On July 14, 2014, California joined at least a dozen other states in banning most public and private employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal record on the initial job application. While, in most cases, employers are allowed to inquire about convictions later in the hiring process, they are not allowed to treat criminal convictions as an automatic “disqualifier.” The laws became known as “ban the box” [BTB] laws, since many job application forms historically had required the applicant to check off if he or she had any convictions.
Critics Say Lack of Information Leads to “Guessing” on Part of Prospective Employers
The goal of the laws is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment. Critics of the laws argue that without prior conviction information at their disposal, all too many prospective employers try to “guess” which applicants may have a criminal record, and avoid interviewing them. Some critics contend the result of this “guessing game” is that many young, low-skilled, black, and Hispanic men are systematically excluded from the hiring process.
New Study: Ban the Box May Have Unintended Negative Consequences
A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), an American private nonprofit research organization, says the critics may be right: BTB legislation may actually be hurting the segment of society that it is designed to help.
In the study, researchers sent some 15,000 fake online job applications to employers in New Jersey and New York City both before and after those jurisdictions enacted their versions of BTB laws. Each employer was sent two applications containing identical qualifications. The only difference: One was from a man whose name is most commonly found within the white community, while the other included a name most often found among blacks. According to the study, prior to the BTB rules, a “white” applicant was 7 percent more likely to receive a callback than a “black” applicant. After passage of the BTB rules, the disparity jumped to 45 percent.
The researchers further found that BTB policies didn’t just reduce callbacks; they decreased the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. The researchers conclude that the findings support the hypothesis that when an applicant’s criminal history is not available, employers statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record.
Human Resource Departments Should Exercise Care in Processing Applications
HR officials should obey not only the letter, but also the spirit of the BTB legislation. Employers that systematically refuse to interview applicants who “appear” likely to be from one demographic or another can lead to severe legal issues and charges of discrimination. Discrimination is a serious matter – one that costs the employer, both financially and in prestige. Prudent employers monitor hiring practices and assure themselves (and others) that discriminatory practices are not being followed.
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