Credit: Sun-Times Media

Have you ever been convicted of a crime? It’s a standard question on many job applications, and it’s not hard to understand why an employer might not want to hire an ex-convict. But a group of researchers from Northwestern University decided to figure out whether employers’ fears are justified. Are ex-convicts more likely to be unreliable employees or engage in misconduct on the job?

The answer seems to be no. Researchers from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the Pritzker School of Law have published a new study that finds that employees with criminal backgrounds are much less likely to quit their jobs, and no more likely to get fired than their non-ex-offender counterparts. Ex-offenders are also generally no more likely to commit workplace misconduct, the study finds.

But dropping this question from job applications may not help ex-offenders get a job. The researchers also found that when employers don’t screen for criminal backgrounds directly, they tend to pay more attention to qualities that stack the deck against people who have a record.

Here’s why this matters: More than 650,000 people are released from prisons every year, and more than half of them are re-convicted within three years, according to the study.

“A failure to obtain legitimate employment is one of the strongest correlates to criminal recidivism,” the authors write, “and recent evidence suggests that this relation may be causal.” In other words, ex-convicts who fail to get a job after leaving prison are more likely to end up back in prison again.

Here’s how the study worked: First, researchers looked at the records of more than 1 million applicants to low-skill, white-collar jobs—such as customer service and sales representatives—collected between 2008 and 2014. Of these, about 264,000 applicants had a criminal record.

More than 90 percent of these applicants weren’t hired, whether they had a criminal record or not. But when researchers factored in job type, they found that ex-offenders were less likely to get hired for almost every type of job. 

The researchers found that employers often justify not hiring ex-offenders because insurance companies don’t cover people with criminal records for workplace misconduct, leaving employers vulnerable to negligent hiring lawsuits. Many employers also cited a desire to protect their other employees and their workplaces from theft or other criminal activity.

But when the Northwestern team examined the actual performance of the hired ex-offenders, it found that they were no more likely than anyone else to engage in workplace misconduct. (The study doesn’t provide definitions for misconduct since the data, culled from employers, is coded by general descriptions of HR-tracked events in an employee’s history, such as misconduct, without specifics about what happened in each individual case.) There was one exception: ex-offenders in sales had a slightly higher rate of misconduct than non-offenders.

While there’s no research into why this might be, study co-author Dylan Minor speculates that the stressful environment of a sales job, in combination with the sort of personalities sales jobs might attract (e.g. more aggressive and assertive individuals), could correlate with slightly higher rates of misconduct in those jobs.

Overall however, ex-offenders faired well when compared to their non-offender counterparts: they were less likely to quit their jobs than non-offenders and no more likely to be fired than anyone else.

Technological advances in criminal record databases have made it easier than ever for employers to find out about arrest and conviction records. Sixty-nine percent of employers now conduct criminal background checks for all their candidates. While large companies that take out insurance policies against worker misconduct may be intimately aware of the hypothetical risks of an ex-offender, many small businesses may be screening out these applicants simply because of the stigma attached to having a criminal record.

“Ban the box” initiatives—laws that prohibit employers from asking criminal background questions early in the hiring process—are one response. Twenty-four states have them, including Illinois. But researches have found that such prohibition made employers even pickier in their hiring. When applicants’ criminal backgrounds weren’t considered, “firms did not hire as many workers with characteristics correlated with a criminal record, such as low schooling,” the Northwestern researchers write. Other studies have reporter, for example, that young black men without a college degree (not all of whom had criminal backgrounds) were turned down at higher rates when employers didn’t ask applicants about their criminal history. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that this is because employers broadly discriminate against groups who are more likely to have a criminal record when they can’t know for sure about the background of each individual job applicant.

Perhaps the most promising way to push employers to hire ex-offenders may be to incentivize the practice. A federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit already exists, giving $2,400 to companies for hiring convicted felons within one year of their conviction or release from prison. And earlier this year, the Obama administration launched the Take the Fair Chance Pledge initiative, an informal promise made by more than 100 companies to not discriminate against ex-offenders in their hiring.

However, with the incoming “law-and-order” Trump administration, it remains to be seen whether reducing employment barriers for ex-offenders will remain a policy priority.