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Five tips to become a second chance employer

September 4, 2021

Pallet Founder and CEO Amy King shares how to tap into a hidden workforce.
Pallet manufacturing specialists working at our factory headquarters.

Pallet's nontraditional workforce is an integral part of our success. Temporary shelters are the foundation of our people-first restorative communities across the country for unhoused people. Because our team members have lived experience in homelessness, Pallet makes a product that uniquely meets the needs of people who have been living on the street. Their input is essential.

As a second chance friendly employer, we believe potential — not the past — defines people's futures. More than 80% of our employees are formerly homeless, in recovery, or previously involved in the justice system.

People who have had to live outside, navigate the prison system, or recover from substance use disorder have incredible survival tactics, are resilient and intelligent. Amy King, Pallet founder and CEO, says those skill sets can be repurposed, “The best possible candidate on paper is not always the best possible candidate for your culture, for what you want to do, for your mission, for your vision and your values. And it could be that you need a little bit of both. You need some that are really skilled, and then you need some really creative people.”

Amy has shared her expertise with companies considering tapping into this hidden workforce. Here are her five tips to get started:

#1 Hire in groups, not just one person

An employer may prefer to "test the waters" of being a second chance employer by starting with a pilot program. Amy cautions against this.

"It's not going to work because you've singled them out. There's one single person with this diverse background. They're all alone in the workplace, and people aren't stupid. They're going to know where they come from, and they're going to understand kind of why they're different, and they're going to get singled out. That's just human nature. It's unfortunate, but it's true."

#2 Hire for management, not solely entry-level positions

"One of our biggest keys to success here has been elevating people with lived experience to positions of leadership and authority. So that someone coming in at an entry-level position sees someone like them on the board, in the leadership position, as a manager, supervisor. And they say, 'Oh, that person's like me, and they're my boss, or they're my boss's boss or whatever the case might be.' I think that's critical to success."

#3 Create a flexible staffing strategy

Suppose an employer hires people who have recently exited the criminal justice system. In that case, they need to utilize a staffing strategy that allows for unplanned absences. For example, this type of employee may need to complete court-ordered requirements such as outpatient treatment, parenting classes, or drug testing. Because these requirements often occur during business hours, the employee will need to be away with the confidence that it won't put their job at risk. Employers should accommodate these population-specific needs.

Amy first encountered this particular challenge at Square Peg Construction, a general contracting company she co-founded with her husband, Brady.

"Instead of fighting it, we said, 'Let's just accommodate for that.' We overstaffed so that if someone was gone, we could still perform on our schedule. In other words, we created the staffing strategy in such a way that we could still complete our work on time, on budget, regardless of ten percent of people being out of office."

#4 Create an inclusive environment

"Inclusive in the sense that you've created a space where people can feel welcome and comfortable. They can be themselves wholly and completely in their place of employment and not feel like they have to conform to whatever that environment is, which is not traditional corporate culture."

Acceptance is a crucial component and an understanding that everyone didn't have access to the same opportunities.

#5 Prepare to apply for tax credits

Federal and state tax credits are available to employers who hire people from groups who face significant barriers to employment. Pallet utilizes the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a federal program. The credit ranges from $1,200 to $9,600 depending on the targeted group hired, including formerly incarcerated people, vocational rehabilitation referrals, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients.

Pallet uses the tax credit to fund programs and services provided to staff, such as manufacturing training, life skills training, and personal support services.

Tax credit aside, Amy says using diversified hiring practices makes Pallet a versatile company. Bringing in people who can process and problem solve with compassion, sensitivity, and creativity is vital.

Part II: FAQ’s about becoming a second chance employer

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