Ban the Box

I want to talk for a moment about a legislative campaign called “Ban the Box.” Essentially, Ban the Box is a prohibition on asking job applicants if they have been convicted of a crime. Most job applications have a question: have you ever been convicted of a crime? This question is directed to find out if someone has a criminal history, and if that history involves a felony (excluding minor violations).

Over time, sociologists, criminologists, and human resources experts have noticed that there is a discriminatory effect whenever someone answers that question in the affirmative. If someone has said that they have been convicted of a felony, those applications are filed away (if not thrown away) and the candidate never hears a response. This obviously creates a number of societal problems that are worth noting, but are not the purpose of this post.

Over time, many local and county governments began “banning the box.” The employer began to remove that question from their job applications. The standard became that any questions regarding one’s criminal history were asked at the job offer stage. So, a conditional offer would be made assuming that the applicant passes a criminal background check. At least people were able to get in the door.

Banning the box and not asking about criminal history does not mean that criminal history is irrelevant. For example, it is not a good idea to give someone who has been convicted of embezzlement access to company money. Likewise, there are other activities such as working with children, the elderly, or with valuables, where a criminal history would be very relevant. So criminal history is not ignored, but at least there was an opportunity for job candidates to begin to move beyond the scarlet letter “F” for convicted felon.

While governments were the first employers to start banning the box, more cities and states are starting to pass laws that ban the box for private employers. I believe this is going to be an ongoing trend as these laws are accelerating in both liberal and conservative states.

Given the potential for discrimination – both discriminating against people with a criminal past but also discriminating against people of different socioeconomic backgrounds where youth crimes are common, the effort to ban the box is an effort that is designed to try and level the playing field. I am now starting to recommend that employers reconsider their applications so that the question is not even asked. The soundest policy is to conduct a criminal background check when you make the offer letter. In doing so, the letter would then say that this offer is contingent on the candidate passing a criminal background check.

This policy offers the ability for the employer to investigate the candidate’s background, and should they have a criminal record, the company can make sure whether those offenses are relative to the job at hand.

I do believe that over time ban the box legislation is going to become much more widespread than it already is. The movement is addressing a discriminatory practice and it does so in a way that is not intrusive. Banning the box does not impose a great burden upon a business. Criminal background checks are for the most part cost between $25 and $50, and allows the business to ensure the candidate’s standing is suitable for the job without being biased towards any prior offenses, great or small.

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