Jeff Korzenik became interested in how businesses can successfully hire ex-offenders “almost by accident.” He credits sending his children to public magnet schools in Chicago with opening his eyes to the challenges different groups of people face. When he learned about private business models based on hiring people with criminal records, he began to see the hiring practice as a way for companies to deal with the growing labor shortage, but only if they add in the proper support structures and work with key nonprofit partners. Korzenik spoke with MiBiz ahead of keynoting a Fifth Third Bank “second chancers” event from 3-5 p.m., Wednesday, June 5 at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. The event also features a panel discussion with Fred Keller from Cascade Engineering, Mark Peters of Butterball Farms Inc. and Sandra Gaddy of the Women’s Resource Center.
Why bring this second chancers event to Grand Rapids?
Western Michigan is one of the real centers of strength in this, where you have qualified leaders, most notably Fred Keller and Cascade Engineering, but others as well, who have all come to the same model, and have proven that there’s a model of success and ways to hire people who have been marginalized, either by poverty or by criminal records or histories of addiction. There are ways to hire them and support them, and it’s a profit-enhancing strategy, not charity.
Would we still be having this conversation if the nation wasn’t at full employment?
Probably not. I think it’s very important, particularly for the nonprofit community, to understand that a vibrant economy creates a willingness on the part of employers to step outside their comfort zone and consider people with different backgrounds. Now, there’s always been some people who have done it. Very often, it’s people who have a religious conviction and feel they should be trying this, or people with strong social justice conviction. But for the majority of for-profit businesses, that is not the case. The tightness of the labor market has incented a lot of businesses to consider other forms of hiring.
Late last year, former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder issued an order for the state government to stop asking job applicants if they have been convicted of a felony. Should the so-called ‘ban the box’ policy be expanded to the private sector as well?
No. Ban the box is really very controversial policy, and it’s not clearly effective. … Our belief is that private-sector employers have a right to know who they’re hiring, and have a right to know that up front. … The other concern we have with ban the box policies — why they’re not the cure-all that they’re sometimes presented to be — is our experience is that it’s not enough to be willing to hire someone with a criminal record. Very often, people who have that background come with barriers associated primarily with poverty. Unless as an employer you are consciously pursuing a strategy that accommodates these needs, your chances of success are fairly low. Ban the box is not consistent with a conscious policy of being able to support employees.
Is banning the box bad policy?
Ban the box will do no harm if you’ve come to that point. But the general observation I make is ban the box is a shortcut. I’ve been in the business world for 34 years. I’ve never seen shortcuts that work.
What does a conscious policy look like?
You realize you have to be very selective in your hiring and work with nonprofits that can help you identify who’s ready to turn their life around, and then make the accommodations and provide the support environment that helps people who have these non-traditional backgrounds. … Those accommodations are worth it if you do it right. That’s what all the evidence suggests, that you have very low turnover and highly dedicated employees when you do the model right. But it’s got to be done the right way.
Some state, federal and even local incentives exist to encourage companies to hire ex-offenders. Do you think that those incentives go far enough?
Those incentives have some advantages, but if you have an employer who is only doing it for the short-term monetary incentive, that’s probably not going to be a successful model. … That being said, sometimes there are some additional training and onboarding challenges and costs associated with going into marginalized labor pools. These credits can help with that. They can help subsidize training periods. … What needs to be done, what I think would be far more effective, is start by broadcasting the models that work.
What do you mean by that?
The business leaders who really pioneered this and do this the right way, they should be getting recognition. These are models that should be studied in every business school in the country.
Do you think everyone should get a second chance?
I do, consistent with the fact that you have a choice in the criminal justice system. You either lock people up for life, or you determine that our justice system should have non-life sentences. If you’re going to have sentences that let people out at some point in time, they should be given the opportunity to succeed. Otherwise, it just makes no sense. That being said, third and fourth chances are much more controversial.
Essentially, people need to face the consequences for their actions, but they shouldn’t be marked for life once they’ve paid their debt to society.
I’ve personally been the victim of both violent crime and property crime. There should be consequences for bad action. There’s no getting around that, and some of those consequences should include incarceration, but they should not be lifelong sentences once someone has been reintroduced to the public and has been let out of jail.
Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard.