'Honesty in hiring' beats 'ban the box'

Ex-offenders will still face rejection by companies that do not want to hire them

January 07, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Of all the frustrations I've heard ex-offenders describe — and they have plenty — this one might be the worst: A guy gets out of prison after serving his sentence, looks for a job and finds one, but a while later his new boss tells him to leave because a background check revealed a criminal record.

Over eight years of fielding phone calls from people in this situation, mostly men from Baltimore with felony convictions, I've heard this story countless times.

It seems to happen a lot with warehouse jobs, but occurs generally whenever the hiring is immediate.

The scenario is always the same: An ex-offender gets hired and works full time for two months, maybe three, with the assumption that he has the job permanently. In fact, he's usually feeling pretty good about things, having finally landed a job after a year or more of searching.

But one day there's a tap on the shoulder: "Sorry, we can't keep you." In every case, the employee is told that his criminal background makes him ineligible for the job.

No other reason is given.

Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't one. The worker might have been unreliable. He might have made too many mistakes. He might not have lived up to the expectations of a probationary period.

But I never heard those reasons, either from the frustrated employees or from employers who had hired them.

A criminal record, discovered during a background check, was always the reason for the dismissal.

So many men told this story — usually men in their 30s or 40s who seemed earnest about working and going straight — that I figured they had encountered a practice of certain companies in the Baltimore region: Hire first, ask questions later.

But if that was a common practice, it lacked common sense.

Why hire someone if a criminal record means they can't work for you? Why hire someone who has committed specific felonies that make them inappropriate for a certain position? Isn't it better to get all that settled before you offer a guy a job? Not only is such a practice insanely frustrating for the new hire, but it must be a headache for the people who do the hiring.

And yet something like this will happen if Baltimore "bans the box."

As The Baltimore Sun recently reported, City Councilman Nick Mosby has introduced a bill to prohibit private-sector employers from asking about criminal records until later in the application process.

Mosby thinks this will help ex-offenders find work: Instead of being eliminated from contention for a job simply because they check a box asking if they have a criminal record, they at least will be able to get to an interview.

Mosby's measure is an expansion of the city ordinance that banned the box on government job applications six years ago.

It's well-meaning. But it doesn't make much sense.

While the city runs criminal background checks only on people who apply for government jobs considered "positions of trust" — police officers, for instance — private-sector employers use a much broader screen.

Some of them, for instance, have been warned about "negligence in hiring" and counseled in the risks of taking on workers with convictions, particularly for crimes of violence. So they scratch such felons from eligibility completely. In Baltimore, that bit of corporate prerogative deprives a lot of people of the second chance they might deserve.

On the other hand, more forward-thinking companies accept the reality that many applicants for city-based jobs will have criminal records, so they already have established criteria for hiring them. A property-management company, for instance, might give a maintenance job to someone convicted of selling heroin five years ago but reject someone who spent seven years in prison for armed robbery.

There is no uniform standard in the private sector for dealing with ex-offenders seeking work. The owner of a small company with 12 employees might be willing to hire a convicted felon — it might be the relative or friend of another worker — while the manager of a chain restaurant might be prohibited from doing so by corporate policy.

Even if the City Council bans the box, employers will still order background checks on people who've applied for jobs. And they will still reject those who do not meet their criteria.

What's worse — being scratched from the start because you have a record or losing your job when the background report turns up two months later?

The check-off box rightly demands that a job applicant be honest about his past.

How about some honesty in hiring?

Let's have prospective employers state their policies up front: "We do not hire people convicted within the last five years of crimes of violence," or, "We do not hire people convicted within the last eight years of larceny, theft or fraud."

That would be better than banning the box and, in too many cases, delaying the inevitable and frustrating earnest job-hunters trying to make a new start.


Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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