The ‘Ban the Box’ Paradox

HRE columnist Peter Cappelli recently penned a piece suggesting that “ban the box” legislation, while certainly well-intentioned, may not be the best approach to helping ex-felons transition back into the workforce.

Such laws, which prohibit employers from making questions about criminal convictions part of the hiring process, have been adopted in 24 states and more than 100 cities and counties in the U.S.

The good news is that “more ex-felons seem to have gotten jobs,” says Cappelli, a professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the overall hiring of young black and Hispanic men has declined, he adds.

“In other words, we swapped one form of discrimination for another,” says Cappelli. “It wasn’t supposed to work that way. The problem is people don’t behave the way the legislation anticipated. We don’t wait until the law allows us to find out about criminal records. We start guessing.”

Researchers Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, and Benjamin Hansen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Oregon, seem to share that view.

In their recent study (which Cappelli does reference in his column), the pair of professors tested the net effects of ban-the-box policies on employment outcomes for various demographic groups, using data from the Current Population survey.

The authors found that, among men between the ages of 25 and 34 who don’t hold a college degree, BTB policies decrease the probability of being employed by 4.5 percent for black men, and by 3.5 percent for Hispanic men.

In the same age group, black men with a college degree and white women of all educational levels benefit from this policy, according to the study. This finding suggests that, when criminal history information is unavailable, “employers pursue candidates who are less likely to have been recently incarcerated based on their remaining observable characteristics,” the authors write.

The goal of BTB laws “is to improve employment outcomes for ex-offenders and thereby reduce racial disparities in employment.”

The legislation, however, “could do more harm than good,” they continue, noting that firms that don’t want to hire ex-offenders might statistically discriminate based on race and gender in order to avoid interviewing applicants who are more likely to have been recently incarcerated.

“Of particular concern, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men when [ban-the-box legislation] is in effect,” note Doleac and Hansen. “This could worsen employment outcomes for those already-disadvantaged groups, without meaningfully improving outcomes for ex-offenders.”

In a recent UVA Today article, Doleac offers a “two-fold policy plan” to help combat discrimination against those for whom “ban the box” laws were designed, “without unintentionally hurting minority men without criminal records.”

For example, “individuals with criminal records may have histories of violent or dishonest behavior, and on average might struggle with greater emotional trauma and have worse interpersonal skills,” she says.

Providing opportunities for such applicants to demonstrate that they don’t have these problems—perhaps by having a local job-training program vouch for them—could potentially “help them overcome automatic assumptions about their temperament and suitability.”

Another “broad category of policies” that might improve upon current legislation includes education and rehabilitation programs that “would actually improve the underlying job readiness of this population,” says Doleac, who is currently working on a new technology-based project aimed at improving re-entry outcomes for individuals leaving prison.

“The reason that employers discriminate against people with [criminal] records is that, on average, that group is less job-ready than people without records.”