Should You Hire Someone with a Criminal Record?
Skip to content
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

Suggested For You

Most Popular

Organizations

How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.

Leadership

Why Warmth Is the Under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Skill Lead­ers Need

The case for demon­strat­ing more than just competence.

Most Popular Podcasts

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.

Careers

Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

Marketing

Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.