I recently accompanied my friend, Cassie, to our local Workforce Commission. I stayed in the lobby while Cassie entered a room full of computers where dozens sat filling out job applications.
There was desperation in the air.
Before resorting to the Workforce Commission’s computer room, Cassie spent weeks visiting local establishments, applying for jobs, and interviewing. Two locations with “Now Hiring” signs in their windows promised callbacks. When they didn’t call, though, Cassie did. They told her they were in a hiring freeze, but their windows told a different story. (The “Now Hiring” signs are still hanging.)
Cassie knows the reason for the “hiring freezes.” Her background check came back with an old stain from years past that refuses to stop spreading—a conviction for signing her sister’s name on a traffic ticket.
In his book Can We Close the Revolving Door? Recidivism vs. Employment of Ex-Offenders in the U.S., Harvard economist Richard Freeman shares a study that “asked employers in four major cities if they would accept an applicant with a criminal record. Just 12.5 percent of employers said they would definitely accept such an application, and 25.9 percent said they probably would.”
Most, though, said they would not.
Not everyone who fills out applications at the Workforce Commission has a criminal record. Education or experience gaps can induce joblessness. Sometimes those gaps exist because of lifelong circumstances, sometimes because of personal choices. Criminal histories, education gaps, and lack of reliable transportation (all of which Cassie faces) make finding sustainable employment fiercely difficult.
Hardened Against God’s Grace?
Christians believe that every person bears the image of God (Gen. 1:27), possessing inherent dignity, and that work itself possesses dignity (Gen. 2:15). We also believe in redemption. As we read the “roll call of the faithful” in Hebrews 11, we see forefathers and foremothers of the faith who desperately needed God’s grace—Paul and Moses the murderers, Rahab the prostitute, King David who wielded power and privilege to gratify sexual desires and kill the man who might find him out. It’s a list of criminals whose futures were redeemed by the stunning grace of God.
If we believe that every person is an image bearer, that work and humanity are inherently dignified yet fallen, and that God shows grace to the underserving, then it seems we should be invested in recognizing dignity both in others and in their work—not merely in ourselves and our own work.
People aren’t naturally fond of offering undeserved opportunities, especially when it may cost them something. But as Christians we are called to a subversive way. When the single mom of three or the man with the criminal record fills out a job application at our business, what internal assumptions do we make? Are we addressing those assumptions? If we don’t, I fear we may become hardened against God’s grace. I fear we may equate poverty with poor choices. I fear we may let past choices, or present hardships, serve as tally marks in the “against” column when deciding whether someone is hirable.
Our First Job Title
Tim Keller observes in Every Good Endeavor [interview] that work has dignity both “because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives.” Our job title, given to us at salvation—“representative of the living God”—is based on a résumé with one bullet point: Fashioned by the Creator God, covered with the blood of Jesus Christ.
In rooms where keyboard clicks and discouraged sighs express hopeless laments, our willingness to reject bootstrap ideology and offer abundant grace to our neighbors may change a few notes in that tune. Dignity is not ours to give or to take. It is, however, ours to acknowledge, even when acknowledgment is risky.
This doesn’t mean we should engage recklessly, of course. Expectations must be established. Education—job training, résumé building, interview practicing—may be needed. Our investment may range from vouching for someone needing a recommendation to loaning someone a suit for an interview. Could our help may be abused? Of course. But we worship One who vouched for us—at infinite cost to himself—while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). We rejected and mocked him; he persisted in loving us.
Dare to Defy
While touring prisons during her career in venture capital and private equity, Catherine Hoke realized that “many of the incarcerated men she met shared key qualities with the visionary entrepreneurs she worked with every day.” So she began conducting business seminars in the prison and teaching men and women who society more familiarly refers to as “ex-convicts.”
Hoke eventually founded Defy Ventures to help those needing a second chance. “To date, Defy [entrepreneurs-in-training] have launched 44 businesses and created 34 employment opportunities for Defy program participants and others. Defy has engaged over 1,000 executive volunteers from the private sector who have contributed 8,000+ hours as business plan competition judges, mentors, and business coaches.”
Driven by gospel grace, Hoke honors the dignity of those often despised by society. She gives the broken and shamed a new name, no longer defining them by their pasts but by the hope of their futures. And she invites volunteers to join her efforts—lending their names, expertise, mentorship, and guidance.
As we remember the One who drew near to us, walked alongside us, and won redemption for us—even when our sin had left a crimson stain—may we be agents of reconciliation in our organizations and companies, bridging the gap between inherently dignified workers and inherently dignified work.
Editors’ note: “Cassie” is a pseudonymn.