Should You Hire Someone with a Criminal Record?
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Organizations Social Impact Policy Feb 3, 2017

Should You Hire Some­one with a Crim­i­nal Record?

Com­pa­nies that give ex-offend­ers a fresh start may be reward­ed with employ­ees who stick around.

An ex-offender tries to get hired despite his criminal record.

Lisa Röper

Based on the research of

Dylan Minor

Nicola Persico

Deborah M. Weiss

Each year, more than 650,000 pris­on­ers in the U.S. are set free. But many employ­ers are unwill­ing to hire them—a trend with enor­mous social impli­ca­tions, since being employed increas­es an ex-offender’s chance of rein­te­grat­ing into soci­ety and stay­ing out of jail.

Employ­ers often wor­ry that peo­ple with crim­i­nal records will steal, behave uneth­i­cal­ly, harass cowork­ers, or become vio­lent. Or these appli­cants may be per­ceived as less com­pe­tent; if they have spent time behind bars, maybe they lack social and pro­fes­sion­al skills.

But how true are these assumptions? 

A team of researchers at Kel­logg and North­west­ern University’s Pritzk­er School of Law won­dered whether employ­ers were right to be con­cerned. When they ana­lyzed data on about a quar­ter of a mil­lion appli­cants for sales and cus­tomer ser­vice jobs in the U.S., they found that ex-offend­ers who did get hired were no more like­ly to be fired lat­er than non-offend­ers. And they were less like­ly to quit — sav­ing their firms a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mon­ey in employ­ee turnover costs. 

For these com­pa­nies, turnover is huge,” says coau­thor Dylan Minor, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences at Kel­logg. If an employ­er has thou­sands of work­ers, at the end of the year, that’s going to be a big difference.” 

The pic­ture was not entire­ly rosy. The researchers found that in sales posi­tions, peo­ple with crim­i­nal records were more like­ly to be fired for mis­con­duct. So if a firm is fill­ing a posi­tion where uneth­i­cal or ille­gal behav­ior could dra­mat­i­cal­ly affect the com­pa­ny, such as a finan­cial job, the employ­er might be wise to avoid hir­ing an ex-offend­er, Minor says. 

For oth­er types of work, though, com­pa­nies that auto­mat­i­cal­ly black­list appli­cants with crim­i­nal records might want to recon­sid­er their policies.

Minor says he has heard employ­ers say, I’d nev­er hire some­one with a back­ground.” But, he notes, there could be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to hire some peo­ple, give them a sec­ond chance, and even get a more loy­al employee.” 

Hir­ing Ex-Offenders 

A job is a cru­cial step in estab­lish­ing a new life upon release from prison. Yet, one study found that eight months after get­ting out of jail, more than half of ex-offend­ers did not have cur­rent jobs. And being unem­ployed is strong­ly linked to a high­er risk of com­mit­ting anoth­er crime. In oth­er words, many of these reject­ed appli­cants are like­ly to end up back in prison. 

There could be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to hire some peo­ple, give them a sec­ond chance, and even get a more loy­al employ­ee.” — Dylan Minor

Minor and his col­leagues Nico­la Per­si­co, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences at Kel­logg, and Deb­o­rah Weiss, direc­tor of the Work­force Sci­ence Project at Northwestern’s Pritzk­er School of Law, exam­ined data from a hir­ing con­sul­tan­cy on more than 1 mil­lion job appli­cants from 2008 to 2014. The records cov­ered 11 com­pa­nies in the U.S., main­ly for sales rep­re­sen­ta­tives in call cen­ters and cus­tomer ser­vice posi­tions. For about 264,000 can­di­dates, infor­ma­tion was avail­able on whether or not the per­son was an ex-offender. 

The researchers first inves­ti­gat­ed whether these com­pa­nies were indeed more reluc­tant to hire can­di­dates with crim­i­nal records. Look­ing at the over­all data set, the researchers did not ini­tial­ly see a pat­tern sug­gest­ing that the employ­ers were less like­ly to hire peo­ple with a crim­i­nal history. 

Per­si­co points out that while that may seem sur­pris­ing, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that those who apply for a job are a self-select­ed group. 

Apply­ing is cost­ly in terms of time, and so pre­sum­ably only those who have a rea­son­able chance of being hired choose to apply,” he says. With this self-select­ed group of appli­cants, those with a crim­i­nal record pre­sum­ably have some oth­er pos­i­tive attribute that, while unob­serv­able to us researchers, makes them opti­mistic that they can get hired despite their crim­i­nal record.” 

But if the team ana­lyzed spe­cif­ic posi­tions and con­trolled for some aspects of edu­ca­tion and work his­to­ry, dif­fer­ences emerged. The hir­ing rate for ex-offend­ers was 3.7 per­cent­age points low­er than for non-offend­ers in sales posi­tions and 1.7 per­cent­age points low­er in cus­tomer ser­vice positions. 

Reduc­ing Employ­ee Turnover 

What hap­pens to ex-offend­ers that are hired? 

Con­trary to what employ­ers might assume, the team saw no dif­fer­ence in fir­ing rates between work­ers with and with­out crim­i­nal records. The data did not spec­i­fy which crimes the employ­ees had com­mit­ted, so it is pos­si­ble that the com­pa­nies hired ex-offend­ers only if they had a less seri­ous crim­i­nal his­to­ry. That said, the ex-offend­ers whom the firms do hire appear to per­form no worse than non-offend­ers, Minor says. 

And when the team exam­ined rates of vol­un­tary quit­ting, ex-offend­ers actu­al­ly did bet­ter. On aver­age, employ­ees stayed at their jobs for about five months. But work­ers with crim­i­nal records stuck around for an aver­age of about three weeks longer than those with­out records. While that might not seem like much extra time, each turnover costs the firm about $4,000. So the researchers esti­mate that hir­ing ex-offend­ers could save com­pa­nies about $1,000 per year per position. 

Put anoth­er way, the turnover rate for employ­ees with crim­i­nal records is about 13% low­er. They’re more loy­al to the firm,” says Minor, who spec­u­lates that they might stay longer because they do not have as many options to work elsewhere. 

Trou­ble in Sales 

Employ­ers’ con­cerns about ex-offend­ers are, how­ev­er, par­tial­ly jus­ti­fied. The team stud­ied work­ers who had been fired specif­i­cal­ly for mis­con­duct, which could range from steal­ing to work­place vio­lence. The researchers saw no dif­fer­ence in cus­tomer ser­vice jobs. But when they exam­ined sales posi­tions, they found that employ­ees with crim­i­nal records had a 28% high­er risk of being ter­mi­nat­ed for mis­con­duct than cowork­ers with­out records. 

It is not clear why this pat­tern would arise in sales. Per­haps peo­ple with a pen­chant for bad behav­ior are more attract­ed to sales posi­tions. Or maybe the sales envi­ron­ment some­how encour­ages work­ers to act unethically. 

The results sug­gest that employ­ers should be cau­tious about hir­ing an ex-offend­er to per­form, say, a job involv­ing sen­si­tive busi­ness infor­ma­tion. I would think twice before hir­ing some­one with a record in that set­ting,” Minor says. 

Ban the Box Laws 

Poli­cies have been imple­ment­ed to help ex-offend­ers get jobs, but they may not always work as intend­ed. In some areas, reg­u­la­tions known as ban the box” laws pre­vent com­pa­nies from ask­ing can­di­dates on their ini­tial appli­ca­tions whether they have a crim­i­nal record. Instead, employ­ers must wait to find out until lat­er in the hir­ing process. But some stud­ies sug­gest that in the absence of this infor­ma­tion, employ­ers may dis­crim­i­nate more strong­ly based on racial stereo­types instead. 

This research can­not address whether ban the box” poli­cies should con­tin­ue. The data cov­ered only ex-offend­ers who applied for jobs, and it is pos­si­ble that peo­ple with par­tic­u­lar­ly bad crim­i­nal records did not even both­er try­ing. If can­di­dates were no longer required to dis­close their back­grounds up front, per­haps the seri­ous crim­i­nals would seek work more fre­quent­ly, with dif­fer­ent results. 

How­ev­er, the study does sug­gest that, at least for some occu­pa­tions, ex-offend­ers can become valu­able employ­ees. Edu­cat­ing employ­ers about these find­ings could open the door to more appli­cants with crim­i­nal records, Minor says. And that could keep more peo­ple out of jail. 

If these peo­ple don’t get a job, the chances are that they’re going right back,” he says. It’s this vicious cir­cle that’s real­ly tough to get them out of.” 

Featured Faculty

Dylan Minor

Member of the Department of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences faculty until 2018

Nicola Persico

Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences, Director of the Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics & Management

About the Writer

Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.

About the Research

Minor, Dylan, Nicola Persico, and Deborah M. Weiss. 2016. "Criminal Background and Job Performance." Working paper.

Read the original

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