Category Archives: taking responsibility

The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       — John C. Maxwell, author

freefall2

Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, personal responsibility, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

How to answer interview questions about your criminal record

A reader recently wrote to ask about how to deal with what he referred to as “the inevitable questions about my record” during a  job search. Since this is a major hurdle  for most ex-offenders, I thought it might be worth sharing what most re-entry experts tell their clients.

Be honest.   Background checks are simply too easy to do these days to run the risk of being dishonest.   And even if you don’t get caught right away, if your employer finds out later that’s grounds to fire you — as a few of my students confess they’ve learned the hard way. 

Take responsibility   One of my fellow instructors refers to this as “owning it.”  You’ve got to admit your conviction and not make excuses.   For some people this can be as simple as saying, “yes, I was convicted of a felony” and giving the reason (my judgment was clouded by…immaturity, drugs, financial stress, poor values, hanging with the wrong crowd, etc.)  Others may feel compelled to identify the offense, perhaps because of mitigating circumstances.  Just remember to keep it brief, look the employer in the eye  and beware of too much information.

Move on.  This is the point where you want to talk about concrete things you have done to improve yourself and turn your life around.  Getting your GED, completing a drug program, holding down a succession of jobs since your release, pursuing further education or training — anything that shows steps you have taken  to change. 

Acknowledge the employer’s concerns    Say something such as, “I understand how you may be hesitant or you may have concerns, BUT, I want to assure you that I will do a great job for you.”    As uncomfortable as this may be to acknowledge, it shows the employer that you are sensitive to his/her concerns, but determined now to let your past interfere with your work life.

Make your pitch and close.   End with a bang by reiterating that you  have the skills and attitude for the position and that you will do a great job. 

Following,  are some more detailed  examples of how to deal with this tough question, courtesy of an  OAR workshop on interview skills:

Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

“Unfortunately, yes. When I was younger and very foolish, I was convicted of  a felony.  I absolutely regret my actions and committed myself to changing — which I have. Since that time I have taken courses, had excellent job review and become focused on where I want to go with my life.  I am never going to make those kinds of choices again.  I understand you may have concerns about this, but please be assured that I have left those poor decisions in the past.  I am committed to doing an excellent job for you.  I have the skills required for this job, and I hope you will consider me for this position. 

In your application, you wrote “will discuss at interview,” in answer to the question of whether you’ve been convicted of a felony, could you explain that to me now? 

“Sir, I want you to know that in the past I made a poor decision which was to get involved with drugs.  It got to the point that the Courts got involved and I can honestly say that it was the best thing to happen to me.  Because of that I completed substance abuse treatment and have been clean for two years.  I am a productive member of my community and will never go back to that life.  I completely understand if you have concerns.  However, I want you to know that I am tested regularly, I am committed to clean living and going to work every day.  I have a lot of skills in this area and know I can do a great job for your company if you allow me the opportunity to show you.”

Is there anything in your personal history that I should be aware of before doing a background check?

“I don’t think that there is anything that will  prevent me from being an outstanding maintenance manager for your company.  However, I would like to share with you that I was convicted of a felony.  I grew up in a bad neighborhood and made some poor choices.  While I was incarcerated, however, I made a decision to turn my life around and completed my GED.  I’m also working towards completing a welding certification program.  I believe I have the skills I need to be successful and am eager to also learn on the job.  Most importantly, I’m willing to work as hard as I need to in order to convince you that I am an honest, dependable and motivated employee.

Remember, these are just examples to get you thinking.    Why don’t you try to answer this question yourself in your own words.  Practice it out loud a few times.   Once  you are comfortable with what you have, send it to me at this blog.  I’ll run the best ones, and offer suggestions on how you might make yours better.

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Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, jobs ex-offenders, taking responsibility

Will Tim Riggins be able to find a job after he’s released?

I usually try to keep my facts and fiction fairly separate on this blog.  But watching this season’s final  episode of “Friday Night Lights,” I was struck by how well the show captured the character of so many who end up serving time:  good people who’ve just made very bad decisions. 

With Tim Riggins, the troubled, but talented football heartbreaker from Dillon, Texas, you always got the sense that here was a guy who could go either way.  Abandoned by his parents, he was essentially raised by his nere-do-well brother Billy, who’s forever  coming up with get-rich-quick schemes that skirt the edge of legality.  In the first couple of seasons, Riggins weaknesses for alcohol and women, as well as his tendency to take the path of least resistance  were a great source of drama, but more often than not his downfall.  

Tim Riggins in happier times

This year, he’s graduated from football stardom and headed off to college to finally make something of himself. Only college isn’t for him and soon he’s back in Dillon, living in a trailer owned by a cocktail waitress he hooked up with and working in a repair shop with his brother. When he finds out Billy is trafficking in stolen cars on the side, he knows it’s illegal, but can’t resist one last chance to make a quick buck. 

Same old Tim, right? Were any of us surprised when the police showed up?

But here’s where the writers did something interesting.  Yes, Tim is caught, but he’s also already changed more than even he has realized.  For one, he’s spent the year resisting the high schooler who’s been throwing herself at him.  He also refused to take advantage of her mother.  And in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he takes the fall for both himself and his brother, so Billy can stay with his wife and his newborn.  In other words, as he throws off his old “football star” persona to begin serving his time in jail, he’s already on the path to redemption.  

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  What will Riggins do after he gets out?  Will he be able to find a job?  I know that actor  Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins,  has gone on to feature films might not be back next year, which is too bad.  It would be interesting to see the writers explore his reentry.   Perhaps they could shed a similarly realistic light on the challenge of starting over. 

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the episode, you can catch it here for a few more weeks. 

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As an additional note:  this will probably be my last posting for the summer.  It’s time to take some time off for fun and family.  In the interim, I hope you all enjoy the rest of the summer.   See you back here in September.

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Filed under breaking the law, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, taking responsibility

Lindsay Lohan’s jail break

Jail is an awful, dehumanizing place, and I don’t envy Lindsay Lohan for having to spend time there.

In case you’ve fallen behind in your tabloid reading: Lohan, the talented, but increasingly troubled actress, began serving a 90-day sentence today at the women’s jail in Lynwood, California.  She got it for failing to show up to court and violating the terms of her probation on earlier misdemeanor drug and driving charges.  

 In the run-up to her surrender, there was a predictable face-off between those who felt Lohan was getting what she deserved and those who thought she’d be better off in a rehab program.

While I agree that jail isn’t going to cure  a serious substance abuse problem, I have to say I’m glad she’s there.   And no, not just because this proves a famous actress isn’t above the law and has to pay for what she’s done like everyone else.   Initially, I thought that might be why as I’ve often expressed how I feel about rich or celebrated lawbreakers getting special treatment.

But ultimately, I realized it was more because of Lohan’s similarities to others who are doing time  behind bars.   If you take out the spoiled actress part and all the money, she’s actually a  pretty typical inmate.  Consider:

Lohan, who first charmed me playing twin sisters in “The Parent Trap,” has some incredible gifts.  My hope  is that she’s able to see this as a wake-up call and use her time away from society — which is expected in the end to be around 23 days — to face her problems.  Going to rehab is almost fashionable among the Hollywood set.  But sometimes people need a bigger dose of reality to get them to truly want to change.   Just as with Roberty Downey Jr.,  whose drug use ultimately earned him a prison term, this could be a turning point for Lohan. 

Readers, what do you think?  Have any of you ever been prompted to change your life or deal with major shortcomings because of  a jail or prison term?  How did you do it?

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Recognizing those on the front lines of reentry

If one of these folks  has helped you rebuild your life, this is the week to let them know.   And feel free to share your stories here.

Over the years, I’ve volunteered in probation offices in both Indiana and Virginia,  doing interviews and presentence reports, counseling and helping manage caseloads.  In both places,  I’ve been struck by the dedication these always overworked and typically underpaid professionals bring to their jobs.  I know probation and parole officers are often viewed as one more legal  hurdle by those convicted of crimes.   Some of my students have talked about how they feel their P.O. is out to get them and eager to send them back to jail.  But the P.O.’s I’ve worked with work hard to help their clients succeed, and see rearrest, or imprisonment as a last resort.    

For more information,  you can check out the American Probation and Parole Association website.  There’s a lot of great info there on the history of probation, as well as the latest on what’s working in community supervision.     

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Filed under education ex-offenders, personal responsibility, probation and parole, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, sentencing alternatives, starting over, taking responsibility, Uncategorized

The humility challenge

A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.

— writer and feminist Gloria Steinem

The student was a young woman, not long out of high school.  And she seemed extremely sure of herself, which might have been why she was struggling with this particular job interview question.

“But I don’t have any weaknesses.”  She looked me straight in the eye.

In previous classes, we’d discussed the reason employers often ask about what you consider your strengths and weaknesses during interviews.  We’d talked about how everyone has weaknesses and how bosses often look for a measure of self-knowledge and maturity in your responses.  The key to answering this question, according to most career experts, is using it to highlight an area or trait you know you need to improve, and hopefully to demonstrate how you’ve either worked to correct it, or learned to compensate for your shortcomings.

A classmate, for example, had offered that she had struggled on occasion to learn things from manuals.  “But I’m very hands-on and I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that I learn quickly by doing.”

“I tend to take on too much responsibility,” said another.  “But over time I’ve become much better at delegating some of that work to others.”

This particular student, however, was stymied.

“There must be some area where you’d like to improve,” I offered.

She thought for a moment, then smiled slightly.   “I’m too competitive,” she said.  “I just always have to be the best.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bad answer, particularly in a society that loves victory as much as ours.  So just to see where she’d go with it, I asked her — as a recruiter no doubt would — how her competitiveness had hurt her.

Again, she looked perplexed.

“What about times when you couldn’t be the best,” I suggested.  “How have you handled that? ” What about academics?  Had she excelled there and been competitive too? Or had that been an area where she had a harder time?

“Grades didn’t matter,” she said.  “I didn’t go half the time.  That’s how it was if you were an athlete.”

Say what you will about this answer, she was honest at least.  And hardly alone in her attitude.  One of the challenges of revealing your weaknesses is that there’s seemingly no upside to it. Our culture doesn’t just love winners, we worship them.   We put them on a pedestal where they can do no wrong. We make allowances.  We go out of our way to revere “specialness” and ignore anything that might smack of less than perfect.

Then we expect that somewhere along the way, the same people that we’ve elevated are going to become introspective and acquire some humility. We expect the kids who look up to them to understand this.  At the same time, we seldom teach it, we don’t emphasize it.  Yet as a character trait, humility is as essential as perseverance — for all of us, but particularly for those looking to start their lives over.

For one, a sense of entitlement, lack of humility, feeling that you don’t have to play by society’s rules — spin it as you will — is often a direct contributor to criminal activity.  Researchers  long ago identified a distorted feeling of being “special” or above the law as a critical component of the criminal mindset.

Secondly, explaining your past to the general public is a humbling experience, as countless ex-offenders will attest.  As a former felon you may be forced to take a job you consider beneath your abilities because it’s the only way to feed your family.  You may be denied jobs for which you’d be perfect.  People may doubt what you say and question your character.

Dealing with this is going to require not only an ability to accept your situation and persevere, but as James Walker noted so eloquently in his recent guest post, the humility to acknowledge your mistakes, and yes, your weaknesses.

Otherwise, as Gloria Steinem observed, you do risk trading one prison for another, don’t you?

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Ex-offenders: reducing the “fear factor”

I came upon great article about a community program in Enid, Oklahoma that helps ex-offenders get back on their feet.  Like most reentry organizations, this one aims to assist newly released individuals in getting their documents in order and obtaining housing and employment.

What’s unique about the Enid Community Re-entry Initiative Committee is the way they’re trying to achieve this.  Their goal is to have a mentor for every returning felon.  By providing one-on-one support, notes, EEOC supervising case manager Mitzi Maddox, these mentors could play a direct role in  helping reduce recidivism.  This would also go a way towards reducing the stigma of incarceration.

“Instead of being scared (of the inmates), we want the community to get the idea of helping them,” Maddox said.

 

Personally, I love this idea of matching people one to one.    Obviously, it wouldn’t work in every case — people have to want to change. But given that we have 9 million ex-offenders being released from jail annually and 700,000 offenders coming out of state and federal prisons, imagine the impact even a little success would have.

At OAR Fairfax, the non-profit where I volunteer, caseworkers have found that “without employment and supportive relationships, an ex-offender’s likelihood of success is greatly limited. ”  I’ve met some of these offenders in my classes; people whose relationships are unhealthy or abusive, people who have lost contact with their family, or been ostracized by them, people who never have visitors and are terrified of their release because they have nowhere to go and no one to support them.  Many times, these individuals seek out mentor relationships while they’re still serving their sentences.    Until recently, the OAR mentor program only extended through the course of the person’s stay in the adult detention center, but now OAR is extending the mentoring relationship so that it continues for the first year after release.

I think that can only help.  In my classes I encourage students to seek out mentors, wherever possible.   I’ve also had the privilege of being a mentor, and can tell anyone considering volunteering in this way that it is extremely rewarding.   I still keep in touch with my mentee on an informal basis and value our relationship.

In previous posts, former offenders have commented on the loneliness offenders feel upon release and the sense of being different — an attitude that can if taken to an extreme lead to isolation, depression and too often, re-offending.    Ernest McNear, a pastor in Philadelphia, summed up the value of a mentor best when talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“If you are going to have successful reentry you have to have someone welcoming you into the community, not just a program.”

How about you?   Has anyone had anyone had a mentoring experience they’d like to share?  Was it helpful?  If so why?  If it didn’t work, why not?

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