When Michael Taylor, a Cincinnati native, left prison in 2010 after serving time for breaking and entering and burglary, he was committed to turning his life around. But Taylor felt pigeonholed; whenever a potential employer caught wind of his offenses, they immediately wrote him off. He eventually managed to get rehired as a supervisor at his former workplace by glossing over his record—but after his felony was uncovered, two armed guards swiftly escorted him off the premises. Though Taylor desperately wanted to earn his own way, he felt lost in a hopeless spiral of judgment.
Taylor’s struggle to rebuild his life is far from uncommon. Each year, more than 600,000 people transition out of prisons and back into society. And when you include misdemeanor arrests, nearly 70 million Americans have criminal records of some kind. For these Americans, real opportunities to rebuild their life are hard to find, and being lucky enough to land a job still isn’t a golden ticket: Hours at work are often unstable or unpredictable, pay is likely minimal, and punishment for insignificant offenses like tardiness for a flat tire is often extreme. These realities effectively lock former convicts into a form of “perpetual labor market punishment” and sink their communities into a deeper cycle of generational poverty.
This is an ongoing crisis—a wound that will not heal unless we as a community rethink and reengineer the very framework upon which we operate. Simply put, we need to end the prison-to-poverty pipeline. Full stop.
There is no other conscionable alternative.
But there’s good news: Those of us in the business community can affect real change by hiring the formerly incarcerated, or Second Chance workers. And it’s not just a civic responsibility—it makes savvy business sense, too.
Determined to help
When I founded Nehemiah Manufacturing with my business partner in 2009, we knew the why before the what. We decided part of our mission was to give back to Cincinnati’s inner city—I’d spent my entire career in the city and raised my family here, and I knew how the negative effects of gentrification and lack of good jobs were affecting the community. But we didn’t know how to help. So we approached the Cincinnati city government with a single question: What do you need most? The answer: Jobs for the hard-to-hire.
And so Nehemiah and its mission was born.
We’re a Cincinnati-based manufacturing company that builds consumer goods, and focuses on hiring formerly incarcerated people, plus those with a history of addiction or other life struggles. And we’re devoted to providing them with a full range of services—like housing, healthcare and mental services—to help them rebuild their lives. Today our company, which has a portfolio of home and baby care products in the Tide family, among others, is made up of nearly 80% second chance workers. Since the program’s inception, we’ve hired approximately 270 full time employees and countless additional temp workers.
We feel really good about supporting our employees, but we’re also thrilled about how it’s boosting our business. In the goods manufacturing space, turnover runs between 40 to 90% per year, representing a sizable, perpetual hemorrhage that jeopardizes operating efficiency—ballooning HR expenses and commitment and diminishing employee and management morale. At Nehemiah, with annual revenues exceeding $60 million, we boast almost 170 Second Chance employees working across formulation and manufacturing lines, eCommerce, and leadership positions. And our turnover rate is five times less than the industry average. Our hires are happier, more engaged, more committed to their work because we give them the tools to succeed at work and in life, from housing and drug rehabilitation services to mental health support.
The benefit to our company isn’t just employee satisfaction; we’ve seen tremendous support from consumers as well. With our country’s racial reckoning and consumers becoming increasingly values-driven, any and every step business leaders can take to be more socially responsible—from racial equity training to choosing sustainable practices to, yes, advocating for formerly incarcerated employees—gives people more incentive to support their brand.
But as a profit-for-a-purpose enterprise, Nehemiah’s community impact is held at pace with our growth. To scale our mission beyond the company’s four walls, we started Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, which currently works with more than 70 companies to educate and implement Second Chance hiring programs. This model has helped business leaders elevate equity by uplifting the communities they serve and see great outcomes to their bottom line—proving that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Often, companies working with Nehemiah and Beacon of Hope will ask, I love the idea and support the cause, but where do we even start? The short answer is: Start with one employee, and grow from there.
5 steps to a Second Chance
But the more nuanced answer is: Making a commitment requires building a system that will support Second Chance. Here are the five steps we suggest all businesses consider implementing:
- Start with community partners. By identifying and reaching out to local social service agencies interested in working with your business, you immediately gain a breadth of knowledge and expertise about supporting the Second Chance community, whether it’s with job training, housing or food assistance, or mental-health counseling. Remember, these agencies and services want to help you help the community.
- Develop listening sessions. Offering a job to someone trying to turn their life around is just half the battle. Like with any employee, to retain them you’ll need to invest in them. And as with any successful relationship, it all starts with listening. Sit with them; listen to them. Understand their unique experiences that brought them to this point and the challenges they face in and outside of work. Identify ways to help them overcome those barriers. Remember, a silver-bullet benefits plan does not exist—you’ll need to meet your Second Chance employees where they are in life and walk from there, together.
- Provide a clear career path. Having actionable goals, training incentives, and a clear career path creates healthy motivation and engagement. Ennui often leads to complacency, disengagement, and turnover. Challenge your employees to be better every day by equipping them with the education and incentives to progress.
- Learn as you grow. Continue to ask employees what they need, and structure ad hoc employee benefits around them. At Nehemiah, we’re constantly changing our approach and what we bring in house and our community partners. Remember, having the flexibility to change what isn’t working is key when shifting a company’s culture.
- Cultivate a culture of care. By investing in employees and learning about their struggles and how you can support them, you create a culture of care. Lifting up one other person is the first step in taking care of us all. By integrating Second Chance workers into your workforce, you’re helping your company grow, our communities heal, and our country prosper.
These five steps have helped the Second Chance workers at Nehemiah build back their life, including Michael Taylor, who has been promoted nine times in the past nine years. He bought his first car and house and is happily married to his wife who he met at Nehemiah—all since joining the company. Today he serves as Nehemiah’s Director of Operations. It’s time that we—business leaders—come together to help provide the infrastructure to support our formerly incarcerated community members and achieve a more equitable future.
Dan Meyer is the founder and CEO of Nehemiah, a Cincinnati-based manufacturing company that employs formerly incarcerated people and offers in-house social services to help them build back their life. It’s nonprofit arm, the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, works with more than 70 brands to support their efforts to do the same.