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What this CEO has learned from hiring people with criminal backgrounds

The CEO of meal delivery service Fresh n’ Lean shares the lessons she learned from hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.

What this CEO has learned from hiring people with criminal backgrounds
Laureen Asseo [Photo: courtesy of Fresh n’ Lean]

If the prison population of the U.S. were a city, it would be one of the 10 biggest in the country. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise to encounter some job applicants with a criminal background. About 70 million Americans have a criminal record.

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The instinctive reaction to an application from someone with a record is to refuse them. Most people accept that an old marijuana possession charge is very different from attempted murder. Yet many employers are tempted to institute a blanket “no criminal records” rule.

But if you do, you’re not only passing up the opportunity to help people turn their lives around. You could be passing up assets to your business too. As a CEO who hires formerly incarcerated individuals, I’ve learned this firsthand.

A criminal record doesn’t always signal bad character

Not all crimes are committed with bad intention. That means that not all people with criminal records are bad. They’re just people.

Our production manager Dom puts it best: “You can’t judge a book by its cover. Just because they made a mistake early in their life doesn’t define who they are now. A lot of people who are hard workers aren’t given a chance because they look at the background. That background sticks around for years, and they could be completely different, yet they’re judged on what they did 10 years ago, not who they are now.”

I try to come from a place of nonjudgment and see all people for who they are. As long as someone doesn’t pose a threat to my employees and me, I’ll consider employing them.

People appreciate a second chance, and their productivity proves it

I’ve learned that many people who have run into issues with the law do so out of survival. Unfortunately, society is quick to judge and label.

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Try breaking this cycle and show them respect. You’ll find that they’ll show you the same in return. Currently, about 40% of the 150 employees in the manufacturing, production, and fulfillment departments at Fresh n’ Lean have a criminal background. Many of those employees dedicate a lot of hours to the business and work very hard.

One of our production employees is a perfect example of this. After struggling with drugs for many years (and losing several jobs as a result), he came out of prison and set about getting his life back on track. Unsurprisingly, many rejected his job application. But I saw something in him and offered him a job. He was so eager to show me that my faith in him wasn’t misplaced that, by the end of his first month, he was getting more done in a single day than what other long-term employees could manage in three.

Many of them become loyal employees

When you give somebody with a criminal background a job, many of them don’t take the opportunity to break the cycle for granted. When people realize they have a chance to turn their lives around and make it better, they often take it. Based on my experience, this translates to loyal employees who are willing and happy to go the extra mile for the company.

Many of my employees with criminal backgrounds end up moving up the ranks. Our production manager Dom epitomizes this benefit. He didn’t expect to be hired. Five years later, he’s still here. He shows more dedication to the company than most of the employees I’ve had in my entire time running Fresh n’ Lean. I know I can depend on him, day in and day out.

Yes, you’ll run into some issues—but the benefits far outweigh the risks

One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard is that hiring formerly incarcerated individuals invites issues. I’ll admit that we’ve experienced this. We’ve had a couple of employees turn back to drugs or the streets. One guy was heavily under the influence of drugs, telling me I was “his swan” and he wants to “protect my village.” (We had to call the cops and get a restraining order, but that was the end of it.)

But here’s the thing: after almost 10 years with Fresh n’ Lean, the “good times” absolutely outweigh the “bad times” (by a landslide.) There can be problems, but as long as you do your due diligence during the hiring process, they will be rare. Hiring someone carries a degree of risk, and employees without a criminal record can also cause you and your company issues and headaches.

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Tips for hiring people with criminal backgrounds

So how can you make sure that you’re only hiring those who are committed to improving themselves? For me, the key has been to pay attention during the hiring stage. Part of this is just being a good judge of character, but there are some specific things to look out for, too. For starters, I believe that actions speak louder than words. As a result, I’m always looking for evidence of things they’ve done to turn themselves around. For example, have they gone to counseling or volunteered?

I also pay attention to how they interact with others before and after the interview. Do they cooperate well? Are they friendly, or do they have the potential to cause confrontation? Do they open up in the interview? Talking openly about why they did what they did and how they want to recover is a good sign, because that usually shows that they genuinely want to get better.

It’s also important to look at the type of offense. For example, I won’t hire people who committed crimes with malicious intent. However, I would consider people with driving offenses, misdemeanors, possession charges, or theft—since those aren’t malicious in nature.

Lastly, it’s essential to offer support. If you want them to be loyal employees, you have to be willing to do the work to help them develop and succeed in their role.


Laureen Asseo is the CEO of Fresh n’ Lean.

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