Fair hiring practices: big bang for buck and bipartisan support

October 13th, 2015 at 7:50 am

[This post was written jointly with Ben Spielberg]

Try to think of a policy idea that has the following characteristics:

–it costs almost nothing to implement;

–it has the potential to help millions of highly disadvantaged people raise their living standards;

–it is supported by both President Obama and the Koch brothers;

–the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee just approved a bill advancing this policy by a bipartisan, unanimous vote.

You’re envisioning the null set, right?

Wrong! The idea to which we refer is called “ban the box.” It’s a fair chance hiring idea that moves a job applicant’s background check from the beginning of the application process to the end, after the candidate has received a conditional offer of employment.

Background checks are still allowed – they just come later in the process – so there’s no loss of information for employers.  All ban the box does is make sure that employers form their initial impressions about candidates based on their skills, qualifications, and interviews instead of something they might or might not have done in the past (a very high percentage of criminal records – approximately one in two, in the case of those held by the FBI – contain errors and/or inaccuracies, and that statistic doesn’t even account for incorrect arrests and convictions).

By reducing—not eliminating—the potential for prejudice in the hiring process, this policy benefits both job applicants (by giving them a fairer shot at a job) and employers (by decreasing the chance that they’ll pass over strong candidates). And we’re talking about an idea that could reach a lot of people: an astoundingly high 70 million Americans currently have some sort of conviction or arrest history that could show up on a background check.

As such, we view “ban-the-box” as a partial step on the path to full employment. We don’t want to oversell it; it’s a “supply-side” part of the solution and its success is surely conditional on strong labor demand. And of course, even if we can dampen employer discrimination towards those with criminal records, there’s still ample discrimination based solely on race alone. One study of employer responses to job applicants found that white men with a criminal record got more positive responses than black men without a record.

But early research on fair chance hiring is encouraging, as employment for people with criminal records substantially increased after adoption of ban the box in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Durham.

As you’d expect, having a job improves the long-term prospects of formerly incarcerated people: studies indicate that being employed can cut the risk of recidivism in half and double the likelihood that someone with a record will be able to climb the economic ladder. Such information is especially germane given the Justice Department’s plan to release thousands of people with nonviolent records from prison. That’s another great policy move, one that strikes at racial inequities deeply embedded in our justice system. But once they get out of prison, these people also need access to jobs.

By ensuring that federal agencies and government contractors apply fair hiring practices, the Fair Chance Act would help in this regard.  Nineteen states and over 100 cities and counties have already taken similar action for government employees, and seven states (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island) plus Washington, DC and 26 cities and counties have extended ban the box policies to cover private employers.  Some private businesses, including Walmart, Koch Industries, Target, Starbucks, Home Depot, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, have also adopted these policies on their own.

The proposal isn’t perfect. Activists would ideally like to see clearer mechanisms for enforcement. The bill also carves out unnecessary exceptions for sensitive positions (e.g., law enforcement and national security). Such positions should definitely require background checks, but ban-the-box doesn’t prevent them from doing so; it just moves those checks to the end of the hiring process.

Ban-the-box is also but one small part of a comprehensive set of much-needed criminal justice reforms. To reduce the number of people who end up with criminal records in the first place, states should expand alternatives to prison and shorten the length of prison terms. We should also ban for-profit prisons, as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed; the profit motive in this industry too often leads to exploitation and abuse, not just of people in prison, but of their families as well (to be clear, public sector prisons also need to – and can – be significantly more humane). In the meantime, we should step up our enforcement of civil rights protections already on the books and make sure our background checks are reliable and accurate.

Still, ban-the-box is a smart step in the right direction with a big bang-for-buck. If this new bill can actually bust through congressional gridlock and become law, it will be a real victory for justice.

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2 comments in reply to "Fair hiring practices: big bang for buck and bipartisan support"

  1. Jurassic Carl says:

    This is definitely a good idea.

    If they could find a way to stop HR departments from filtering out black sounding names and people older than 35, that’d be great too. haha

    One major problem with the job market is the lack of hiring.

    just look at this chart on openings, quits, and rate growth.
    https://twitter.com/nick_bunker/status/655032205954142208

    My take is that tons and tons of jobs are being posted and re-posted for 1-2 years, and no one is hired. Essentially, for various reasons, the labor market is not clearing. Partly, it is the hidden slack, partly the gap in expectations and wages offered, and partly it must be a lack of aggregate demand. Additionally, there is so much inefficiency, hesitancy, etc in the process.

    I’m so glad that I’m launching my own business right now. I don’t have to deal with recruiters and HR people ever again. They’re the worst. Dante’s 8th circle of Hell (frauds) kind of bad. haha


  2. Alice Johnson says:

    “Ban the Box” is the modern day version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. People are running around talking about it but has anyone shown evidence that it works? In a way, it’s almost cruel because it gives people with convictions in their backgrounds the false hope that they’ll have the same chance at getting hired as someone without a conviction as long as the crime wasn’t job related & they can explain the circumstances. WRONG! In almost every case, as soon as the negative background info is revealed, the discussion ends.

    I have facts to back that statement up.You would expect someone with a college degree, over 10 years experience in a professional job & great references to be able to have an employer willing to give them a chance. Absolutely not! After 13 job offers in 6 months being rescinded it’s time to face the facts that no one will hire you. And that’s just 1 case. There are others but it would take a whole column just to share them.

    Banning the box at the start only delays the rejection til the end when they decide you’re the best person for the job. Once you disclose the background or it appears on the background report, the “adverse action” letters come. And you can forget trying to explain that the conviction wasn’t job related. No one wants to talk to you. They refer you to the background check company to correct any errors. If the report is correct, there’s nothing to correct but you never get to have the “individual assessment” that the EEOC strongly encourages. Unless you’re a protected class, it’s legal discrimination.

    You mentioned that ” employment for people with criminal records substantially increased after adoption of ban the box in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Durham”. Have these cities offered proof of that? Because according to people in the Ga Office of Re-entry & Support, they don’t know of a single white collar person that has gotten work in a professional job once they have a conviction on their record. If you ask people in the field of criminal justice reform they’ll tell you that white collar people with convictions are not uncommon but there are no programs that assist them getting back to a productive life. Most of them already have skills & know how to dress, write a resume & interview. What they need are contacts with employers that will actually listen & give them a chance.

    So I applaud the gesture but if society doesn’t BAN THE BIAS, then “Ban the Box” will become just another slogan & eventually drift off like a lot of other programs that were desperately needed.


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