'Don't ask, don't tell' policy is leading to job opportunities

Hiring the right person for a job can be tricky, but one Canadian employer has found success with his don't-ask, don't-tell policy.

Dan Rashovich, an industrial account manager with employee placement firm ATS Reliance, which has offices in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, says he is proud to have given people a chance who might have had trouble finding work elsewhere because of their criminal records.

Rashovich used to manage a day-labour company in Regina. "When I was sending people out (to a job), I never asked what they did. I never asked: 'What was your issue?' " he recalls.

Now, he adds, with the federal Privacy Act, "you can only go so far during an interview. From experience, I don't think they (employees) have to disclose (that they have a record.) But if the company asks for a background check, then it's going to come up."

Photo courtesy of Fred Cattrall
An offender works in the CORCAN textiles production shop in the Drummond Institution in Drummondville, Que.

Now arranging full-time job placements in Alberta, Rashovich says although it may be difficult to break through some barriers, there are opportunities out there for ex-offenders.

"Certain doors are probably closed at certain companies because they want background checks for whatever reason."

But the majority of companies don't ask for such checks, he says, and in some cases, only the ex-inmate is to blame if word gets out. "If the guy wants to advertise that he's an ex-con, well, that could create some stigma or problems ... some of these guys almost talk like it's some sort of badge of honour or something."

Rashovich's experience in hiring ex-offenders has been positive, and he adds that just because someone has a record doesn't mean they are a bad person or will be a bad employee.

"I had a guy last week who had something on his criminal record (from) about four or five years ago - an assault charge or something, he got in a fight. That would've come up (on a check), and it did, and they (a prospective employer) wouldn't hire him. Now, it's not like he's an ex-con, (but) he had something on his record."

In some cases, an ex-offender can get his or her record cleared.

"There's a place here in Calgary called the Pardon Depot (Canadian Legal Resource Centre Inc.), and with certain paperwork, they can get certain offences pardoned," says Rashovich. If a person has a letter from an employer, "and it relates to him getting a job, a lot of times it will expedite (the pardoning process)."

Between April 2005 and February 2006, CORCAN, a rehabilitation program of Correctional Service Canada (CSC), placed 1,470 ex-offenders in "real jobs," says Irene Klassen, CSC's director of employment and employability. She adds that hiring an ex-offender is no more risky than hiring anyone else.

"Who do we (really) know?" she asks. "You hire somebody, you're taking a risk. You don't know who your neighbour is.

"There are issues (with hiring ex-offenders), but is there a higher risk? According to our focus group, the employers that we met with (said) it's just like hiring anybody. It might work out, it might not work out."

Irene Klassen

While serving their time in a federal institution, inmates may find employment in kitchens, in maintenance services, or in CORCAN's production facilities, making items such as furniture, clothing and linens. They could also work in the area of construction, installing waterlines or building housing and institutional buildings.

"We try to mirror a real work situation so that, once they come out, they're better able to be employable," says Klassen, who adds that inmates in employment programs may also receive certain third-party certifications such as Foodsafe, a training program for workers and managers in the food-services industry.

Employers don't necessarily want the most educated workers, adds Klassen. Instead, to be the most employable, "you want to be able to get along with others and you want the right attitude. If you've got the right attitude, they (employers) are willing to train and to invest."

CORCAN employs about 4,000 inmates during a year, but more inmates work in other employment programs around the prisons. "Generally most people want to be busy and want to be contributing," Klassen says.

Getting ex-offenders back into the workforce is a win-win situation, adds Klassen. Statistics show employment helps keep ex-offenders on the straight and narrow.

In a June 2005 report from CSC, Klassen says 85 per cent of offenders who found post-release employment have not returned to an institution.

For employers, ex-offenders are a large resource pool. "There is a labour shortage. These people need jobs. They're willing to work," she says. "And employers are out there, ready and able to hire offenders."

David Rooney, now working as a journalist in central B.C., once served 13 months of a five-year sentence for bank robbery and forgery at the Bowden Institution, a medium-security federal penitentiary 100 kilometres north of Calgary. He says serving time was hard, but making it on the outside once released is even harder.

Time has no meaning on the "inside," says Rooney, but dealing with people is the toughest challenge when adjusting to post-release life.

"Relationships on the inside are, shall we say, governed by a very elaborate set of rules," he says. "You don't get into other people's faces unless you're looking for serious trouble. Whereas, if you're dealing with people on the outside, they'll come up and tell you to f--- off, they'll stare at you, they'll do whatever they want. It's very difficult for some people to deal with that."

David Rooney

No matter how socially adjusted offenders were before they went in, Rooney says, "once they've been incarcerated for any length of time, they find going out back onto the street results in what's called 'street shock.' " Other challenges, he says, are overcoming the stigma associated with incarceration, and facing the fact that being an ex-offender means things won't come easily.

"The success a prisoner has really depends on his mental attitude," adds Rooney. "If you're really honest with yourself and with others about who you are and what you've done and you can get past the anger ... (then) it's OK.

"But you've got to be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. Some guys can't do that. They want to go right back to big money, to whatever it is they were doing, whether it's dealing drugs or running a motorcycle gang."

Once released, Rooney spent a year in low-paying jobs, until one company gave him a break in their store, allowing him to handle money, even though he admits he could have "robbed them blind."

Any employer takes a risk when hiring, Rooney says. "You just don't know. A lot of people who have been inside can be very charming, superficially. And it depends on the person."

Criminal checks will only state whether someone has a record, he notes, and may not even specify the type of crime.

Instead of relying on that document, Rooney recommends employers, "at the minimum, (get) some solid references, personal recommendations from people who know the individual well."

Rashovich of ATS Reliance, however, says he intends to continue with his open-door policy. "If people want to work, they want to work. Just come in. Everybody's got something in their closet at one time or another. Some people just got caught."

(Nicole Strandlund can be reached at nicole@businessedge.ca)