. We’re talking to Dr. Ed Kropp. Now Ed, I decided I was going to … For a minute, I was not going to say this on the air, but I am going to say it on the air. You are my beloved uncle. That’s not the main reason for having you on the show. I know you have some expertise in this area that was very interesting to me, but just wanted to say hello, uncle Ed. Nice to be talking to you under any circumstances.


Ed Kropp: It’s a pleasure to talk with you too, Jim.


Jim Hessler: Thank you. If you’re an employer and you’re thinking, “You know what? There’s so many benefits to individual lives and to the lives of our communities for employing ex-offenders.” What are some steps you might take or what are some things you want to think through, if you’d be open to that?


Ed Kropp: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, there are some … Depending on the state, there are some tax credits and insurance programs available to protect the employer in certain instances. They’re worth pursuing. I’m sure each of the HR departments knows about those. One is the work opportunity tax credit and the other is the federal bonding program. Both of these provide some security, but as a person who has gone with someone who has recently been released and knocked on doors and asked if they would consider hiring ex-offenders, what has been surprising to me, how many are really in favor of doing it. I know the job market is tough, but a lot of these people are … Some are former military, some have significant job experiences. Frankly with the job market being as it is, having someone that’s had some experience despite the fact that they made a mistake along the way can be very, very positive.


  I put together what I think are five principles that businesses should consider.


Jim Hessler: Fantastic, fantastic.


Ed Kropp: First of all, when having candidates in front of them, trust your instincts. If the person, like the person you mentioned, Jim, seemed to be a really good person and could contribute, push against the policies that are unfair that said someone made a mistake, therefore you wouldn’t hire them.


Jim Hessler: Thank you for that. Yeah.


Ed Kropp: The continuum of mistakes range from, as you pointed out, minor drug usage to major capital crimes. Somewhere in between, probably all of us, maybe speeding on the highway or whatever, we’ve all committed some sort of violation. The point is trust your instincts. Never ask about the crime.


Jim Hessler: Oh, interesting. Okay.


Ed Kropp: If the individual wants to share that, they will. I don’t think it’s relevant because it puts an [inaudible 00:17:50] on the person.


Jim Hessler: It becomes potential fodder for other conversations with other people.


Ed Kropp: Yes.


Jim Hessler: It becomes information that might be shared, which is inappropriate. I’m really glad you mentioned that. Yeah.


Ed Kropp: Yeah. Number three is what happens typically is that we think … Business often think that low-level, poor paying jobs are what they’re qualified for, so that’s what we’ll put them into. Well, that rarely works. Obviously some of them have far more skills than just being put in one of those low paying jobs. Treat them like you would treat everyone else and put them in a position based on their skills and their knowledge, not what past mistakes they’ve made.


Jim Hessler: Okay.


Ed Kropp: Number four. I’ve found that one of the most useful tools in dealing with these people, and I’m sure you and Steve will agree, is the tool of positive reinforcement is so powerful. Their morale is low. They’ve been kicked out of their families. A lot of bad things have happened to them.


Steve Motenko: They’ve had their civil rights stripped from them.


Jim Hessler: They’ve lost their civil rights in many cases. Yeah.


Ed Kropp: They have. More importantly, they’ve lost their self-respect. When the employer can just use positive reinforcement and say, “You know, you really did great your first day here. I know you’re going to work out well.” That kind of encouragement often continues.


Jim Hessler: Ed, we need to break and come back and finish this conversation after this next break. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Speaker 4: It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. The Boss Show continues.


Steve Motenko: You’re listening to the show for anyone who is or has a boss. We hope to offer a little bit of workplace wisdom with heart and humor. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. We have Dr. Ed Kropp here with us today, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia, and also if you’ve been listening to the show, an expert in the challenges that both employers and ex-offenders face in getting connected. Ed, you were finishing up a list of really helpful ideas from the employer perspective. I’ll let you finish your fifth point.


Ed Kropp: Sure. The fifth one of course is wherever possible to avoid signing a person to a drudgery job. We mentioned that that doesn’t help the morale. It doesn’t help the motivation to get up and come to work every day. Usually, it’s not going to be the kind of job that’s going to enable them to continue to work and eventually become a taxpaying person.


Jim Hessler: Boy, that goes for all employees, doesn’t it?


Ed Kropp: Yeah.


Jim Hessler: Not just ex-offenders.


Ed Kropp: Well absolutely it does.


Jim Hessler: Yeah.


Ed Kropp: Again, we should give everyone opportunity. I think sometimes we hesitate to give opportunity to someone who is an ex-offender for fear of they’ll make a mistake, they’ll commit a crime in my business, those kinds of things.


Jim Hessler: Then I’ll look bad for hiring them. Yeah. Then I’ll look bad for hiring them.


Ed Kropp: Right.


Jim Hessler: I think what’s the most intriguing to me about the list is not just talking about giving them a job, just any job. I guess a lot of employers would say, “Boy, if I could even just give them a job to sleep in the parking lot, then they should be happy to have that job because they’re ex-offenders.” You’re saying really look at the person really like you’d look at any other potential employee. Obviously this is a factor in the employment question, in the decision, but if they have an accounting degree, don’t hire them to sweep the floors. Give them a job as an accountant. That’s what they do.


Ed Kropp: Exactly. One of the most successful programs in the country actually is in New York City at Rikers Island. They have a very sophisticated program, where the people that are qualified upon release, and it’s a high number, are placed in relatively significant jobs in the data processing world. They’re taught software code. They’re taught the various skills associated with data processing. What’s happening is those people are satisfied with the work that they’re doing. They match their skills to that work and they don’t come back. They’re not recidivists. That’s an ideal program that we could all turn to.


Jim Hessler: I love what you’re saying. Yeah, this is two and a half percent or whatever the total population of the United States.


Ed Kropp: Right.


Jim Hessler: What a wonderful, wonderful thing it could be if we could successfully land them on their feet, to use the terminology from our book title. To have them land on their feet in society.


Ed Kropp: Yeah.


Jim Hessler: It would be good for everyone.


Ed Kropp: Absolutely, Jim. Those 600,000 people that are released every year from jails or prisons, they need the kind of support that the businesses can provide. We’re not asking them to hire them in place of other people. We’re asking them to just say, “Everything being equal, who is the best qualified?” Forget the fact that they made a mistake along the way. It’s not material to the business because what’s material to the business is to find qualified people that can do the work.


Jim Hessler: That’s a great note to end on. Than you so much for being our guest on The Boss Show. I hope all of our listeners are encouraged to think about this in a different way. Thanks, Dr. Ed Kropp. You’re listening to The Boss Show. We’ll be right back.


Speaker 4: Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show on KOMO News.


Steve Motenko: Hi. Welcome back to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. We just finished a conversation with Dr. Ed Kropp, talking about hiring ex-offenders in the workplace. You know the idea, Steve, of a second chance in our society is very compelling. A lot of our literature popular culture is around people getting second chances in life. I think most of us believe people deserve second chances. People do end up in prison sometimes, just because they just don’t get it. They just lack a fundamental grounding or character, but more often than that, they’re just people that got led astray and ended up in a bad place and they need our help getting back on track and getting that second chance that we all deserve.


Steve Motenko: Yeah. Quite often, what landed them in prison in the first place happened at a time when they weren’t fully emotionally developed. Our brains don’t fully emotionally develop until we’re roughly 25 years old.


Jim Hessler: Most crimes are committed before that. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Think about it. If you’re an employer, there might be an opportunity for you to change life, make society better. The Boss Show is produced by Boss Media Productions and our sound engineer is Kevin [inaudible 00:25:07].


Steve Motenko: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at or on your favorite podcast platform.


Jim Hessler: Thanks for listening.


Steve Motenko: Don’t forget, rule number six.



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