July 8, 2021

Hiring the ’Overcomers’: Why Some of Your Best Employees Will Be Found in Rehabs and Prisons

Many employers today would likely be reluctant to hire a woman with eight felony convictions, a history of 20 years of crack and heroin addiction, or one who has worked in the sex trade. And if a company were to take “that risk,” the motivation would likely be to help the poor woman as part of a philanthropic or corporate social responsibility initiative.

But the reality is these women overcomers are the ones benefitting their employers. Women who have overcome devastating pasts are some of the best employees in the workplace. Untapped talent lies in some of the darkest places. Women who have been historically marginalized and women who have faced overwhelming challenges are the pearls of great wisdom to employers. Businesses need to remember: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

For 18 years, one of us ran a housing program for women overcomers in South Texas. The women we met in the housing program came through the fires of devastation and emerged with a passion for life that was unstoppable, along with some valuable, unique skills. Women came to us with a desire for a better life, thinking they needed our help. We provided services and assistance but quickly realized these were incredibly resilient, brilliant women. They needed us for a short time, but the world needed them for the long term. It only makes sense: Surviving and overcoming 20 years of crack addiction and life on the streets requires resilience most of us can’t even imagine, along with resourcefulness, creativity, and tenacity. The women we met told stories about making quick decisions and thinking fast to avoid getting arrested or killed.

In the beginning, most of the jobs that women coming through our organization found were low-paying and had bad hours, no benefits, and no room for advancement. Instead of feeling like we hit a dead end, we changed our approach. We found ways to tap into the unique skills and attributes these women developed in their challenging pasts and helped them translate those into skills for the workplace. It worked. We leveraged relationships to encourage supporters to hire our women, and several did. Eventually, it became common to hear, “The women we hire from your program are some of our best employees.” Why wouldn’t they be? They were finally working in good jobs and with good pay; they would work hard and do anything to keep that stability for themselves and their children.

Once, one of us heard a single mom on welfare tell the story of her family giving up on her. Even her own father said he was sure she would be that woman sitting on a sidewalk begging with a sign while flies crawled over her kids. Tears filled her eyes as she shared the words, and her shame was palpable. Then, she looked up and said, “But I know there is something good in me.” The voices of doubt and rejection played over and over in her mind, but they could not silence the one thought: “You are somebody.” This woman desperately clung to the belief she was somebody. When she was finally given a chance for a new future, she knew it was her time. She would show the world she was somebody and had something to offer. Her dedication to her work was fierce, and the rewards were great for all involved. With the support of people who believed in her, she went on to graduate from college and landed a great job that she worked at for years before starting her own business.

Everyone benefits from this approach, not just today but for generations to come. When women have better jobs, their children have better futures, employers gain highly effective and loyal employees, and communities flourish economically.

In a season where workers are in short demand and employers are desperate, someone needs to tell companies, “Maybe you are looking in the wrong places.” Some of your best employees will be found in rehabs, prisons, homes for women exiting the sex industry, or low-income neighborhoods. If solving your human capital shortages is appealing, then prepare yourself to hire overcomers — because your competitors already are.

Business leaders, you might miss your next top performer if you do not think it is possible for an overcomer to successfully move from the shelter to the corner office. She might just hold the key to increasing morale, productivity, and profits.

Shannon Deer, PhD, CPA, is the interim associate dean for undergraduate programs and a clinical assistant professor for Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. Cheryl Miller owns Quantum Circles Consulting and Training. Together, they are the authors of the upcoming book, Business Doing Good: Engaging Women and Elevating Communities (August 15, 2021).

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Shannon Deer, PhD, CPA, is the interim associate dean for undergraduate programs and a clinical assistant professor for Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. She is an award-winning professor who prepares experienced professionals in Texas A&M's MBA and other master's programs for successful careers in business. She also conducts executive development training for leading companies. Shannon's research focuses on women's transition experiences after exiting the sex trade or sex trafficking situations and the impact (positive and negative) businesses have on survivors in their work transition.

Cheryl Miller owns Quantum Circles Consulting and Training, which provides training on topics that increase opportunities for transformation in three areas: economic development for the marginalized, effective communication focusing on the facilitation of conflict, and restorative justice. Cheryl has been a volunteer mediator for 20 years and has over 1000 hours of experience of mediation with victims of violent crimes and their offenders. Cheryl was also the executive director of a housing program for 18 years. Cheryl became inspired to help other women after she overcame her own challenging circumstances.