Does Having a Criminal Record Affect Employment Opportunities?

Someone who has been on the wrong side of the law may face a number of repercussions, including fines, jail time and a tarnished reputation. Additionally, research has shown that having a criminal background can pose a problem for people who are trying to find gainful employment.

At, we regularly have companies who request an employement criminal history background check. Scientists at Arizona State University conducted a lengthy study that surveyed how employers view candidates with criminal histories. The researchers’ findings provide a good insight into how the results of a background check are put to use in real-world scenarios.

A Look at the Big Picture

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reports that one in four adults, or roughly 65 million Americans, have either arrest or conviction records. These histories can follow them for years, preventing them from securing a safe place to live or a quality job that will pay the bills.

NELP points out that the practice of rejecting a candidate based solely on his or her criminal record could actually mean missing out on a qualified employee. (Check out our “Ban the Box” page for new laws related to pre-employment criminal background checks)

The Study’s Specifics

Over the course of three years, the ASU researchers paired together applicants to run experiments. The people involved included Hispanic men and women, black men and women, and white men and women. In each pair, one of the individuals had a criminal record, and one did not. In each circumstance, the people had the skills and qualifications demanded of a particular job.

The first experiment consisted of more than 6,000 job applications submitted online for jobs that were considered entry-level in three industries:

  • Food and restaurant service
  • Customer service
  • General and manual labor

The second experiment consisted of 60 in-person applications, and researchers then surveyed the 49 employers involved.

Finding the Disadvantage

The researchers did find that having a criminal background posed a problem for applicants, though it seemed to affect certain demographics more than others.

What’s more, the scientists found an overall bias regardless of criminal record. For example, the findings demonstrated that Hispanic and black men were less likely to receive either an e-mail or a call back from an employer than white men were.

Additionally, black men without a criminal record were less likely to receive a positive response than white men with a criminal record. Lastly, the study found that men who had a criminal background were more likely to get a negative response from employers than women with criminal records.

Compared to Other Factors

The study also looked at several other factors and how they played a role in the hiring process compared to a criminal background. These qualities include someone who has been unemployed, someone with just part-time or short-term employment or someone who has received welfare.

Researchers noted that hiring managers deferred individuals with criminal records at a higher rate than those with one of the other stigmatizing characteristics.

Qualities Associated With Criminal Records

One of the key findings that stemmed from the study was that hiring managers tend to assign certain qualities to individuals who have a criminal past. For example, employers tend to classify people with a criminal background as having drug or alcohol issues or being incapable of having a good relationship with their supervisors. Additionally, the study found that companies tend to associate these individuals with tardiness or absenteeism.

What Can Be Done

As the study shows, there may be some unfair or questionable results that stem from someone having a criminal history. Researchers used their findings to make a few recommendations about how to help people with criminal backgrounds find employment. Those suggestions include:

  • Helping these individuals network with people who can help them find available jobs
  • Giving people in prison skills necessary to search for jobs online
  • Teaching people how to prepare for rejection or disappointment

Equipping people with job-searching skills may be only part of the solution.

The Criminal History Question

An important recommendation that the researchers made is that employers should review someone’s skills and qualifications before ever knowing about someone’s criminal past.

While pre employment background check services can be an important part of hiring practices, candidates may have a fairer chance at a job if their criminal history is reserved for a later stage of the process.

In step with this type of thinking is the “Ban the Box” movement, which pushes for removing barriers that many people face while trying to gain employment. Advocates still support an employer’s right to run a background check, but they request that companies adopt a better hiring policy by removing any questions related to conviction histories on a job application. This could give more people a chance to make it further along in the process.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) outlines that it is a best practice for employers to only reject a candidate based on a criminal record if that criminal record is directly related to the position in question. So far, NELP reports that more than 60 jurisdictions and 12 states have restricted the question on applications.

Using Criminal Histories to Make Personnel Decisions

As the EEOC points out, an employer is entitled to get the information regarding someone’s criminal past, but using those findings to make a decision may violate certain federal laws. For example, employers should discern that an arrest and a conviction are two different things, as an arrest does not ascertain that criminal activity occurred. The EEOC notes that an employer could use arrest information when making a decision if the conduct surrounding the arrest would directly affect the position in question.

The EEOC does state that a conviction record can serve as sufficient evidence that criminal activity occurred. Yet, depending on the circumstances, hiring managers may want to look at more than just the criminal record when making a decision.

For example, the EEOC notes that it is a violation to treat criminal records of employees differently based on their race, religion or other protected demographic information. Additionally, a company’s seemingly neutral policy could disproportionally affect certain groups of people, which would be a violation.

Anyone with questions regarding how they may use criminal history information in the hiring process may consult with an attorney or the EEOC. To learn more about our background check services, please call at 484-424-0168 or download our pricing.

Kristina Taylor
In 1989, Kristina began her career as a customer service representative at the newly formed American Tenant Screen, Inc. Ten years later, she pioneered tenant background screening on the Internet. As a long-standing member of the National Multifamily Resident Information Council (formerly the National Association of Screening Agencies) Kristina gains insight into the trends of the tenant screening industry to better understand the current and future needs of their clients.

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