Values and Principles to Guide Employment Programming and Policy

By Melissa Young, Director, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity and Chris Warland, Associate Director for Field Building, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity


At Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity, our policy goals and program recommendations are based on research, evidence, and data—but they are also driven by values rooted in human rights and the dignity of all people. These are the values that have guided our work in the employment field since our inception. This Labor Day, we are reflecting on our commitments and looking forward to help establish these values and principles throughout the nation for the benefit of every person who wants to work.

Our Core Values for Employment Services and Policy:

  1. Virtually everyone can work given the right supports. We know that people facing barriers to employment want to work, can be successful in work, and will accept the opportunity to work when barriers are removed.
  2. Everyone who wants to work should have a job. Work provides income to meet our basic needs, but it also provides identity, purpose, meaning, and a sense of belonging in our communities. For these reasons, we believe work should be readily available to anyone who seeks it, regardless of the barriers they face.
  3. All jobs should pay enough to lift workers out of poverty. No one should live in poverty, including workers facing barriers to employment. We need to address the fact that so many of us work and yet continue to experience poverty and homelessness.

Bringing these values to life in our collective work yields a set of principles that can guide our efforts at every level, including policymaking, systems administration, program design, and direct service:

Guiding Principles for Employment Policy and Service Delivery:

  • Zero exclusion—if someone seeks employment, we should make that our goal—regardless of the barriers they face, the choices they have made in the past, or the challenges we encounter in supporting them. This includes people with criminal records, regardless of conviction, as well as others facing multiple and serious barriers to employment. We should begin every interaction with the assumption that an individual can be successful in work and is motivated to work.
  • Screen in, not out—we should target and serve people who face the most significant barriers to employment. Assessment should be used to tailor services, not to exclude people who are “not motivated” or “not ready.” Focus on strengths, not deficits.
  • Equity—we should acknowledge and seek to actively correct inequities and discrimination in employment, particularly focusing on correcting inequitable economic outcomes based on race, gender, LGBTQ status, immigration status, disability, and other factors.
  • Consumer choice—we should prioritize the needs and preferences of jobseekers as best we can, both in the type of services we deliver and in the type of employment we help them pursue. This means connecting individuals with the opportunities they want rather than those we have readily available.
  • Participant voice—we should engage and listen to jobseekers and program participants with lived experience of poverty, homelessness, criminal justice involvement, receipt of public benefits, and community violence, along with other individuals that often face multiple barriers to employment, in all aspects of program planning and delivery.
  • Adequate support services—expecting someone to be successful in work without securing childcare, transportation, clothing, and other essential services is setting them up for failure. We should create the conditions necessary for employment success through individualized support services.
  • Trauma-informed—understand that many of the jobseekers we serve have experienced trauma, and that normal human responses to trauma can masquerade as a lack of interest or motivation, or as an oppositional attitude. We also need to educate employer partners about how trauma manifests in the workplace and how to effectively respond.
  • Expect and plan for failure—understand that securing and keeping employment can be a challenging task, and accept failure as a necessary part of learning and progress. We should plan for failure and offer structured pathways to reenter programming and employment for jobseekers who make mistakes.
  • Job quality—acknowledge that many people who work are still living in poverty and experiencing homelessness. We should promote access to only high quality, family-sustaining jobs and partner only with employers that respect workers. Moreover, we should support efforts to improve pay and job quality for all workers. We should not be content with introducing more people to the ranks of the working poor.
  • Rapid attachment—chronically unemployed jobseekers have a critical and immediate need for income. We should strive to connect jobseekers to earned income as quickly as possible. Whenever appropriate, we should connect jobseekers to subsidized work and offer concurrent preparation and wrap-around services as opposed to lengthy up-front preparation.
  • Harm reduction—recognize that people who use substances can be effective, productive workers, that employment can support recovery from substance use disorders, and that in most cases mandatory drug testing as a condition of employment is not cost effective or necessary. We should not make abstinence from substance use a condition of receiving employment services.
  • Supportive relationships—understand that a supportive relationship is the foundation on which all our work is built, and that without the ability to build genuine, caring, trusting relationships with jobseekers, no evidence-based model or service will make a difference. We should remain mindful of this in every interaction as well as decisions regarding staffing, staff development, and program design.

Most of these principles are not fully realized in the field of employment services, and some may be foreign to many workforce development professionals, advocates, and policymakers. However, they are all logical extensions of human rights values and a commitment to equity in employment. We challenge ourselves and our partners—especially this Labor Day—to ask, “How can access to employment be more equitable and inclusive, and how can the services we offer and the policies we promote better reflect our commitment to valuing work and all workers?”

In the coming weeks, we will continue to share how these values and principles can inform program design and policy, and we hope that you’ll join us as we share, discuss, and explore what it will take to make sure every person has success in accessing fair and quality employment.

About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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