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'Practicing What They Preach': A Look Inside Koch’s Second-Chance Hiring Efforts

May 21, 2021

min read

Monica Stopczynski was hiring for an open manufacturing position at Koch Industries when she found a young man whose job skills and enthusiastic attitude made him a perfect fit. She made him an offer and set up a routine background check. That’s when the rosy scenario dimmed.

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“I could feel his energy just drain out of our conversation,” recalls Monica, a talent solutions recruiter for Koch. “He said, ‘I’ve been down this road before with other companies.’”

That road was often a dead end because he had a criminal conviction on his record. But this time, he was evaluated on his potential, not his past.

In February 2020, Koch developed and deployed the "Creating Second Chances" strategy, which guides Koch companies in making a concerted effort to recruit and hire formerly incarcerated people. These former inmates total 9% of the U.S. population. The strategy is rooted in the belief that everyone in society wins when individuals are afforded the opportunity to realize their potential and positively contribute to their communities.

 

Setting up for success

A few of the steps Koch takes to make its reentry hiring successful include: not disqualifying job seekers with criminal pasts; removing unintended barriers in hiring practices; ensuring employees with criminal records are not stigmatized in the workplace; and making Koch's commitment public.

“A lot of companies can hire and say that they do hire individuals with criminal records, but it really takes that conviction of a company saying, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to hire talent that has a record,’” says Harley Blakeman, the founder and head of Honest Jobs Inc., an Ohio-based company that partners with Koch and other employers to place formerly incarcerated job seekers.

“It’s something Koch does an excellent job of,” Harley says. “Koch has just gone above and beyond.”

Koch posts hundreds of job openings each month on a nationwide online job listing run by Honest Jobs, and in return, Honest Jobs sends about 40 candidates a month to the attention of Koch, Harley says.

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John Buckley, who leads the creating second chances strategy within Koch, says it is “truly a mutually beneficial proposition."

Koch's dedication to reentry hiring is “truly a mutually beneficial proposition,” says John Buckley, outreach strategies manager for Koch. “We can get quality candidates or actual employees who will be very thankful because of people taking a chance on them,” he says. 

“Second, it’s truly beneficial to the individual in the sense of really leveling the playing field for them to get quality and suitable employment,” he says. “The third part of the mutually beneficial relationship is the gain for society itself and the local communities."

More broadly, he says, quality employment reduces recidivism, making communities safer, and reduces the costs to communities paying to keep people in jail.

“There’s so many benefits to this,” he says. “It’s just an opportunity we can’t pass up.”

To facilitate reentry hiring, Koch is working to remove all sorts of unintended barriers that might rule out otherwise qualified job candidates. One such barrier might be specifying how many years of experience or how much education a job candidate must have to qualify.

Monica meets with hiring supervisors at Koch to design job opening descriptions and address issues like experience or education requirements. “We all fall into traps of ‘What do I want in this candidate? Well, I want this person to have five years’ experience. I want this person to have a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree,’” she says. “If we think about it, are they things that we need? Tell me the reasoning.” 

Instead, Monica challenges managers to evaluate candidates more holistically. “What if this person was in your industry for 20 years and never went to school and has all the knowledge and skills that they didn't get in a formal school setting? I try to remove those barriers.” she says. “If we have those barriers in place, we risk missing out on really good talent.” 

 

Taking a closer look

More than 650,000 people are released from our nation’s jails and prisons every year — more than 10,000 people each week, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. About two-thirds of those are arrested again within three years, a recidivism rate fueled by a lack of employment, housing, mentoring and support on many levels, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York advocacy group.

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According to that group’s research, between 60% and 75% of formerly incarcerated people still do not have a job up to a year after their release.

“Our initiative really is a win-win,” Monica says. “We give them opportunities. We create safer communities, better communities, stronger communities. Then everybody wins.”

Also, Harley adds: “At a time when every company is struggling to find and retain talent, it costs too much to overlook 9% of the U.S. workforce.”

There’s no shortage of job vacancies in the United States. Koch, for example, has about 4,000 job openings, of which 3,000 are in manufacturing — a sector Monica says is a good fit for the skills within this demographic.

If a background check turns up a criminal record, conviction or prison sentence, Monica doesn’t turn away but instead takes a closer look to understand exactly what happened and if it will affect the candidate’s ability to meaningfully contribute in the role. 

In the case of the manufacturing job applicant mentioned at the top of this story, his conviction stemmed from an ill-fated night at a party where a fight broke out and one partygoer struck another. Police charged everyone at the party with assault with a deadly weapon, even those unentangled in the violence.

Years later, Koch believed that criminal record was no reason to disqualify the job hunter, and he was hired. “We all make wrong choices,” Monica says, “and we hopefully learn from those choices. I don’t feel like we should define people by their mistakes.”

Koch made 1,400 job offers between January and the end of March this year to people who had something involving the criminal justice system show up in their background checks. According to John, of those 1,400 people, only 39 were not hired – a strong testament to the Creating Second Chances strategy.

 

Growing a network

Koch’s work goes beyond its own businesses. It partners with projects such as The Last Mile, which teaches job skills to inmates in the Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility. Koch also has worked with the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office to create job opportunities for people with criminal records and with Dave’s Killer Bread, a bakery in Oregon dedicated to second-chance employment.

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Graduates of The Last Mile program at Topeka Women's Correctional Facility celebrate their achievement.

Koch recently became a founding partner of the Second Chance Business Coalition, an effort to help employers expand their hiring and advancement of people with criminal records. SCBC is designed to share practices, experiences and expertise with business leaders, talent acquisition teams and human resources professionals so other companies can pursue more reentry hiring. Through SCBC, Koch can provide insights on recruitment, risk mitigation, partnerships, mentoring, hiring incentives, interviewing, background checks and making supportive adjustments to the workplace culture.

In addition, the Charles Koch Institute, a research and grant-making organization founded by Koch Industries Chairman and CEO Charles Koch, recently partnered with the Manufacturing Institute, a national trade group, to promote second chance hiring. The Institute designs and holds roundtable discussions, webinars, leadership events and pilot programs to share knowledge throughout the industry.

For reentry hiring to succeed, businesses need to spread the message throughout the company that top management is aligned and committed to the effort, Harley said.

“The people at Koch practice what they preach,” Harley says. “They’re doing it. They’re hiring formerly incarcerated people to the benefit of all involved.”