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Employment Counselling for Ex-Offenders

Ex-offenders face employment challenges both during their immediate transition from incarceration and over the longer course of their careers. When working with this client group, it can be helpful to start by taking an inventory of key employment skills that will help ground them in their new life.

Employment skills identified by ex-offenders

The following 36 skills were identified by ex-offenders for ex-offenders. The skills were selected for being key in making a successful transition from incarceration to employment on the outside.

You may find this information useful as a checklist to make sure you are working with clients in areas of employability most meaningful to them. In the ex-offenders’ words, the key skills fall into the following areas: human relationships, self-management, planning and goal setting, and employment.

Human relationship skills

  • Self-esteem
  • Communication skills
  • Assertiveness skills
  • Establishing a personal support system––help clients develop a network of family, friends, and others who will help them reach their personal goals
  • Helping others
  • Working with others––help clients learn to get along with supervisors and co-workers and provide service for customers
  • Skills for overcoming unfairness––help clients deal with the fact that sometimes people may treat them unfairly based on who they think they are, not on who they really are

Self-management skills

  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills
  • Recognizing their limits––help clients know what they are capable of at any particular time
  • Work and lifestyle balance––help clients sort and manage their personal and work responsibilities in a way that’s appropriate for them
  • Living skills––make sure clients can look after their basic needs
  • Appearance and dress skills––help clients present themselves in the workplace in a way that is appropriate for the job and its safety requirements
  • Managing addictions––help clients recognize and find help to deal with their addictions
  • Time management skills
  • Stress management skills
  • Anger management skills
  • Money management skills––help clients learn to live on the money they are or will be earning

Planning and goal-setting skills

  • Setting career goals
  • Trying new things––help clients to be open to new experiences and people
  • Accepting setbacks––help clients learn from experiences
  • Adaptability skills––help clients make changes to reach goals

Employment-related skills

  • Basic skills––help clients find literacy programs, if necessary
  • Job-specific skills
  • Developing personal strengths––help clients to see the benefits of ongoing personal growth
  • Showing a positive work attitude
  • Independence and initiative
  • Dependability
  • Integrity
  • Concern for quality
  • Staying motivated––help clients put jail behind them and focus on the present, give themselves a chance
  • Commitment to an employer
  • Ability to use training opportunities

Helping clients with work search

Fear of rejection—“The number 1 fear for my clients is looking for work because of the rejection they might have to face if they don’t get hired.”

Clients are likely to benefit from help in building their work search skills, such as writing resumés and finding references. They need to consider how to handle disclosure or nondisclosure of criminal records and how to manage compliance with conditions of release.

Work search strategies

Possible work search strategies include the following:

  • Help clients determine the duties and qualifications required for jobs they are interested in.
  • Help clients apply for jobs.
  • Help clients become aware of the hidden job market and help them learn how to access it.
  • When transportation is an issue, encourage clients to use telephone, chat, and email to gather information and to follow up with employers. Encourage them to email their resumés or submit them online rather than delivering them in person.
  • Refer clients to local resources that can provide free access to computers, telephones, and faxes for their job search. Clients might consider government employment offices, not-for-profit agencies, or offices contracted to provide such services.
  • Encourage clients to consider casual labour or employment with a temporary agency. These are good starting points for ex-offenders because they provide a transition into employment and allow clients flexibility if they are attending programs or require time to build their confidence in the workplace.
  • Help parents with child care issues through referrals and information about child care options.
  • Help clients find permanent housing if needed. Housing is especially important for clients living in homeless shelters. Clients in such accommodations may face great challenges maintaining employment. Given that their nightly accommodation is temporary, they must carry all their possessions with them everywhere, including to the job site. Many places of employment do not provide storage.
  • Help clients get appropriate clothes and tools for interviews and work. Offer referrals to community agencies that provide appropriate clothing. Help clients access any funding available to get safety items such as a hard hat or steel-toed boots.
  • Help clients pursue volunteer opportunities, part-time or temporary work, work experience programs, and applicable government placement programs. Remember to confirm whether a criminal record check is required.
  • Find out if there is a CORCAN employment centre in the client’s area. These employment centres can help federal ex-offenders prepare for and find a job once they leave prison.

Compliance with conditions of release

Consider how to help ex-offenders comply with conditions of release:

  • Determine if the client is subject to conditions of release. Identify the specific conditions.
  • Find out the name of the client’s parole officer.
  • Communicate with the parole officer and other people from supporting agencies or programs to ensure a collaborative approach to employing the client.

You may want to help ex-offenders under conditions of release to identify employment situations that may cause them difficulties. For example, an ex-offender working at a convenience store may be left alone in the store. If a 16-year-old customer enters the store, the ex-offender would be in violation of a condition of release: not being alone with a person under the age of 18.

Resumé development

Use these strategies to help clients build a resumé:

  • Help them identify skills and strengths using strength-based questions.
  • Include skill-building experiences.
  • List certifications earned before and during incarceration.
  • Use the functional resumé format that focuses on transferable skills.


  • Encourage the client to make a list of names and contact information for at least 3 references.
  • Choose references who recognize and support positive life changes made by the client.
  • References might include previous employers, a religious leader, an Elder or Knowledge Keeper, an instructor, a former teacher, or a probation or parole officer.

Dealing with employers

Many employers are willing to hire an ex-offender, but common misperceptions can still create barriers for ex-offenders.

Myths about hiring ex-offenders

Here are some common myths that employers have about hiring ex-offenders and how to refute them:

“All offenders are alike.”

  • Hardened, habitual criminals, who make up a small percentage of those incarcerated, usually do not want to work.
  • White-collar criminals, car thieves, minor drug offenders, and political offenders differ from hardened criminals in their offences, motives, and potential for rehabilitation.

“Ex-offenders have no useful skills.”

  • On-the-job training and educational opportunities are available for many inmates.
  • Prison industries may offer opportunities to build valuable work-related skills.

“Educated people don’t go to jail.”

  • White-collar criminals are a growing population.
  • White-collar ex-offenders usually express gratitude at being hired. They show outstanding co-operation and work habits in post-discharge jobs.
  • These ex-offenders are eager to rebuild their lives.

“Ex-offenders can’t hold down a job.”

  • Most offenders had jobs at the time of their arrest, and most had above-average work records.
  • Case studies from companies that hire significant numbers of ex-offenders show a lower-than-normal turnover rate.

“Co-workers won’t accept ex-offenders as fellow employees.”

  • Employees should be judged on the quality of their work, their willingness to co-operate, their attitude, and their competence.
  • Most employees object to other workers only if they have a detrimental effect on them, their work, or their job arrangements.

“Employees who are ex-offenders need special monitoring.”

  • After typical orientation and training, ex-offenders need the same level of supervision as other employees.
  • They usually welcome the opportunity to blend in with the rest of the workforce.
  • They do not need special privileges.
  • If ex-offenders carry outside responsibilities, such as a family to support or employment as a condition of parole, they are usually eager to succeed.

In talking with clients about possible employers:

  • Remind them that there are many employers who will hire ex-offenders.
  • Provide examples of such employers.
  • Share anonymous examples of previous ex-offender clients who successfully gained and maintained employment.

Client’s disclosure of a criminal record

Talk to clients about disclosing their criminal records to employers:

  • Help them think about the impact of disclosure.
  • Have them brainstorm all the possible outcomes of disclosure or nondisclosure.
  • If they choose not to disclose their criminal record, talk about strategies for handling situations where an employer or colleagues become aware of their criminal record.

If clients choose to disclose their criminal records to employers, help them think about what might happen in the interview. Consider what they might say, and the negative and positive reactions an employer may have. Here are some suggestions for the client:

  • Talk about the criminal record in the middle of the interview. If the subject is raised at the beginning of an interview, it might make a bad first impression. If the subject is raised at the end of an interview, it may be a bad last impression.
  • Say enough to be truthful. The employer does not need to know the life history of a potential employee.
  • Take full responsibility for the past. Tell the interviewer what you learned.

Providing employment supports

Supportive communities—“A supportive community is critical to the re-integration of offenders.”

Once clients find employment, they may need ongoing support to help them maintain it. They may have trouble related to self-esteem, communication, assertiveness, anger management, stress management, and decision making. Such issues may not have emerged during the career-building process. They may become evident only when a situation arises at work.

Employment support may involve facilitating, discussing, brainstorming, explaining, and debriefing. You may need to help your clients:

  • Resolve a dispute with a co-worker or the employer
  • Investigate options and consequences
  • Understand workplace expectations, norms, or culture
  • Transition to workplace routines
  • Understand their rights as supported by employment standards law in Alberta
  • Explore how to leave a job appropriately

Final note for counsellors—“Don’t get in over your head. Keep your boundaries and ethics in place. And always reach out and get help when you need it.”

Counsellors can be very helpful to clients who have been in conflict with the law. While this article provides career-building information and strategies, it is valuable to build relationships with, and gain support from, others experienced in the field. Consult with parole and probation officers as well as other professionals working with this client group. Refer clients to appropriate resources for help in areas beyond the scope of your experience.

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