It began when my friend choked on her espresso drink, spraying the concoction of caramel and chocolate all over my face. “So it’s not the most accurate word to use,” I said, wiping the brown liquid off with a paper napkin. “Okay, I’ll say it again. Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve a rap sheet.”
Until I heard the CEO of MOD Pizza speak about his company’s practice of hiring workers with criminal records and even felony convictions, I had never given a second thought to how labeling and pigeonholing have directly impacted my life. “Second chance,” Scott Svenson said. “We give people with troubled pasts a second chance to become successful.”
For days afterward, I mulled over the MOD model and gushed over Svenson and his leadership team’s willingness to look past their employees’ rap sheets. “I get it,” I said, recalling the challenges of persuading prospective employers to hire me. “When I left academia, I had the hardest time convincing people that as a former professor, I possess skills that are valuable and useful for the business community. If people didn’t give me, a highly educated, law-abiding citizen, a chance to prove myself, can you imagine the kind of hurdle that people with criminal records face?”
Even now, I still recall that first interview. “You teach, right?” the prospective employer asked, pointing to the assistant professor title on my resume. “Yes,” I responded. “But I also designed syllabi for my classes; I prepared lectures and graded exams; I coached students; I collaborated with colleagues; I sat on university committees; I attended and presented at conferences; and I conducted research and published results in scholarly journals.” I thought I had made an impression, but he then asked, “But you don’t really have any practical experience, do you?” Disappointed, I tried once more to convince him, explaining that I was highly trainable. But he couldn’t take that risk, he said. He needed someone who wouldn’t need much training and onboarding. I understood his concerns, but nine months later, I was not so empathetic. I just wanted a second chance, to engage with someone who would see my potential and give me an opportunity to prove myself. And it arrived in the tenth month after months of rejections. I finally landed a job at the University of Washington, managing a program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A year later, I successfully transitioned to the corporate world.
Since my first transition, I have made a few more, and my decisions have hung like the shackles around my life, choking off my potential choices like a rap sheet. A professor who became a market researcher, a market researcher who became a writer, a writer who hopes to defy the odds of becoming an author. A recruiter recently found me on LinkedIn and reached out. “How should I sell you?” she asked. I saw her struggling and admitted that I have made it difficult for professionals like her to pigeonhole me. I have “this” but not “that,” and damn it, how would she push for a candidate who started in academia and found her first break in the beverage industry but switched to IT and then jumped to start-up and writing? Whether she saw my potential or not, she was unable or unwilling to build a compelling narrative about me to sell to her client. She asked for my résumé, and I shared it with her. She never followed up; neither did I. I suspected that she was looking for someone with very specific skills—a perfect match with most of the bullet points in the job description.
“My rap sheet,” I joked with a friend. As if I had articulated something that should not be vocalized, she whispered to me a caution to tread lightly. “Ex-cons have a much bigger hill to climb,” she said. She surprised me, because while I didn’t disagree that individuals with criminal records face a herculean task of persuading prospective employers (or anyone) to give them a second chance, I was struck by her use of language. My words focused on the offenses; hers pertained to the offenders. The former marked the offending behavior; the latter stigmatized the person.
As offshoring and outsourcing continue, many people will be forced to seek a second or third career. Successful transition is a long and difficult journey, and at some point we will need a good Samaritan, like Scott Svenson, who will look past our rap sheets, be they criminal records or a series of job titles and positions, and give us a second chance. Many people are attracted to a book by its intriguing title or enticing cover, but it is time for us to choose the book for its content—the characters, the plot, the themes, and the writing. And sometimes, for the flaws.
Best wishes in 2017.