Should You Hire An Ex-Con?

Theft. Illegal drugs. Violence. Poor performance. These are all things you find in organizations despite thorough application reviews, multiple interviews, personality screenings and rigid background checks. Needless to say, most corporate hiring processes are far from perfect.

After having dinner with Arte Nathan, the former longtime HR partner to casino mogul Steve Wynn, crime was top of mind—but maybe not in the way you’d expect. In fact, Nathan spent most of the evening talking about the benefits of hiring “ex-cons.”

When I got back to my hotel room, my iPhone screen flashed a news article: “Ex-attorney general sentenced to jail, then cuffed in court.” This was irony at its best. I had just spent two hours learning that an employer never really knows who they are hiring despite their best efforts to weed out certain candidates. At dinner Nathan made a point of saying, “People who have served their time for a crime have an extensive file on who they are and where they have been. They work harder than other employees, show up to work early, stay later, accept overtime, ask for more work, do more, and truly value their jobs.” And here was an article about a person who is literally the embodiment of the law going to jail for illegal activity. I guess those who have spent time in prison know the alternative to not being their best selves—Nathan had a point.

Statistics show that 75% of inmates released from prison go back eventually. In sharp contrast, of the ex-offenders Nathan hired for Wynn Hotels, only 7% went back to prison. This was a 68% reduction.

Negligent Hiring

The idea of hiring ex-offenders is too much of a risk for most companies to accept. Many HR and legal professionals are quick to point out the danger of negligent hiring. They see more negatives than positives. What if the person commits another crime? What if they hurt someone? What if others find out? How can managers be trained to manage such people? What if they steal from us?

These are all fair and legitimate questions. However, most are fueled by negative stereotypes, Nathan argues. He also told me that he considers a reference from a corrections official, judge, parole officer, minister, or police officer equivalent to a candidate being “stamped by the hand of God.” He went on to tell me about his first ex-offender hire.

In 1990, Nathan had just opened the Mirage on the Las Vegas strip. He and his team sifted through 55,000 applications, selecting about 7,000 people to join the team. Shortly thereafter, Nathan was called into Wynn’s office to speak to a Las Vegas city councilman about a job applicant referral. The politician asked Nathan and Wynn to not judge a book by its cover.

The referral was a guy named Tony, an ex-gang member who had recently been released from prison. Tony’s girlfriend was expecting and they wanted to raise the child in a normal environment. Tony had been in and out of the penal system but wanted to get his life back on track.

Nathan and Wynn were a bit cautious, but agreed to keep an open mind. A few minutes later they met Tony, a 6 foot 3 inch, buff, tattooed, shaved-headed, intimidating man. He was missing an eye that had been lost in a knife fight and was not wearing an eye patch.

After speaking with Tony and introducing him to the public area cleaning manager (the department that does all the heavy cleaning in large hotels) and to the team he would be working with, Nathan hired Tony as a cleaner. Everyone that Tony met during the interview process was told about his background. Nathan believes that complete transparency is mandatory for success. If co-workers find out late in the process, prejudice and disengagement follow.

Three months later, Tony successfully passed probation, started wearing an eye patch, and was excelling in his role. He was later promoted to team lead and ultimately became a supervisor and model citizen in the community. Had Nathan not given him this second chance in life, odds are he would have ended up back in prison, negatively impacting his own life, the life of his family, and those in the community where his criminal behavior may have occurred. Not to mention the impact this might have had on his child.

The decision to hire Tony was no doubt the right one. Nathan’s passion for the topic is clearly apparent in a TEDx talk he recently gave.

The “Box”

There has been a movement to require job boards and employers to remove the “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” box on employment applications. There are many fans of this movement and people’s hearts are certainly in the right place. However, Nathan points out that candidates can still get disqualified after the original application when background checks are done. In fact, a client of his received six job offers from companies that did away with the box only to have them withdrawn when his criminal record was uncovered in a background check.

Instead, Nathan says job boards and employers should use the box as a way to highlight and discuss the applicant’s background and record rather than simply reject them because of it. Nathan argues that when companies and society do not give people second chances through employment, they will be forced to go back to a life of crime to survive. Giving a chance to someone who has made a mistake, paid for it, and now wants to turn his or her life around starts with a job.

HOPE For Prisoners

After leaving Wynn and spending several years teaching and consulting, Nathan took a seat on the board of HOPE for Prisoners, an organization that recruited him because of its work with ex-offenders. The founder, Jon D. Ponder, spent much of his early life in and out of state and federal prisons and experienced firsthand the effects of incarceration. Upon his release, he committed the rest of his life to helping others transition out of prison to reenter society successfully. Only 6% of people who go through the HOPE for Prisoners program go back to prison.

A registered nonprofit, HOPE for Prisoners facilitates reentry and reintegration services to men, women, and young adults who are exiting various segments of the judicial system. Their holistic approach is to encourage and impart HOPE to ex-offenders as they meet them and their families in efforts to transform lives and educate society in ways to engage and support them. The program is grounded in the belief that with the proper assistance, ex-offenders returning to the community can overcome the many barriers to successful living that the incarceration experience can create.

HOPE for Prisoners offers each of their participants an 18-month commitment to partner with them and help them navigate the many challenges they will face during the reintegration process. At a minimum, each participant is required to complete a pre-vocational training workshop and is invited to participate in a mentoring program. Volunteer mentors provide the necessary emotional and social support for ex-offenders as they transition to community life. “Hopefuls” are assigned a team of mentors to help them set and reach goals and navigate the challenges faced during the reintegration process.

The secret behind Hope for Prisoners’ success is its partnership with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD). The agency has fully adopted Hope’s mission and vision and participates in every aspect of its programming. Ponder’s criminal background and time in prison convinced him that reform and success were connected, and he realized the benefit of a close relationship with the system that incarcerated him: today when he utters the word “police” it’s always followed by “our friends.”

The LVMPD is fully involved and invested in creating the environment of support and success that is the program’s “secret sauce.”

  • They have allowed HOPE for Prisoners to set up in the Clark County Detention Center to facilitate meetings, coordinate vocational training, more easily get input and feedback, and let the inmates know the kinds of resources available if they’re interested.
  • Dozens of police officers and officials serve as mentors for the program’s graduates to help make sure they succeed; the relationships start during training and extend throughout an 18-month period so that no graduate ever feels alone.
  • The monthly graduations are held at police headquarters and are heavily attended by officials and officers, many of whom address the event, its graduates, and their families.
  • This provides the foundation upon which HOPE for Prisoners addresses crime, redemption, families, and communities.

Mentoring services are provided for a full year through one-on-one sessions, peer-to-peer contact, and ongoing support groups designed to provide assistance throughout reintegration.  After one year of mentoring, “Hopefuls” are invited to participate in a 6-month “menternship” program strategically designed to train them to give back and become mentors themselves.

Other key components to HOPE for Prisoners’ success are their leadership training and job development services. Each year, thousands of men, women, and young adults are released into the community from the Las Vegas judicial system. Many of them lack the basic skill set and necessary know-how to become productive members of society, despite wanting to. Many lack the insight into what that productivity looks like.

The vision of HOPE for Prisoners is to empower returning ex-offenders and their families to create a successful future built on strategic leadership and character development.  They assist those fighting for a second chance, strengthen their communities, and create positive reference points where none existed before.

In addition to leadership development, HOPE for Prisoners offers numerous programs to enhance participant success including job hunting, entrepreneurship, computer skills, personal finance, and a myriad of life skills offerings.

HOPE for Prisoners staff also work to cultivate relationships with business owners and entrepreneurs throughout the community and seek out employers who are willing to partner with them to provide employment opportunities to their participants.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Bob Woodson’s Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise recently learned about this partnership between HOPE for Prisoners and the LVMPD. They were so inspired that Woodson recently sponsored a summit in Las Vegas that focused on repairing the breach between public safety organizations and the communities they serve. Officials and groups from Dallas, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Indianapolis attended. Madison County, Indiana’s Prosecuting Attorney shared best practices, and Hope for Prisoners spotlighted its partnership with the LVMPD.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas Criminal Justice program has been tracking the progress of HOPE for Prisoners for over a year now. They are looking at people who get a job, keep a job, and get promoted—and how much money they make along the way. Plus, they are collecting feedback from their supervisors, parole officers, and wardens. This is all in an effort to create success metrics for such programs and to sway public and corporate opinion on their social and economic ROI.

Ponder and Nathan are not the only people to commit to and institute these kinds of initiatives. According to Nathan, there are many other organizations in the country that actively hire people with criminal backgrounds, giving them a second chance in life. I wrote about Greyston Bakery’s success in a Forbes article last year.

Pamela Paulk, President of Johns Hopkins Medicine International, offers another great example of the success of ex-offender recruitment programs. She was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change for her work and advocacy in the area.

“First and foremost, this is a good business decision,” Paulk says. “These are good, loyal, solid workers. And I have the numbers to prove it.”

A five-year study of almost 500 ex-offenders hired showed a lower turnover for the first 40 months versus non-offenders. Out of 79 of the most serious ex-offenders over a three to six year period, 73 were still employed at Johns Hopkins at the end of the study with only one involuntary termination.

Paulk’s work has also been attributed to helping stabilize the otherwise at-risk community of East Baltimore where John Hopkins is based.


To successfully reintegrate ex-offenders back into society, a permanent change of behavior is required. Hope for Prisoners focuses on this, as did a Nevada-based six-month Marine-type boot camp for first time, non-violent felony offenders that Nathan previously worked with. 15 to 20 people were assigned each month, most of whom Nathan hired upon their “graduation.” He then provided mentoring services for them up to twelve months using probation officers, parole officers, ministers, Nathan, and two others on Nathan’s team.

Another mandate to successful reintegration is that those being released from prison must not go back into their old environment and element. Doing so creates a high probability of re-offence. The influence of bad circles of friends or circumstances can be too great a draw for someone that does not know another way of life outside of prison. They must set up a new life in a new neighborhood with new friends. All of the programs mentioned here deal with this, too.

Don’t Gamble, But Take Action

Nathan does not recommend that companies gamble by simply hiring ex-offenders and hoping for the best. He admits he got lucky with Tony. What he does recommend is that every company do their part to give people that qualify for it a second chance—to help get people off the streets, reduce crime, support families, build careers and mend the divide between law enforcement and the community. Doing this requires a very structured but worthwhile process. The ex-offenders that Nathan hired are some of the most engaged and best producers of the 125,000 people he has helped employ over his career. To reduce risk of failure, he started every ex-offender in an entry-level position. For example, he never hired such a person to be a maid in a hotel room when guests are not there. Instead, he placed them as outside cleaners, landscapers, mechanics, or kitchen help. As they proved themselves, they were promoted.

Hiring ex-offenders is no doubt a disruptive suggestion, but after getting to know Nathan, I am not at all surprised that he now sees his legacy in the movement. Nathan is committed to making a difference in the world. His entire career is evidence of this. We can’t keep treating society’s symptoms, we must address the causes. America’s prison systems are overrun. They are costing taxpayers billions. There is a dangerous divide between the community and the police sworn to protect it. Bringing together law enforcement, employers, and those who have served their time for something they may always regret, is the first step towards a cure.

If you still are struggling with a commitment to take on such an initiative, Nathan suggests that you ask yourself the following questions:

  • “Have you ever hired someone that you are not quite sure of and they turned out great?”
  • If you answered yes, there is little excuse not to try hiring at least one person who has paid the price and earned a second chance.
  • “Have you ever hired someone who passed a background check who ultimately was terminated for theft, poor performance or absenteeism?”
  • If you answered yes, why not try hiring at least one person who’s earned and knows the value of that second chance?

I was in the room when Nathan asked about 400 HR professionals how many had never driven after drinking a bit too much. Only four people raised their hand. In many cases, Nathan explained, whether someone is a convict or not is only the difference between getting caught or not—essentially, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In addition to the societal and organizational benefits explained above, corporations may receive additional tax benefits for each ex-offender they hire. Businesses that hire workers with barriers to employment, including individuals with criminal records, may be eligible for a federal tax credit of $1,200 to $9,600 per qualifying employee. They may also benefit from a Federal Bonding Program that encourages businesses to hire at-risk, hard-to-place job seekers by providing insurance policies that protect against employee theft or dishonesty. The bonds provide six months of coverage ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, are available at no cost to the job applicant or the employer, and require no paperwork on the part of the employer.

Businesses may also be eligible for other state tax credits, too.

Despite all the great work being done by HOPE for Prisoners and people like Nathan and Paulk to help transition ex-offenders successfully back into society, it has been noted that these efforts are best served when offenders start their rehabilitation/reentry process the day they enter prison.

Hiring ex-offenders may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely a topic of much discussion today. Nathan summed it up best: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you always should; but sometimes, because you can, you absolutely should.” The real crime may be not hiring someone who’s earned and wants that second chance.

For more information, visit and check out my book How to Find a Job, Career and Life You Love.


Published on Forbes, 17 November 2016

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