The importance of letters of recommendation in a job search and how to request them

letters of recommendationLetters of recommendation can be essential items to gather in preparation for a job search, but they’re especially important if you’re coming out of prison and looking for work. Along with a well-prepared resume or JIST card and your turnaround packet, one or more letters of recommendation may be what convinces a hiring manager to offer you a job. And you might want to request these before leaving prison.

That’s exactly what Dana Wilson of Fresno, Calif., did.

During her 9-1/2 years in prison, Wilson took advantage of every opportunity that came her way. “I felt that something must be wrong with me on the inside that I made choices that made me end up where I did,” she says. “I checked out what kind of groups they had (in prison) and jumped right in. I took advantage of every single self-help group I could get my hands on. I got certificates left and right. It was a never ending growing experience for me.”

And part of that growing experience was training for several types of work inside prison and deciding to concentrate on one of them. For 4-1/2 years, Wilson worked at the CALPIA Dental Lab, where she learned how to create dental protheses. And while doing so, she was thinking ahead to how she would find work once released.

Dana Wilson

Dana Wilson

Get letters of recommendation from multiple supervisors

As part of her planning process, she requested letters of recommendation from a series of supervisors.

“When I knew my first boss was going to retire, I asked him for a letter of reference. The boss underneath him got that position. So I waited a couple of months and asked him for a letter of reference. Then they hired a new guy and I asked him too,” she says.

And those three letters came in handy when she got out of prison, returned to Fresno and applied for a position at a dental lab. She gave all of them to the hiring manager.

“When I applied for this job I laid everything out on the table,” Wilson says. “When they asked what’s PIA (officially known as CALPIA), I told them it’s the (California) Prison Industry Authority. They looked kind of weird. So I said I’ve been in prison, but let me tell you what I’ve done.” That’s when she told them about all the classes she had taken, the groups she had participated in and the certificates she had earned, all of which are kept in a neatly organized binder, what we call a turnaround packet.

The lab where Wilson worked as a dental technician – her first job out of prison – closed, and she’s had two other jobs since then. And she gets a letter of recommendation from every place she works.

“I think it’s really, really important for people who have been incarcerated to do that. If they run a background check and things pop up it will bring questions to the employer’s mind,” she says. “I can say this is who I was but this is not who I am today. My past doesn’t define who I am now.”

Tips on how to solicit letters of recommendation

Getting a supervisor from a prison job to write you a letter of recommendation may be the best way to begin. That way you’ll have something to start out with. But if you didn’t bother to do that or don’t have a good working relation with your prison job supervisor, don’t worry. Here are some other approaches you can take.

When soliciting letters of recommendation:

  • Make a list of potential people to ask. These could be former supervisors both inside and outside prison, teachers of courses you’ve taken or supervisors at places you’ve volunteered.
  • Contact your possibilities first by phone – or in person if you can – to see if they’re willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. And, if they are, follow up with an email. Be sure to send them your resume or JIST card and describe the type of work you’re looking for. You may feel shy and afraid to ask for recommendations, fearful that they might say, “No.” It’s important to overcome your fear and just do it.
  • If it’s a former supervisor, you may want to remind them of the skills you bring to your work and some of the specific things you accomplished while on the job. You need to make it easy for someone to write the letter and also make sure they highlight your most important strengths and accomplishments.
  • Include the date by which you would like to have the letter completed. (It’s best to ask for a date at least a week or more before you actually need it.)
  • Be aware that these letters can be written so they can be given to hiring managers at a variety of places you will apply to, like Wilson did. Or they can be addressed to an individual hiring manager for a specific job you’re applying for.
  • Make sure to send a thank you note – either hand written or by email – to every person who writes a recommendation letter for you.
  • It’s possible, but unlikely, that someone will ask you to write the letter of recommendation yourself and they’ll sign it. If that’s the case, you can find lots of examples online. It’s best to use these examples for ideas of what to include and not copy them word for word, however.

How to create a turnaround talk to convince employers to hire you

turnaround talkOnce you have your turnaround packet together for your job interview, it’s time to create a turnaround talk to go along with it.

The purpose of this “talk” is to tell the truth about your conviction and to emphasize that you’re not the same person you used to be and that you have turned your life around. And the evidence is displayed in your turn around packet for employers to clearly see. Your goal is to engage their interest and empathy, to shine a light on how you’d make a good employee and hopefully be offered a job. As in the case of the turnaround packet, the idea for the turnaround talk originally came from Larry Robbin, a nationally-known expert in the field of workforce development.

Things you might want to say

Here are things to consider, as you think of what you’re going to say:

  • Plan for the fact that once the interview has progressed sufficiently and you’ve also established rapport with the hiring manager, say something like, “Before we move on, I just wanted to let you know about my life situation and give you a little bit of information about myself.”  Then lead into your turnaround talk.
  • Explain your situation. Maybe your parents stopped supporting you as a teenager and you ended up homeless. Or you did something without thinking, but learned your lesson and won’t do it again. Or you hung around with the wrong crowd but don’t do so anymore.
  • Give a brief explanation of the facts. Think of what you did and rephrase it in more gentle terms. Instead of talking about burglary, say you took some things you shouldn’t have taken. If you were a drug addict, say you had a substance abuse problem and, if true, you went through a recovery program and are committed to the maintenance of your recovery. If you killed someone, say you took a life.
  • Express the fact that you’re deeply sorry for your crime and you understand how it affected the victim, their family, your family and yourself.
  • Tell the hiring manager what you learned from the experience and how you turned your life around. Show them the turnaround packet and go through all of your accomplishments before, during and after incarceration.
  • Ask them if they have any questions, and tell them you’ll be happy to answer them.
Practice your turnaround talk

Carefully prepare your talk and practice it over and over again, so as not to sound memorized or rehearsed. And delivering it sincerely from your heart and effectively should help the hiring manager see that you have learned from your experience, worked hard to improve yourself and are ready to be a productive and valuable employee.

 

How formerly incarcerated job seekers can create a turnaround packet that will impress potential employers

 

turnaround packetOne of the most important things those in reentry can do to help conduct a successful job search is to create a turnaround packet and the talk to go with it. And with people sheltering in place, there’s no better time to do it than now.

While we’ve covered this on our website and extensively in our book Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed, we’ve never written a blog article about it. And I suddenly realized that fact while sitting in on “Ready, Set, Goal,” an online forum conducted by Oakland, Calif.-headquartered nonprofit Root & Rebound. It was all about what they call a rehabilitation packet and we refer to as a turnaround packet. But it’s basically the same thing. And it can be a very powerful tool.

Packet shows you’ve turned your life around

We originally got the idea from Larry Robbin, a nationally-known expert in the area of workforce development. And its purpose is to convince hiring managers that you’ve turned your life around. You’ve made the effort to improve your skills, character and relationships. You are not the same person you were when you made the mistake that got you incarcerated.

This packet should affirm how you have been rehabilitated and won’t reoffend. It can include a variety of items and be reconfigured depending on the type of job you’re applying for. With people staying at home and many businesses on hiatus, now is the time to spend putting a turnaround packet together.

“Start by making a list of all the accomplishments you’ve achieved since release and even before being incarcerated — leadership positions inside, if you were in the honor dorm, had access to the honor yard, your Involvement with a faith-based community, classes you took, mentoring or sponsoring that you’ve offered, inside and out, everything you can think of,” said Nicole Jeong, Root & Rebound’s Los Angeles site director and senior staff attorney during the forum.

Things to include in a turnaround packet

Here’s what we recommend including (but be sure to only include items that show you have been rehabilitated and are not the same person who offended):

  • Letters from groups you’ve done volunteer work for.
  • School enrollment forms.
  • Certificates of completion of training programs (both pre- and post-incarceration).
  • Courses you took while incarcerated.
  • A clean printout from the DMV, if you have a good driving record. Visit your local DMV office, and ask them to print one out for you.
  • Honorable or general discharge papers from the military, if you served. If it was a dishonorable discharge, don’t include it.
  • Photos of your accomplishments as a volunteer.
  • Copies of award certificates or other forms of recognition.
  • A copy of a clean drug/alcohol report, especially if you were arrested for drug use or have been in an alcohol or a drug rehab program.
  • Documentation of restitution, if you had to pay restitution to a victim or victims.
  • Photos of any hobbies or interests you might have, such as car or motorcycle restoration, dressmaking, artwork, furniture refinishing, gardening or whatever.
  • Photos of family, children and even pets. It can demonstrate you care, that you’ve rebuilt relationships, and are responsible and share common values with the hiring manager.
  • Accomplishments before the offense/incarceration can be good to include as well.
  • Your resume and master application.
  • Copy of your sobriety coin/chit, especially if your conviction was alcohol or drug related.
Don’t forget letters of recommendation

You should also include letters of recommendation, four if possible and two from people that recognize the fact that you have a conviction.

‘Sit down and think about your life and all the relationships you have. It can be someone with whom you volunteer, an employer. People at your church. The pastor. If you’re a member of a community group, get the leader to write a letter,” said Felicia Espinosa, Root & Rebound’s Fresno site director and senior staff attorney, during the online forum. The recommendation letters can also come from former employers or even a landlord who you have a good relationship with.

When you ask people to write a recommendation letter, “Give them as much information as possible. Tell them what you want them to talk about. Be very specific. It makes it easier for them, and you’re going to get exactly what you want,” she said.

For example, if you volunteer for an organization, you might ask your boss to include the fact that you’re a very hard worker, you always show up on time and get along with the staff employees or other volunteers, if that is the case.

Friendly reminders are sometimes needed. Give the person who has agreed to write the letter a sample of what you want included. Offering to draft the letter for them can be helpful for some. And if you do draft any letters, remember that each person’s must be totally different.

Once you gather all of the items together, put each of them into a protective plastic sheet and arrange them in a binder. Make sure the first page has basic information about yourself and a note thanking the hiring manager for taking the time to interview you. If you’d like to give the prospective employer a copy of your turnaround packet, never give them the originals. Take copies of everything.

A lot of work, but worth it

It’s quite a lot of work, but your potential employer is sure to be impressed by your effort and, hopefully, by the changes you’ve made in your life. The process of putting together the turnaround packet will help you realize many positive things to talk about in your interview and give you confidence when the day arrives.

Remember to plan ahead and decide the things to highlight and emphasize that will demonstrate your rehabilitation. This is important, since you may not have enough time to go through your entire packet with the hiring manager during the interview.

A turnaround packet can also be useful to share with your family and friends, as well as in family court and other court proceedings, emphasizing to the court and all those who review it how you truly have changed and been rehabilitated.

In a later blog article, we will discuss the turnaround talk that you can prepare to go with the turnaround packet.

Kevin Poppen offers excellent job search advice from prison

Kevin PoppenAlthough we are regularly contacted by people in prison, it’s rare to receive a letter that offers the kind of advice we received from Kevin Poppen, who is currently incarcerated at Growlersburg Conservation Camp #33 in Georgetown, Calif. And what we learned from him can go a long way towards helping those who are incarcerated prepare for their lives on the outside.

We heard from Poppen after sending him a copy of our book, Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed. He wrote to thank us for the book and encourage us to include what he refers to as a “reentry journal” in our next edition. And it’s such a good idea that we certainly will but don’t want to wait until then to share it with our readers. We decided to interview him by mail to see what other ideas he has.

Create a reentry journal

The idea to create a reentry journal came to Kevin Poppen when he was in solitary confinement. (He’s been incarcerated for 17 years.) Here’s the story, in his words:

“About four years ago, while sitting in administrative segregation (solitary confinement), I would daydream for hours and hours on end about what I was going to do when I got out of prison. For five months straight, I sat in a concrete box 24 hours a day, was allowed to leave the cell only once every three days for a five-minute shower. I spent five months staring at a wall creating budgets (all with arbitrary numbers, as I had no way of researching anything), playing out whole scenarios in my head about what I would do, where I would go, what I needed to accomplish and what might get in my way.”

One day Poppen grabbed a notebook and started randomly writing down his thoughts into what he describes as a “dream journal.” It even included a floor plan of what his future house would look like. At one point his sister sent him a box from Amazon that included a nice leather-bond notebook. About the same time, Poppen began to read Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed and three other job search books that we recommend. And he started to record useful information in his journal.

How his journal is organized

Poppen has several pages in the front of his “Re-entry Journal” for brainstorming. This section includes random thoughts, ideas, addresses and whatever. The rest of the journal is broken down into sections – housing, employment, nonprofit and social service info, and a detailed to-do list for once he begins his new life.

Where does he get his information? “Although some of the info came from the four books, but a lot of contact information and ideas I have in my journal came from years of slowly collecting. One inmate on the yard may have an inmate resource list of available services, another may have lived at a particular transitional housing location, another may have the address of a nonprofit that sends books to inmates.

“One good book I remember helping quite a bit at the time was published by Root & Rebound. (The organization’s Roadmap to Reentry provides legal information to those leaving prison.) Another way I’ve compiled info over the years is through inmate legal newsletters and magazines, such as Prison Legal News, California Lifer News, and newsletters from the Initiate Justice and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Deciding what info to include

Poppen narrowed his topics down to the three things necessary for survival – food, shelter and clothing. And what one needs to obtain these things – employment.

Examples of what he included in the different categories:

  • Food – physical and website addresses for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, churches and food banks.
  • Shelter – contact info for transitional housing/sober living residences, Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) info for Section 8 housing options, etc.
  • Employment – Turnaround packet instructions, job search websites, temp agency addresses, and info on how to conduct advance Google searches and use LinkedIn and zoominfo. Also resume ideas, interview questions, a strengths/weaknesses assessment and other useful tidbits picked up from the books he read.
Further preparation

In addition to compiling the information in his Reentry Journal, Poppen is creating a to-do list. That way he can hit the ground running when he gets out.

Here’s a list of the things Poppen plans to do immediately upon release:

  1. Check in at the parole office.
  2. Visit the DMV to obtain an identification card and make an appointment for a driving test.
  3. Visit government agencies to see if he qualifies for assistance (food stamps/general assistance).
  4. Check in with residence (sober living home or transitional living residence).
  5. Go shopping for work clothing.
  6. Start job search.
Change your mindset

While a reentry journal and to-do list will form a roadmap for reentry action, those leaving prison will also need to examine their attitudes, according to Poppen.

“Their heads need to be in the right place. Whatever behaviors or ways of thinking that got them incarcerated in the first place must be ironed out. Do this first,” he wrote.

“Some serious introspection needs to be exercised. I have yet to meet someone in prison whose real problem was the crime they committed. The problem is the underlying factors that caused the behavior in the first place. All the rest is a waste of time if someone isn’t prepared mentally and emotionally. The first step to prepare for reentry is to figure out the real reason one was incarcerated. And then seek help.”

Once that is taken care of, those preparing to leave prison need to assess what their needs are. “Then I would network, network, network. Learn how to write professional letters, and go on a letter writing campaign. Write every nonprofit that deals with inmates. Ask for referrals, and write some more,” Poppen wrote.

At the same time, they should write everything down in a journal and prepare a turnaround packet. “If they don’t have enough content for a turnaround packet, dedicate some time each day (while still incarcerated) to work on the things they need to do to fill out their checklist,” he wrote.

Poppen recommends keeping a day planner to record the dates when people write letters and the dates any responses are received. Write a short synopsis of the content of the letter and its response. That way people can remember what they’ve done and tracked their own progress.

Final advice

And there’s one very important final thing to do, Poppen writes. “Anxiety should be addressed. It’s common for inmates to experience anxiety when thinking about and trying to plan for the future. This seems especially so the longer they have been incarcerated and the closer they get to their release date.

“It’s important they know that this is normal. They need to just put one foot in front of the other, and it will all work out. Being prepared is the best defense. It builds confidence and adds something to the equation.”

If you have a criminal record and are looking for work, don’t ever give up

Caroline Trude-Rede

Caroline Trude-Rede

Looking for work if you have a criminal record can be a Herculean task. One that requires more than a little out-of-the-box thinking. And perseverance that compels you to never give up no matter what it takes.

A woman in Florida named Caroline Trude-Rede is a perfect example of this. She left a comment on our Facebook page, and we knew from what she wrote that her story needed to be told.

Her message: Never take “no” for an answer. If you think you’re the right person for a job, make sure they know it. And don’t let them turn you down just because you have a record.

Here’s her story. The reason for her felony conviction and incarceration is a bit complicated, but it has to do with the fact that she received Veteran’s Administration benefits based on her father’s military service. The payments, which she thought were like a pension that would continue to be given to her, were actually supposed to stop at her mother’s death in 2003. The result was a felony charge of grand theft and a six-month sentence in federal prison – FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas – that began in January 2018. Up until that time she had never been arrested for anything.

But like most others with felony convictions, surviving prison wasn’t her only challenge. After release, she needed to find a job, not only to pay the bills but because her probation required that she work 32 hours per week.

Two-hundred applications, 10 interviews and no job

So Trude-Rede applied for about 200 jobs during the 3-1/2 months between the time of her release and until she became employed. She applied for a variety of types of work, including taking orders at Panera Bread, answering phones in call centers and stocking items at places like Target and Sam’s Club.

“I was willing to take anything to get employed. I have two college degrees and I was applying for jobs at entry level just to try and get a foot in the door,” she says.

Although Trude-Rede had about 10 interviews, no one would hire her, not even Universal Studios, where she had previously worked for five years in a professional position in the creative department.

And then she interviewed for a graphic designer position at an architectural firm. The interview – which was conducted by her direct boss, the president of the firm and a potential coworker – went well, and she knew that she was the perfect candidate for the job. In fact, she thought she would get it.

Trude-Rede brought up her felony conviction in the interview, but the president of the company had already left, after saying, “I see all I need to see. She is perfectly capable of doing the job.”

The human resources department then emailed her a form to complete for a background check. But 10 days after the original interview, she received an email stating that they had gone a different way.

She refused to take “no” for an answer

When she saw that the position was reposted online a few days later, however, she decided to take action. She refused to take “no” for an answer.

Trude-Rede sent an email stating why she’s the person they should hire. In the email, she included a link to an article on her blog explaining her incarceration, said that she’d never had any interaction with law enforcement before that point and mentioned all the things she had accomplished in prison.

In addition she explained the Federal Bonding Program that protects businesses from financial or property loss that might incur from hiring workers in “at risk” groups and mentioned that his company could also qualify for tax breaks and/or credits if they hire her.

And it worked. She sent the email on Friday, and on Monday she had a response and invitation to interview with the firm’s CEO/owner.

“He started off (the interview) by thanking me for my email and said that he was impressed by my tenacity. The fact that I wanted the job so much and was so determined was extremely impressive to him,” Trude-Rede said. “He also appreciated my honesty and candor. He said he wasn’t quite sure that everything went down exactly how I explained the story, but my frankness about everything was refreshing.”

The next day she received an offer letter and is now very happily employed. “I absolutely love the company. Not just because they took a chance on me, but I truly fit in there. I am not treated any differently by anyone who knows my story and was given a Christmas bonus after only being there three weeks,” she says.

The moral of this story

“Job seekers with a felony on their record should never give up on themselves or their dreams,” Trude-Rede says. “If they want to go back to school because they would like to do something they need a degree for and are worried about employment afterwards with the felony, I say go for it.”

“You define who you are, not what you did in the past. Be humble. Be brave. Know that it is going to be hard, but we all start somewhere. Take chances. A few minutes of courage could change your life. A five-minute email changed mine.”

From the editor: In preparation for interviewing, we suggest that you check out our interview tips, including how to create a turnaround talk and turnaround packet. Preparation and having a plan can make a big difference between getting a job offer or not. Good luck!

 

References may be key to helping ex-offenders find a job

job referencesWhen you’re in reentry and looking for a job, you’ll need all the help you can get. And that means finding people who can speak about your talents, skills and character to a potential employer.

Along with your resume or JIST card and turnaround packet, don’t forget a list of references.

It’s no longer appropriate to just include “references available upon request” at the bottom of your resume. Instead you should compile a professional looking list of several people who are happy to sing your praises. Pick people who have known you for at least three months, but the longer the better.

These references can be a boss you worked for, a supervisor at a volunteer gig (all the more reason to volunteer) or, if you haven’t had a job for a while, you can use a personal reference that knows you well. For a personal reference, you might choose a teacher, coach, mentor, spiritual leader, counselor or even the job developer you’re working with.

Before you include them on your list, however, check to see if it’s OK and ask them the best way for potential employers to contact them. Make sure you get all the relevant info: the person’s name and title, name of the company or organization and its address. Also ask for the reference’s work phone number (or mobile phone if it’s a personal reference) and an email address.

Include a sentence or two on how the reference knows you and maybe some specific information they might be able to share about you.

Find a job reference template online

There are many templates online, but we particularly like the one on the Damn Good Resume Guide website. Another good example can be found on the Career Nook website.

Make sure your references have your latest resume or JIST card, so they’ll be up to date on your experience. Also contact them when you go on a job interview, preferably before, in case the hiring manager calls them soon after the interview is over. Let your references know what type of job you’re applying for and where, just as a heads up in case they do get a call.

Have your reference call the hiring manager

Another effective, usually overlooked, tactic is to have your reference call the hiring manager, preferably before the interview. This can demonstrate initiative on your part and a sincere interest in being offered a job. Your reference could say something like, “I understand that (your name) is coming in for an interview tomorrow (or whenever), and I’d like to highly recommend him. He worked for me on a bathroom remodel, and he’s an excellent carpenter, hard worker and reliable. I highly recommend him.”

Of course what the reference says would be tailored to you and the job you’re applying for, but this can be very effective.

Finding a good reference or two who can vouch for your abilities might just be the extra thing that will inspire someone to hire you.