How relevant is an applicant’s criminal history to a job? Does it depend on the crime? Does it depend on the job? Does it depend on how recently the crime was committed? Even if you hire someone with a criminal record, does that change the way that they’re treated at your company?
These are all topics that you have to consider with regard to the movement to “ban the box,” referring to the part of a job application that asks about whether the candidate has been charged and/or convicted of any crimes. A number of people believe that such questions violate an individual’s civil rights.
The vast majority of background checks follow up on a candidate’s criminal history; few other items of information are requested by employers as often as this one. Although omitting this question does not disallow you from screening the applicant’s criminal past after extending a job offer, it does prevent you from automatically disregarding applicants who admit to having committed infractions.
Background screenings cost both time and money for you, so you don’t want to waste it on an applicant who may be guilty of something that renders them in some way unequipped to fulfill their duties. Let’s consider the idea more deeply, as both sides of the debate have some compelling ideas.
Arguments in Favor of Banning the Box
Honestly, most of the arguments that support banning the box focus on benefiting the applicants. Some companies refuse to hire candidates with a criminal record, even if the crimes are not directly relevant to the position for which they applied. Advocates for banning the box claim that this is unwarranted discrimination and that it causes undue hardship on reformed criminals. It’s believed that banning the box would make the hiring process fair for the applicants.
However, there may be a benefit for you, too. Think about this way: The more fabulously credentialed people you consider hiring, regardless of their history, the more likely you are to find someone who’s truly remarkable. What if you threw away an application for someone who would have worked wonders for your company simply because they noted that they were convicted of some kind of crime that may or may not be relevant to the job? If the applicant doesn’t even have the option of offering such information, that’s one potential bias that you can ignore in order to focus purely on each individual’s professional qualifications.
Arguments Against Banning the Box
As mentioned earlier, banning the box could present some frustrating complications for employers. Obviously, if you wanted to hire someone and only found out after making an offer and ordering a background check that they committed a serious crime, you’d have to start back at square one of the hiring process with another candidate. That’s time and money—right out the window.
Also, every state has its own set of laws for hiring people. Complying with a law to ban the box could look different everywhere and slow down recruitment nationwide.
Furthermore, a Princeton economist named Amanda Agan has released studies showing that companies that are not informed about whether or not a candidate has a criminal history are more likely to disregard applications featuring names that sound typical for black men—simply because black men are statistically more likely to have spent time in prison—even though they used to reject former criminals of any race equally. If you were found guilty of that kind of discrimination, it wouldn’t make you look too good in front of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Let’s Try to Predict the Future
If you do end up having to “ban the box,” then how might that change your options for ordering background checks? What else can you do to try and assure yourself that the applicant you want to screen has the kind of moral character and work ethic that you’d love in your company? It can’t hurt to be prepared with a plan, just in case it becomes necessary.
Interviews with supervisors and references (both professional and personal) can certainly help give you an idea of what an applicant is like. Many background check companies will complete such interviews for you, and it’s sometimes easier and faster to reach references than it is to get information from a court.
You can also order different kinds of background check packages, so if you’d like to solely follow up on an applicant’s criminal history and then order the rest if the applicant passes, you can certainly do so.
On the other hand, if you keep the box, you can help end discrimination, continue complying with the policies of the EEOC, and ensure that you onboard all the best new recruits simply by being choosier about which crimes will really matter to the job and/or meeting otherwise qualified applicants in person before making a decision about whether to consider them for hire.
Of course, it would also be helpful to treat symptoms of discrimination—such as consciously stopping yourself from tossing out an application with a black-sounding name on it solely because of its name—and its roots, which include a legacy of legal and vocational measures designed to hold back people who didn’t fit a certain mold. We’ve come a long way with regard to social progress, but there’s still much more to be done, and your company can perform its part by making greater efforts at promoting diversity and inclusion—even (and perhaps especially) when it comes to hiring former criminals.
What Should We Do?
Perhaps there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Screening and dismissing applicants with certain kinds of criminal history from the start may be more necessary and appropriate in some circumstances than in others. The best solution may be a compromise in which the box is only present in some applications for some employers and banned from others.
Making laws and policies is never a simple matter, most people have an opinion on nearly everything. What’s your opinion on banning the box? Please share with us your perspective and ideas as both an employer and employee, as many of you may describe yourselves.