It's the kind of topic that makes many business owners uneasy: How do you hire someone who's homeless without feeling like a sleaze?

Plenty of companies and nonprofits have already gone through the process, and more are expected to follow now that states such as Utah provide tax credits to businesses that employ people who are homeless. But there are certain things to keep in mind.

1. Start with the Supporters
Find a local homeless shelter or organization (such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) that specializes in helping this population in a holistic way. Many times there are physical or mental needs that an employer isn't equipped to fulfill, though finding the right partner can provide the new employee more of what they need to become a corporate success.

Annemarie du LeBohn says she took this approach last year when the corporate social responsibility specialist for TNG Real Estate turned to the U.S. Vets' Advance Women's Program to hire a homeless individual:

"It was really important for TNG to find a nonprofit that offered as many resources as possible for the person, because we couldn't pick her up and bring her to work every day and drive her back," says du LeBohn. "We didn't have the ability to feed her, or help her with any medical or emotional needs. They did."

2. Ramp up Responsibilities
Don't assume someone who's homeless is too fragile for a traditional, promotion-driven workload that grows over time. See what works for them.

At TNG, the new employee started as an intern learning about the real estate business. After four months of learning how to be a transaction coordinator, the company hired her and, within five months, saw her move into an apartment--"something she had not had in many years," says du LeBohn.

Over at The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that employs homeless individuals to create coats that convert into sleeping bags, the first three months is spent teaching new recruits about the basics of sewing. There's also a lot of time focused on instilling confidence:

"The opportunity means the world to them, and they're not really themselves at the beginning," says Veronika Scott, The Empowerment Plan's founder and CEO. "They're trying to learn, and they think they're going to disappoint and we'll fire them."

After that initial psychological hurdle, though, employees learn how to make the entire product from start to finish and are eligible at six months to take out a $1,500 microloan. So far, The Empowerment Plan has hired around 20 homeless individuals--all of whom have moved out of a shelter and into their own home. And no one has defaulted on the loan, except for one worker who passed away.

3. Find the Right Incentives
Experts vary on what the best--translation: enticing but still respectful--incentives might be, though a competitive salary with benefits is still the norm. Additional perks like a raise or reward might be given as certain job-training milestones are achieved over time. But there are other incentives some other employers have reportedly used in the past for temporary workers:

-A Mississippi police department provided a homeless man with an on-site trailer to guard a cemetery that had been repeatedly damaged by vandals.

-One restaurant in Portland gave slices of pizza, soda and a little money to a homeless man so that he'd hold a sign that noted "[the company name] paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money."

Appropriate? Not to some experts, so consider checking in with your local homeless advocates to see what incentives they might recommend. Even better: Interview a few of their contacts who are homeless but looking for work and see what works best for them. After all,what better way is there to get to know one of your possible future employees?

Published on: Jul 29, 2014