Hiring? Why "Ban the Box" Makes Sense — Even If Not Legally Required

Each year brings an assortment of new hiring laws and local and state regulations for HR pros to navigate. 2018, in particular, is seeing the widespread emergence of laws designed to help even the playing field for job candidates who are typically at a disadvantage. In an effort to combat discrimination and pay inequality, for example, some states no longer allow employers to ask about salary history. Anticipating adoption in other locations, companies like Amazon have moved to enact this as company-wide policy.

California is the latest state to enact a form of “ban the box” legislation, which in California’s case restricts employers from asking about criminal convictions during the application process — until a conditional employment offer is ready to be made. While controversial in some quarters (more on that in a moment), some major employers like Starbucks and Facebook are picking up on the practice even before they are legally required to do so, much as Amazon did with salary history.

According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), over two-thirds of the American population lives in an area currently covered by some sort of ban-the-box policy. What are legislators hoping to accomplish, and why should businesses think about adopting the practice — like Starbucks did early on — even if they aren’t legally required to do so?

Candidates can’t get past the checkbox.

A single checkbox about criminal history offers little room for context. Answering “yes” to having committed crimes in the past puts a job seeker on a fast track to the rejection pile, regardless of the nature of the offense and its relevance in relation to the job opening. Candidates who acknowledge their criminal history are approximately 50 percent more likely to be declined.

It’s hard enough to get hired even without a knockout question eliminating half of the open opportunities right out of the gates. A study funded by the National Institute of Justice showed that candidates with criminal history fared better when they had an opportunity to directly engage with the hiring managers — but that opportunity isn’t being presented when employers disqualify a “yes” answer immediately. It’s little wonder that these candidates can feel that the system is stacked against them.

“For hard-working and well-intentioned individuals, a criminal history can make the opportunity to find a job and move forward almost impossible to achieve,” said Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in a 2015 letter to Senator Cory Booker.

A related piece of legislation, the Fair Chance Act, brings ban-the-box policies to the federal government (with exemptions for security and law enforcement positions), and has enjoyed bipartisan support.

Employers are missing out on great candidates.

In such a competitive hiring market with low unemployment, employers often feel the strain of diminished candidate pipelines. Mega-corporations like Starbucks aren’t entirely driven by altruism when they ban the box; they also want improved access to great candidates.

To his credit, Schultz admitted as much in his letter: “None of this is charity. We are simply giving people an opportunity–sometimes a second one–to prove themselves while helping to grow our company.”

This is true at smaller companies as well. The New York Times reported on a 250-employee organic bread company called Dave’s Killer Bread that says 30 to 40 percent of its employees have a criminal history. “We know we get the best possible candidates and employees when we get to have a conversation with them about their background and what happened to them,” executive director Genevieve Martin told the Times.

Just because the box is “banned” doesn’t mean that employers are kept in the dark. The specifics of ban-the-box policies vary, in terms of when or how criminal records can be requested, or background checks performed. The goal is not to sugarcoat history, but to insist that candidates are seen more holistically. This can indeed require more work from hiring managers. But companies like Starbucks and Dave’s have reported being better for it.

Bias still exists, with or without the box.

Of course, changing a field on a job application does little to address underlying systemic problems around incarceration and recidivism. The National Bureau of Economic Research offered some alarming evidence to show that as a result of being unable to block candidates with a criminal record en masse, hiring managers are instead discriminating against the demographic groups they believe are likely to have records.

There are also mounting success stories. NELP notes that job applicants with criminal records were recommended for jobs three times more often in Durham County, NC, after a ban-the-box enactment. Not only are employers getting better candidates, but there are ramifications in everything from public safety to the U.S. GDP.

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