February 27, 2017

Re-entry employment offers second chances, benefits community

Cheryl McDonald

Three and a half years ago, I was working in human resources for the Hartford Public Schools. My husband Jamie left his stable, corporate career to pursue his passion for cooking barbecue and needed to hire staff for the restaurant. I posted a help wanted advertisement with Hartford's adult education department and we hired Bear's first employee. Not long afterward, I met a woman at the gym and decided to hire her. These were our first two employees. Both had criminal records.

Bear's Smokehouse was successfully launched in no small part due to the hard work and dedication of these two individuals and those that followed. Upon opening our second location in downtown Hartford, we had many applicants, including quite a few with criminal backgrounds. We continued to not discriminate based on background and instead look for the candidates we believed would work hard. At any given time approximately 30-40 percent of our staff has a criminal record. It is thanks to our entire staff including these employees that Bear's has continued to grow and expand to now include three locations (Windsor, Hartford, S. Windsor) and the recently opened Blind Pig Pizza Company in Hartford.

Through my work at Hartford Public Schools, I learned that when making decisions, it was important to ask insightful questions that help you to understand the applicant. In my screening for Bear's I ask questions of those with a criminal background: "What makes things different this time?" and "What lessons have you learned from your experience?" I also have built strong relationships with local nonprofits like Open Hearth that provide the ongoing support to ensure that the applicants they have worked with are job ready. At times, all you can really rely on is your gut, and in the case of Bear's, those decisions have been critical to our ongoing success.

It is our belief that the hiring of candidates with a history of incarceration benefits the entire community. Providing employment gives the person a sense of purpose and pride, and an opportunity to be part of something positive sometimes for the first time in their lives. This in turn leads to a lower chance of repeat offenses.

However, providing employment opportunities impacts their entire family, especially their children who now can view their parent as a positive role model and a contributing member of society. When I hear from a man that his biggest regret is missing his family and he wants a better life for his children, he wants to set a better example, he wants to see his children or grandchildren grow up, I respect that.

Knowing how difficult it is for many people leaving the prison system to find that first job, employing staff with a criminal past has been personally fulfilling. As someone with a human-resources background, I was taught to screen for skills, but now as someone with a personal investment in a growing company I have learned to hire for character first then skills. You cannot teach character. I try to find individuals who are working to better themselves and the lives of their families.

At the end of the day, when I go home I did more than just make customers happy with our brisket and mac. Our staff members who have been previously incarcerated are good people who are incredibly loyal, responsible, and hardworking and possess "get-it-done" attitudes. These are the types of employees I want on my team. For Bear's, working with returning citizens has made all the difference.

If your business is currently hiring based on qualifications, ability, and potential for success, not past mistakes, please consider attending the Reentry Employment and Resource Fair on Tuesday, March 7, at the Marriott Hartford Downtown beginning at 10:30 a.m. For more information, contact Rob Michalman at the Chrysalis Center at (860) 263-4682 or rmichalman@chrysaliscenterct.org.

Cheryl McDonald is the co-owner of Bear's Smokehouse BBQ.

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