But a sweeping wave of legislation is poised to help ex-offenders whose pens have hovered over the dreaded “Have you ever been convicted of a felony” question.
The official campaign, known as “Ban the Box,” aims to erase that question from job applications and verbal exchanges with candidates before a first interview is granted. The goal is to eliminate barriers to employment so that qualified ex-offenders can compete for jobs on a level playing field after serving their sentence. While the law already applies to publicly held positions, Ban the Box seeks to enforce it in the private sector as well.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "The policy rationale is that an employer is more likely to objectively assess the relevance of an applicant's conviction if it becomes known when the employer is already knowledgeable about the applicant's qualifications and experience.”
Impact Services, an employment agency in Philadelphia dedicated to opening doors for the “chronically unemployable,” was involved in lobbying in favor of Ban the Box legislation in Philadelphia, which passed in January of last year.
“People coming out of prison want to work,” said Joseph Douglas, director of reentry services and youth placement at Impact. “They want to become productive members of society. If they can’t, most likely these people are going to revert back to doing things they don’t want to do.”
In the growing number of states, cities, and counties where the law operates, employers can generally still inquire about a potential worker’s criminal record: what changes is the timing of the inquiry. Once a candidate is invited to interview (or, in the absence of an interview, is conditionally offered a job) the employer may ask about a candidate’s criminal record. The candidate can then take a deep breath and fully explain themselves. Perhaps the incident happened long ago, is nonviolent/petty in nature, or is wholly unrelated to the work at hand. Instead of blanket exclusion, advocates say these factors should be weighed on a case-by-case basis.
“I’m not going to let someone who beats children work with kids,” said Douglas. “But if you have a DUI and want to work at a bank, well, driving is not associated with that position. Or, just because I have a car theft at 18 doesn’t mean that I can’t work as a teacher’s aide at thirty.”
Though Impact offers GED and resume-writing classes, Douglas said the candidates often come to them with key skills.
“We’ve had tons of success stories,” he said. “In one case we had to convince this guy to go to an interview at a job where he’d be making $60,000 a year. He was trying to go to an interview where he’d be making minimum wage. They really underestimate what they bring to the table, so we help identify those skills for them.”
Due to lingering misconceptions about these populations, however, Douglas said employers continue to look for loopholes. Some hiring managers will take advantage of the specificity of the banned question, asking instead, “Are you willing to submit to a background check?” Apparently, another loophole exists in the loose definition of a “first interview” – so employers will consider a five-minute phone call a first interview, and then invite the candidate into the office for a "second interview" where the question is fair game.
When I asked Douglas whether wariness about employing ex-offenders was warranted, he said he could think of one situation in ten years in which an employee they helped secure a position got into a fight with the manager onsite. Part of the reason why these are rare occurrences is that the candidates are independently motivated to find work.
"It would be a different matter if this were mandated … but because they volunteer to come here, we see their motivation," he said.