Culture Couch: Tapping America’s Untapped Workforce

Employment is becoming more of a privilege than a right. With unemployment rates at their lowest in decades, it sometimes takes even the most highly credentialed and well-networked professionals luck to change jobs or find employment after a job loss or time away from the workforce. 

If you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, living with a disability or a criminal record, that luck may never come. Culture Couch: Tapping America’s Untapped Workforce explores the repercussions those with criminal convictions and disabilities face when trying to earn a living.

Host: Sean O’Brien (Principal, Business Development Executive at Auzmor, Inc.)

Speaker: Kyle Horn (Founder and Director of America’s Job Honor Awards and an advocate for our nation’s untapped workforce.)


Sean O’Brien: This is Sean O’Brien with Auzmor. Welcome to our video podcast Culture Couch. I’m super excited about our guest here today. I’ve been waiting for this since the second I heard you were on the docket, Mr. Kyle Horn. He is the founder and director of America’s Job Honor Awards, a keynote speaker, and advocate for the nation’s untapped workforce. He’s a new kind of hero. Hey, great to have you here today. 

Kyle Horn: Pleased to be here, Sean. I appreciate it. 

Sean O’Brien: When I first heard the America’s untapped workforce, I thought this should be good. And then I went to your website there, wow. There’s a lot of touching videos and stuff like that. We’ll actually show you a couple here today. Kyle, if you could just quickly explain a little bit about America’s Job Honor awards, what you do there, and how it came about? 

The History of America’s Job Honor Awards

Kyle Horn: You bet. Had you asked me, Sean, seven years ago whether I would ever be in charge of a nonprofit organization I’d probably laughed in your face. This was something that I did not know was in the cards for me in my life. But what led to it was I was working in the staffing and recruiting agency. In that position it really opened my eyes to the realities of our workforce. I had always known theoretically that there were people out there struggling with employment barriers ranging from past convictions to disabilities. But to be honest with you, I had no idea the sheer numbers. Well, that quickly became evident to me because a lot of the struggling job seekers coming into our doors had those barriers to employment. And the irony was at the same time, employers across the state were hand wringing about their inability to find motivated talent. 

Kyle Horn: You bet. Had you asked me, Sean, seven years ago whether I would ever be in charge of a nonprofit organization I’d probably laughed in your face. This was something that I did not know was in the cards for me in my life. But what led to it was I was working in the staffing and recruiting agency. In that position it really opened my eyes to the realities of our workforce. I had always known theoretically that there were people out there struggling with employment barriers ranging from past convictions to disabilities. But to be honest with you, I had no idea the sheer numbers. Well, that quickly became evident to me because a lot of the struggling job seekers coming into our doors had those barriers to employment. And the irony was at the same time, employers across the state were hand wringing about their inability to find motivated talent. 

So they’re saying, send us people, send us people. Well, over-represented among the people that we had were individuals with these red flags, with these barriers in their background. And yet when we tried to pitch those candidates to the employers, very often the employer would close the door on them. They’d say they’re not interested. And that usually arose from the fact that they had policies, often unwritten that precluded them from considering people with prior criminal convictions. So on the one hand they’re screaming for help, on the other hand not that help. Of course, I found that terribly frustrating. And I know that not everyone who has been through the prison system has changed. In fact, I’m inclined to think that far fewer than half, so I’m not saying hire everybody, but, when you’re talking to an individual and their life is on a new trajectory, why wouldn’t we give those people a chance? 

Yet I was continually frustrated by the employers’ reluctance to do precisely that. Increasingly I would go home at night haunted by all the great candidates we had met and we couldn’t help because nobody wanted to meet them. And it wore on me that negative bias was one of the greatest stumbling blocks to getting these Americans into the workforce. And so I began puzzling over how can we overcome that negative employer bias? Well, one weekend I had the idea for America’s Job Honor Awards and the idea was we would capture stories of individuals who had successfully overcome their barriers and gone on to make terrific contributions on the job, so I embarked on a one man campaign to create the website draw out the business plan, and raise money for videos. 

I’d never shot a video in my life. And I knew that I wanted to present these awards in front of the people who hold the keys to the jobs, the employer community. I managed to sweet talk my way onto the stage of the state’s flagship business association. So in 2014, we launched the inaugural Job Honor Awards in Iowa and the crowd’s reception exceeded my wildest dreams. It was painfully evident this was the right thing at the right time. The crowd gave four extended standing ovations to our four honorees. It was very emotional, tears in the eyes, and I knew we were onto something. I’ve quit my day job and become full time director of America’s Job Honor Awards. We’re now a multi-state movement with national recognition and we’re looking to make that next big step up because we’re needed in all 50 States. 

Sean O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely. It started as Iowa’s Job Honor Awards, right? So that’s grown like wildfire. Shoot, we’re already national here just a couple of years later. These stories are just absolutely incredible. It’s hard to fight back the happy tears. Fortunately, you brought some of those videos with you today, so we’re going to take a quick moment to show the first video here. Mr. David Brann of Madison, Wisconsin. 

Sean O’Brien: That’s just one of the many stories you have on the website. Kind of taking it back a bit, we spoke earlier this week and I talked about how I have a lot of friends in the recruiting industry. My wife is a recruiter, my AKA out of work boss. So I hear about these stories a lot where they just can’t do anything. I’ve spoken to thousands of recruiters How often do you see this sad, negative side where it’s the individuals who are not given a chance like David was in the video? I imagine it’s every day. 

Kyle Horn: Yeah, it is. And indeed, that’s what keeps me in it. There’s a pressure to act because, to be quite honest with you, Sean, no matter how successful we are with this movement inescapably it’s going to come too late for a lot of people. We have in this nation, tens of thousands of individuals in the case of returning citizens, which is what we like to call people coming out of prison, reentering society. In their case, we have tens of thousands who are languishing without a job. They’ve tried to make the hard decisions to turn their lives around. They’ve turned away from the past criminal behaviors that landed them behind bars, and they’re changed. Yet these individuals are having door after door slammed in their face, and eventually, they withdraw from the workforce, dragging their past like a ball and chain. 

That to me is a tragedy. When I was a kid, I read a poem one time by Oliver Wendell Holmes and a line from it never escaped me. That line was “Alas for those who never sing but die with all their music in them.” These are individuals who will die with all their music in them. And to be quite honest with you it’s our fault because we maintain that a national principle is that the prison experience is designed to rehabilitate, to change people to move them away from the criminal behavior and prepare them for reentering into society. That’s what we say, but it’s not what we do. 

The Effectiveness of Ban the Box

Sean O’Brien: There’s some things that some states have been trying out obviously with Ban the Box, which essentially says you can’t have a question on an application, such as “Have you been convicted of a felony? If so, explain whatever it may be.” Have you seen that be effective at all or what are the likes and dislikes? 

Kyle Horn: The results are mixed. I guess I would say at the outset that I have tremendous respect for anybody who’s in this arena fighting it out because they’re doing it for the right reasons. They have good hearts and they believe that people who have blown it in their lives need our support, need our forgiveness when they try to turn it around and come back in. So absolutely nothing negative to say about that. From a strategic perspective, I have diverged from that view. And the reason is I think that employers who are absolutely committed to the idea of not hiring someone with a criminal conviction, they will find a way to not do that. So like you alluded to what we do with Ban the Box is we remove that question from the application, which then leaves the employer in the dark about whether or not there has been an offense. 

Then presumably the individual, if they like them, if they’re intrigued, they’ll invite them in for an interview. The hope is they’ll develop a relationship and an understanding of that individual, grow to like them potentially before that revelation comes to light. I can see the appeal of that approach and indeed it may in some cases work, but with many employers, if they have an unwritten policy against hiring those individuals it’s inevitable that they’re going to reach that point and then they’re going to say, “Hey, it was great dragging you through these novels for three interviews. But the answer is no.” 

Anybody who’s been engaged in sales learns early on that if you’re engaging with a prospect, if the answer is no show some emotional maturity and let’s get to no because we’re all busy. That way you can shake the dust off your feet, move on to the next prospect. There’s always a next prospect. So in a way, I wonder if this is potentially counterproductive. So far it wastes the time of the individual job seeker and the employer. I think that what’s wanting is we need to make sure that the employers are willing to consider these overlooked candidates, not because they’re suckered into it or not because they’re compelled to it via regulation, but because they want to. 

Kyle Horn: The way we’re going to make them want to is by doing, frankly, what we’re doing with your job. We are making a solid business and moral case for hiring these individuals. We want the employer to hire them because they know that they might be the best employee they have. And again, we see that individuals who have struggled, individuals who’ve overcome patterns of behavior in their lives or overcome the challenges of disability, they make not only adequate employees, but they make exemplary employees because frequently they demonstrate remarkable work ethic because they’ve suffered, and they know the value of a job for their lives. 

Whereas someone whose life frankly has been pretty smooth and unchallenging very often tend to develop a sense of entitlement. And you often hear employers complain about entitlement. You very rarely hear an employer complain about entitlement for somebody who’s been through hell in their lives, honestly. 

Sean O’Brien: Watching some of those videos, you can definitely tell that. That’s what I think is so unique about what you’re doing. I’ve worked with federal state contractors, spoken to thousands of leaders and recruiters, which is most likely a fraction of who you’ve spoken to. But even I’ve heard the whole government side, the regulation, the compliance side. But your focus is the person, the actual work ethic, and giving them a shot because some of these can be superstars.

Kyle Horn: Absolutely. The retention. 

Sean O’Brien: Exactly. And my question to you is as we near the end of 2019 everyone talks about low unemployment rates. So does that show that people are actually hiring these folks or are they counted in that? 

Kyle Horn: It’s a good question. I think that to a degree it certainly prevails to our advantage because a lot of employers have already shifted their pre-screen requirements. In fact, you occasionally hear of companies that have very quietly dropped their requirement that the individual successfully pass a marijuana pre- screen. You know what I mean? And obviously they don’t send out press releases when they make those decisions. 

Sean O’Brien: No one’s hiring drivers or something like that. 

Kyle Horn: In certain settings, production work, et cetera, they’ve quietly dropped that requirement because it’s a tip of the hat through reality that either those positions go unfilled forever or they readjust their sights. Obviously the people doing what I do, advocating for this untapped workforce, the low unemployment rate is frankly a benefit.

The Hiring Manager’s Axiom

Kyle Horn: If we had candidates with pristine backgrounds, it would be very difficult to compel an employer to consider someone with criminal convictions and who can blame them. I’ve been a hiring manager for much of my life. I have hired and fired hundreds. And I firmly believe in what I call the hiring managers axiom, that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. It’s true whether we like it or not. Therefore, a person who has had difficulties and convictions in their lives, the onus is on them to prove to the employer that they have changed. And if that applicant is not able to articulate in a compelling fashion the fact that they have changed, that employer has every right to pass on that candidate. 

I’ve interviewed those people where they tell their story. “Well, I got an OWI here, then public intox, and then my second, OWI. I came here and then another couple of public intoxes.” I’m listening thinking, okay, I like you, but please let’s get to a punchline. Tell me when you stopped drinking and why. 

Sean O’Brien: So the timeline here is how recent. 

Kyle Horn: Let’s have this lead somewhere where I know that there is a transition point in your life. If there is no inflection point, then obviously I’m not an idiot. I’m moved to assume OWI #5 is coming, isn’t it? That’s just common sense. So the onus is definitely on the employee when they’re the applicant to make sure that they own their past, that they describe the transformation point or points after which their life was never the same, and that they present some vision of the future. 

And it’s also important then that a third party can essentially attest that those things are true. Whether it’s someone in the prison system who saw them day in, day out during an apprenticeship program. But those are tells, and they are, at their core, subjective. This is compelling evidence, but the only way an employer is going to hear those things is if they take the time to perform that individualized assessment. In other words, rather than just a blanket exile of everybody that’s got the offense, you’re going to have to look at them, invite them in, and have that conversation. I think for most employers it will be very evident whether this is an authentic, sincere individual. If they are it could be one of the best employees you ever had for the reasons that we discussed. Is there a little bit of additional risk? I would have to say yes there is, but with risks should come reward. And the reward here is a very committed employee who’s probably going to elevate the morale of the people around them because they’ll see, “Hey, I guess this is what it looks like when a person is really thankful for their job.” 

Sean O’Brien: Seriously. I mean, that’s the biggest engagement of an employee you could possibly have. Now I want to go to the second video. This is a great time to do it. Mr. Steven Shewry of Ottumwa, Iowa. This is one of my favorites on your website. Excellent. 

Sean O’Brien: So Steven’s story is an amazing one. It’s important to remember he overcame incredible obstacles, but there are some individuals who stole a pack of gum when they were 14 and they’re still like, “Oh, that was a felony.” You’re labeled, they’re out in the workforce trying to get jobs like 25 and whatnot. I’ve heard a ton of these stories, so it’s a wide spectrum. 

Kyle Horn: It is, and frankly, I think this can be something that challenges the worldview of some individuals who are rather entrenched and dogmatic about the way they view the world. And indeed, it was for me. I’ve got to be quite honest with you. If I were to go back a few years, I would have characterized my attitude towards struggling job seekers as pretty dismissive. My approach was kind of the hardcore businessman’s approach. I thought, “Hey man, it allows you work ethic. You report yourself. I got nothing for you. Wasn’t a bed of roses for me, but to fight you work hard, you try to build a life and you do what you have to do to take care of yourself and your family.” 

Frankly, there’s a little bit of sanctimony, a little bit of superiority in my attitude. The thing that challenged that was meeting them. I was sitting across the desk from a human being and hearing their story. And often the story that I heard caused me to conclude the hand of cards that this person has been dealt is atrocious. We’ve all taken some hits in life, but pain and opportunity are not equally distributed in this world. Some people have gotten far more than their fair share and you hear those stories. I would have to ask myself after the interview, “Had I been dealt the same hand of cards could I have played them any better?” Frequently I had to be honest with myself. No, I couldn’t have. 

Sean O’Brien: I thought the same thing when I was watching some of these videos where I’m like, Good Lord, how would I overcome that? Good on you because I don’t think I could have done it.” 

Kyle Horn: That’s spot on. And I think that your reference to the fact that some people get in with a rather minor offense. I too have seen that time and again and often the very first offense might be something that’s pretty much victimless.

Reentry Simulation and Unemployment Reality

Kyle Horn: Let’s say a person was caught selling a bag of weed 12 years ago. That introduces them to the system. What a lot of people don’t understand is once you’re in, it’s tough to escape the gravitational pull of the criminal justice system. In fact, there are currently programs going around the state and around the nation called a reentry simulation. What they do is they have people like you or I go in, we adopt the profile, the identity of someone who’s in prison and then we’re released, and we have to go through this checklist of all the flaming hoops through which they must jump. In the corners a jail, and a lot of people wind up in that jail because it is tough for a person of means to satisfy all these requirements, to say nothing of someone who has no support structure. So once you’re in, it’s tough. 

So let’s say you get one of those offenses in the early stage, you come out, you blow some requirement of your probation. Boom! You’re back in very quickly. You become radioactive and unemployable. You can’t find housing because of your background obviously. So you become disenfranchised. I sometimes think of “The Island of Misfit Toys.” Santa Claus is coming to town. 

You get relegated to this category not attached to the labor force and that kind of brings us back to your reference to the unemployment rate, and is that, in fact, an accurate reflection of jobless Americans? It is not. It is only a small subset of jobless Americans. A lot of people have the misconception that the unemployment rate is calculated by the number of people who are drawing unemployment. Not so because many people who become unemployed, they’re not eligible for unemployment. Or people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits yet remain jobless, are still out there without a job. So the fact of the matter is only a small percentage of non-working Americans are reflected in the category. They do these monthly polls. I won’t get too abstract on this, but every month they call several hundred individuals and they ask a series of diagnostic questions. One of them is do you have a job? And another one is, if not, are you actively seeking employment? 

Actively seeking means within the last four weeks. If this is an individual who got out of prison four years ago, has had 500 doors slammed in their face, finally they see the writing on the wall. They give up, they withdraw. They would love a job, but they’re no longer actively seeking. They’re not even counted among the unemployed. So we have thousands of individuals in this state. 

Sean O’Brien: Last four weeks? 

Kyle Horn: Last four weeks and that can’t be, “Oh, I skimmed the classifieds last week.” Nope, you don’t count. It has to be “I sent in an application for this company. I sat in for an interview.” If you don’t satisfy that criteria then you are not seeking employment. Therefore you are not unemployed. You are in a new category called not attached to the labor force. 

Now, interestingly enough, the number of employed Americans, and I hope my numbers are right here, I’ll send you some stats and graphs. About 110 million Americans who are currently in the workforce and the number of jobless Americans, adults who are unemployed yet not actively seeking employment, is something on the order of 95 million Americans. And some people estimate that within 20 years or so, the number of non-working adult Americans will exceed the number of working Americans. Obviously not a recipe for sustainability. So we need to go after that group. We need to stop pretending that the officially unemployed are our only potential source of candidates. We need to go after some of those who have given up in despair. The 70 million Americans who have been criminally involved, which is about the same number of Americans who have four year college degrees. The unemployment rate in that group? Sky high. We need to bring some of those back in. 

There are 55 million adult Americans with disabilities. Again, unemployment rates you hear various figures, but at least three times that of a non-disabled. A lot of them can be drawn into the workforce, so it’s time that philosophically our employers change their shift and recognize that we have these massive untapped workforces in the United States. As a competitive advantage for talent attraction, we need to start going after these people and it will be transformative on so many levels. 

First of all, and most importantly in my view, it will transform the lives of those individuals who are dying with all their music in them. They’ll be brought into society where they can make a contribution, and we will have the advantage of their tax dollars, their purchasing power. We will have the advantage of the labor that they’re bringing to employers, their commitment, their high work ethic, the fact that they tend to have outstanding retention. 

Across the board we’ll save money on the public supports that currently they’re drawing. So it’s going to be transformative to our workforce, transformative to our economy if we can successfully begin going after these people. Also, the employers will reap the benefit of an appreciative public because increasingly you can’t survey millennials and young consumers without seeing they want to do business with companies that demonstrate a social conscience. 

So if you’re in an industry, particularly one that’s undergoing commoditization and it’s difficult to separate yourself from the competition, I have the way for you. Seize that high moral ground and be seen as the employer that wants their workforce to reflect the community. Be seen as that employer that is willing to give people a chance that will transform their lives. People will leave their current providers, and they’ll come and do business with you because they want to work with somebody with a heart, somebody who likes to change the world. 

Sean O’Brien: Right and in a positive manner. And at the same time, if they can do the job, if they have the skills necessary to complete the job, they have shown reformation and the ability to do all the tasks you need done. You’re not losing anything to hire. That’s the huge irony. It’s not like, “Well I did a great thing and that position is going to suffer.”  If you go to your website, it’s incredible. All of their stories show they exceeded all expectations multiple times. It says things like the best employee I have. 

Kyle Horn: Right. We hear that a lot. 

Sean O’Brien: I think there’s so many societal norms where we have that negative tag. Criminal. They still stole a pack of gum when they were 14. Or, you know, disabled. Well, they’re smarter than half the people in the norm just to begin with. We put these terms on individuals, and I’m completely right there with you. 

Kyle Horn: You’re spot on and I just have to interject. You’re absolutely right. Those stories of when it works, it works great. And obviously the fact is sometimes it does not work, but I think that these are risks that can be managed. Employers who are approaching this in a savvy way can remove significant layers of risk. We’re not saying it’s risk-free, we’re not saying some people haven’t blown it, but I think that one disservice that has been done for people who advocate as I do for these candidates is to push people out there who are not workforce ready. And to be honest, some people who are in the provider community doing the human services, sometimes traditionally they have not had a keen understanding of the realities of business requirements. 

Therefore they may have been inclined to foist candidates onto an employer who wants to do the right thing and that employee was not ready. Of course 9 million people are going to hear about that failure. So to a degree, you positioned that well, and I think that at least now there’s individuals who are in this arena, and are taking note and recognizing we have to be honest about the fact that not everyone changes. Not everyone who comes out of prison should get a job because they’ve demonstrated zero evidence of a changed life. In fact, when I talk to people like Steven Shewry, and I asked him this question, and I’ve asked it a hundreds of times of others. “Okay Steven, you were in prison. You were surrounded by other guys who were in for a variety of offenses. Clearly you were laser focused on changing your life, getting back out, doing the right thing. Of all the people around you in that prison, how many were like you versus the ones who are just hanging out, shooting the breeze in the prison, and lifting weights?” 

Invariably the answer I get from these individuals is maybe three or four out of ten. That’s something that won’t necessarily win me any awards for people who are working with those candidates. You want to wish it was more flowery, but I call it as I see it. So the fact is, so maybe 30-40% of the people coming out of prison have truly repented, they’ve changed, they’ve left their old life behind. They’re picking up the skills required. Those are the ones for whom we advocate. We don’t advocate for indiscriminately hiring people with red flags. 

But if you look for these tells and speak to somebody who knows that individual in a professional capacity and who can vouch for them. And if you get one of those gems, one of those 30-40%, you’ve got something. I think the more that the people who are unchanged see that it is possible to change your life. You can be forgiven and welcomed back into society. I think we’ll see those numbers go up. A lot of the bitterness, a lot of the hardness right now arises from the fact that they have concluded that they will never be accepted back. They have the Scarlet Letter for life. They might as well turn mean and embrace despair. 

Sean O’Brien: It’s a cycle. It’s a cycle because then they come to us and we see that and think, “They’ll never have a shot. They’ll never be able to be reformed.” 

Kyle Horn: Right, and they can read that on you like a book. 

Sean O’Brien: Exactly. It’s a matter of simply changing the narrative, which is what you’re doing perfectly there.

Kyle Horn: I appreciate that. In point of fact, I’ve seen it at the individual level too. I was in a prison in Eastern Iowa a few weeks ago and there were a number of representatives from local community colleges and some employers. The idea was they would bring in a handful of inmates, and we could just kind of mix it up, have some conversations. 

There was one gentleman seated there who was just totally engrossed in some paper he was reading. I felt for the guy, so I went over and I started a conversation with him. It was obvious he didn’t think that he had a future, he was just doing his time, and I began asking him, “Well, what were your hopes? What were your dreams before you came in? What are you doing now to try to turn your life around?” There were a few things he shared with me that led me to believe that an opportunity that was right there in that room would have been made to order. It was actually driving a cement truck of all things. 

Sean O’Brien: Which is a job in need. 

Kyle Horn: Precisely. And there was a community college in there that does the training for it. There were employers in desperate need of workers. So the next thing you know, I’ve made an introduction. We had a three way conversation going on between him, the college teaching the class, and the employer in need of people. And it was interesting and I just kind of was an auditor at that point. At one point in that conversation, the prisoner stopped talking and there was a wave of emotion over his face. Out of the blue he began crying. 
Nobody said a word. Figured we’d give him time to compose himself. But it was painfully obvious to me what was going on there. The guy had been shown some hope. He had been shown some love. He had been shown some understanding, and it completely overwhelmed him. This is something he may not have gotten much of his entire life to say nothing about his time in prison. It transforms a person’s life. When you show them that you believe in them, you care about them, you’re willing to work with them and give them an opportunity, all the punishment in the world can’t do what that can do. That can penetrate a person’s heart and change it forever. 

Sean O’Brien: When’s the last time you hired someone who cried because they are given the opportunity? We talked to all these folks, especially in the skilled trades. I’ve heard a lot of my friends and everything say, “Well, I just need a warm body.” Well, how many of those guys and gals are you hiring that are going, “Thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m going to work my butt off given the chance.” 

Kyle Horn: Yes, a warm heart with that warm body. 

Advice for Hiring the Untapped Workforce

Sean O’Brien: Exactly. Kind of shifting focus a little to the actual employer. With staffing, they’re kind of a middleman between candidates and the company. They’re given a set of criteria. They really can’t go outside that a lot of the time. My friend’s wife, the different companies I’ve worked with under staffing companies have all said we can’t do anything about it. But as an internal recruiter, from a corporate setting, what can he or she do to say, “Nope, don’t just throw this application out the door, sit with this individual, and meet with them in person.” A lot of these managers, these hiring managers, they’re also managers. They have a lot going on so that’s what they rely on the recruiter to cut out a lot of what’s not qualified. But can they campaign for the individuals? What have you seen be successful? 

Kyle Horn: It’s a very good question. One of the things, and this is kind of self serving, but I would say if they need to get the buy in of their senior managers before they can go down this road, show them some of our videos find a competitor who’s in the same space, who’s hiring from this untapped workforce with great results, and share those with the team. Maybe have it be a lunch and learn. Give me a call. I’ll come out and talk to them anytime, any place. Basically make the case of if you are completely disregarding the 70 million Americans, the same number of people with four year degrees, then you’re doing so to your own peril because a lot of your more savvy competitors have gotten past that and they’re finding great talent. 

So the time is now to make that shift, but you’re right on the money, and it often takes somebody who gets it. Somebody who, let’s face it, these rules usually came down from the ivory tower and the corporation decades ago. And no one has ever questioned it. We’ve always done it that way and it served us just fine. It’s a whole new ballgame. Those rules came down when the unemployment rates were three times their current levels. 

The best laid battle plans, as they say, don’t survive the first engagement with the enemy. If you’re unwilling to change your approach based upon current market conditions then you’re a dinosaur. So it’s time that you reassess. I would encourage those individuals who see the light to make that case to their managers. If it will help them to make their case by sharing these videos or bringing in me or someone else, that would be great as well. 

Then short of that, I would say give it a shot. Try one. You don’t have to open the flood gates, but if you’ve got one person you’re feeling really good about, bring them on board. I have found that with a lot of companies, that’s precisely where it begins. They bring someone in and all of this anticipated fear and backlash doesn’t occur and so they go, “Huh. Well that was anticlimactic. Great worker. Let’s go back to the well and get another one.” So show some guts, I guess is what I’m saying. And leaders maybe do something crazy. Show some leadership, a little bit of moral leadership and see if you can make it happen. Transform your company. 

Sean O’Brien: I just want to point out one thing. This is what’s so amazing just speaking with you because not once did you ever mention anything. Well, besides the fact that it’s the law or work opportunity tax credits, you can get some kickback. No, do it because you can find a valued employee that does the work just as well, if not better than, everyone else. 

Kyle Horn: I appreciate you noting that. The other stuff, just sweeteners, right? 

Sean O’Brien: Absolutely. One thing. Kyle won’t tell our viewers here, but when he says he’ll come out, or help out, jump on the phone, whatever a lot of folks might be thinking, “Well, how much will that cost me? And I just want to let everyone know, Kyle, you actually don’t even take a paycheck. 

Kyle Horn: No. 

Sean O’Brien: Now mind you, this gentleman right here to my left has been the founder of other companies. He has been a manager. He has been a hiring manager, recruiting. He let all that go to work at this nonprofit that you’re not even taking a paycheck from to better the lives of others. I know I’m going to go right after this video, but you can not only make individual donations here to America’s Job Honor Awards, but you can be a company sponsoring this incredible organization. And that in and of itself is not only going to change lives of others, but it’s going to put you in the same realm that he was talking about with the corporations and everything that showed the younger generations that this is not just about making money. It’s also about making the world a better place. So I want to encourage anybody who’s a leader at a company or an individual donor, go to America’s Job Honor Awards. I keep wanting to call it Iowa’s Job Honor Awards as I kept reading it like that in articles. Go to their website and donate. And if you’re a company consider, partnering and sponsoring this incredible endeavor, he’s going through. Side note: Sorry, I knew you weren’t going to say anything so I wanted to. 

Kyle Horn: That’s kind of you Sean, I really appreciate that. We’ve got a lot of unmet demand. A lot of other States have seen what we’re doing here, and they say please come to our state. And we can’t. We’re kind of a one man initiative right now. I’m required to wear a lot of hats and my business development director hat can only go on for a few minutes a week. So that has been a challenge, but you’re absolutely right. One of the things that we’re endeavoring to do for those companies who opt to stand with us and help us change the world.They are very deserving of getting the full benefit of that association, so we feature their logos in the opening credits of our videos. As I say to these employers, this is an opportunity to develop a connection with your prospects at the level of the heart in a way that’s nearly impossible to achieve with conventional marketing. 

Anyone who’s interested in the one-timer visit our website, there’s a Support Us button. If you’re a company and want to consider a relationship, like being a sponsor of one of our awards ceremonies, we have a sponsorship portfolio talking about the various gradations of sponsorship. I appreciate that. My strategy from the start has always been that I feel personally called to do this. I feel like it’s an opportunity to make the world a better and a more welcoming place for my struggling brothers and sisters. I’m going to do just that, so I’ve always given everything away. I got a phone call from an organization last week that said, “Yeah, we play your videos all across Minnesota. They’re making a huge impact.” Perhaps I was a bit naive because I always thought if I give everything away, the money will just naturally start piling up at my door. Not yet. I’m beginning. I’m beginning to focus more on the ask, so thank you for that. 

Sean O’Brien: Absolutely. When I saw that I was kind of blown away. Kind of rerouting as well. And speaking a bit more on this area some other come from behind stories that you’ve seen, changes in leaders. Have you seen any of those types of stories where the leader…Okay, I’ve talked to a lot of folks. I’ve had the conversations honestly with federal contractors, with CEOs saying if they have a tattoo, I don’t want them. White trash if they show up at the door and they have a tattoo. You could say, “Hey, no visible tattoos, it’s dress code policy.” Like no, I just don’t like people’s tattoos. Oh what the heck. And then I actually talked to that same guy about a year or two later, and he had made some changes because they were a major mechanical contractor and needed the people with the experience. I’ll be darned .You mean to tell me a tattoo on somebody’s body doesn’t change a thing about their mind, their heart or anything? So that was one of the coolest stories I’ve heard. Honestly, one of the only ones that comes to mind now, but what’s your go-to top when you think of leadership changes? 

Kyle Horn: Who’ve been able to turn? 

Sean O’Brien: Yes, who has been able to turn away from that? What leadership turnaround story is like your top? What comes to mind when you think leaders who’ve gone from, “No, I’ll never hire him” to “Now we actively hire those with the barriers” if you will?

Kyle Horn: One that I found gratifying and moving occurred with one of our recent honorees Frontier Co-op, based out of a little town called Norway, Iowa, which is a few miles west of Cedar Rapids. They told me that they had attended an event at Anamosa prison. It was an employer event. I was a speaker there and I shared a couple of our honoree videos and I had invited a former honoree to speak, and they were in the audience.They later explained to me that after having seen these videos and being deeply moved by them, that on their way out to the car, they had a conversation in which they concluded that we need to be a part of one of these stories. And sure enough, they proactively began going down that road. How can we find sources of these candidates, people who are returning to society from prison, recruit them, and get them into the organization? 

They are a company with a long history of social activism, social conscience, and they did what they said they were going to do. They ultimately began hiring. They hired an individual by the name of Michael Willoughby from Iowa who served several years in prison, about 10 years. Michael Willoughby, it turns out, was one of our honorees in 2018. So here we went to that company and I had the pleasure of, in the context of entering Michael Willoughby and his colleagues to learn his story, I had the pleasure of asking their HR department what impelled you to go down this road. Then to sit there at the desk and have them say, “Well, we saw some of your videos and it really deeply inspired us. It was a huge affirmation for me because I realized this is a direct loop link demonstrating that what we’re doing is resulting in changed lives. Something like that will keep wind in your sails for a long time. 

Since that time, they have even taken it steps further, developing ways transporting individuals on work release in vans to their place of business. They’re really turning out to be thought leaders in this arena. Tony Bedard, the CEO of Frontier Co-op he speaks very compellingly on this issue. He’s one of those like me, who believes that talk is cheap. You are what you do, not what you say you will do. So they’re doing it and that company, they’re building a world-class workforce while changing lives. They’re going to be an example of a leader that we can point to and look to in the years ahead. 

Sean O’Brien: That’s awesome. Once again, I want to point out just a quick snippet of what you just said. We need to be a part of one of these stories. Not we need to be a part of this so we look good to the public. If you do one thing, just go to the website, view some of the stories that he’s speaking about because it’s not a compliance thing. It’s not a “Oh, how do we look better to the public, get our two cents of we’re good too. Okay, we’re done with that. Moving on.” These stories really change lives and can train some of these individuals as well, and they develop a lot of the times quicker because they’re so involved and engaged in making sure they do a great job because they’ve been given an opportunity.

Company Benefits for Hiring the Untapped Workforce

Kyle Horn: One thing I’ll add that’s just so spot on about what you’re saying there is the fact of the matter is companies that make it their focus just to do the right thing, to hire these great employees. They will reap all of those additional benefits, but they will come organically as a natural consequence. It’s almost a “seek ye first to do the right thing, then all these things will be added unto you.” And those things are added. The respect, the appreciation of the consumers. Your company will be looked upon as a thought leader and as an engaged for good, socially conscious company. A company doing well by doing good because they are doing right. They’re not because they talk about it and not because they spend 20 grand on a social media campaign to try to refine their image. I’ve spoken in every prison in Iowa. 

Sean O’Brien: Really? Wow. 

Kyle Horn: Oh yeah. I love to. At first it was a little bit unnerving sitting in a gymnasium surrounded by 350 inmates and picnic tablesI guess I’m on now. But one of the things I share with them is I always tell them…and I think sometimes I say things that not everyone does. I don’t go in there and say, “Hey, we really need to work on those resumes, or you really need to hone your interview skills.” No, what I start with is step one, and I actually project it on the PowerPoint. 

Step One: You get to change. You’re here for a reason. Unless and until you’ve changed and unless and until you abandon those behaviors that landed you behind bars, you’re just going to go out and blow it again. Cost everybody a lot of time and money. So step one is change. 

Step Two: Convince the hiring manager that you have changed. So step one is necessary but not sufficient. You have got to be able to articulate that. That’s when I talked to them about developing their stories, et cetera. But I want to be clear with those guys because I want to tell them the truth. And the truth is you can’t take those bad behaviors with you and have a changed life. The price of freedom is discipline whether we like it or not. I don’t like it, but it happens to apply to me. I find that when I do the right thing, my life goes well. When I don’t, I wind up in trouble, you know? They can’t escape those laws of nature. I think, once again, this all boils down to just following those baby steps, doing the right thing. And then the next thing you know, wow. Huge transformations. Major benefits to the company. 

America’s Job Honor Awards Biggest Takeaway

Sean O’Brien: Yeah. I kind of want to end off with the question we ask everyone here on the video podcasts or podcast, however you’re listening, watching this, whatever it may be. If the viewers of our Culture Couch today get one thing out of our discussion, what would you like that to be? 

Kyle Horn: People change. I think it’s very easy to lose sight of that. I think what we’re proposing here is something that should appeal equally, completely across the political spectrum. But unfortunately, and I think somewhat perversely, these issues have become politicized where people believe that it’s the purview of one side of the aisle to be in favor of second chances and the other side of the aisle to be in favor of perpetual punishment. We all need to be in favor of helping our fellow Americans, our brothers and sisters, turn it around. Should there be punishment for crimes? You bet your life. A price must be paid. 

The fact is after the legal sentence has been completed, do we then have a right as a society to add an informal extra sentence and say, “Look, you did your time. You did well, appreciate all that, but now we’re going to sentence you and your family to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty and no place to live.” There’s no reform in that equation. What that is, is permanent disenfranchisement. I’ve walked through neighborhoods where three out of every four black kids will be dead or in prison by age 18. People just need to let that soak in. Is that the America we want to live in? Do we rejoice in seeing people get their just desserts? I don’t know about you. I did not pick my parents and I did not pick my zip code. I was thrust into existence just like the rest of you. If I’ve got a brother who’s been thrust into that existence and has been dealt that hand of cards he’s not my enemy. 

I will be his advocate. I will be his friend. I want to help him live a good life, a happy life, a life filled with joy that has the same opportunities I’ve had. I don’t want him to die with all his music in him. Now, if this does not surpass politics, then nothing does. So I think those of us who may have preconceptions about our own political doctrine and thinking that somehow it means that we should be opposed to this, think again. I repented my hard heartedness. I realized I was on the wrong side of this issue. I’ll tell you what, it’s nice to be able to change the world, but you can’t change the world unless you’re willing to consider the fact that maybe you’ve been wrong about something your entire life. And that can be a liberating thing. 

Sean O’Brien: Thank you so much.Once again, Sean O’Brien here with Auzmor and the Culture Couch. Thank you so much, Mr. Kyle Horn. It’s been an honor to meet you and to hear about the work. Once again make sure you go to the website, America’s Job Honor Awards at

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Please visit us at if you have any questions about this podcast or any of our services. Also, be sure to catch our next video podcast coming soon: The State of the American Workplace — What do employees really want and how can organizations and leaders provide it? The guest speaker is Todd McDonald, President at ATW Training Solutions and owner of New Horizons Computer Learning Center of Des Moines.

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