After reading this article from Dave Weigel at Bloomberg I’ve been trying to remember the last time I filled out a job application where I’ve been asked about my criminal background. I know I’ve been asked that question, particularly for jobs with government clients which require a background check, but I’m fairly sure there have been some applications where the question didn’t come up. In any event, if you happen to be applying for one of the more than 50K positions in the United States with Koch Industries and their subsidiaries, you won’t need to worry about that any more.
Last month, at a bipartisan conference on criminal justice reform, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal faced a crowded ballroom and beamed with pride. “In Georgia,” he said, “we have effectively banned the box.”
Most of his audience recognized the expression right away. Others learned more about it as the day went on. “The box,” in context, is the section of a job application that asks whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime. “Banning” it is self-explanatory. A simple reform that might prevent peaceful ex-cons from losing (or fearing even to try for) jobs has been picking up momentum.
Yet even at the conference, whenever Koch Industries counsel Mark Holden talked about “the box,” he was shocking people. According to Holden, who’d worked at Koch for more than 20 years, the company had never really considered criminal pasts when making hires. It, too, had effectively banned the box, for more than 60,000 employees in the United States.
Right up front I would point out that the phrase “ban the box” is something of a misnomer as it’s being applied here. There’s a big difference between companies voluntarily choosing to make a change to their employment applications and the government imposing a “ban” on asking any particular questions. Companies are free to ask what they like (within certain limits) or ask nothing at all if they wish. The results will be their own responsibility for better or worse.
Government imposed rules regarding employment applications have produced mixed results at best. You supposedly can’t ask about a person’s age (or a host of other things as listed here) to prevent age discrimination. But you can always ask for an applicant’s full employment and school record. One glance at that will give you a pretty good idea how old they are. We’ve seen similar claims where employers supposedly infer the race of an applicant based on their first name and shove them to the bottom of the stack. When it comes to gender, that’s fairly hard to hide throughout the application process.
But these are all factors where job seekers are supposedly protected against discrimination. Is one’s status as a former criminal treated as a protected class also? I’m not unsympathetic to the problems faced by those who have done time for relatively minor offenses and then find themselves unable to land a good job, but even though you have paid your debt to society in the eyes of the law, that doesn’t mean that your fellow citizens can’t or won’t take such things into consideration. Employers are always looking for the very best candidates for any given job opening and they take a lot of different criteria into account. A criminal history certainly begs a few questions at a minimum, doesn’t it? Particularly if the crime was directly related to the task at hand. You’d have to imagine that you wouldn’t be excited about hiring a convicted embezzler to manage your retirement fund or a proven pedophile to watch over your children.
“Ban the box?” If you’re an employer and you wish to do so, feel free. But this shouldn’t spill over to the level of a government regulation.