Research Findings

Do criminal record questions on job applications prevent people with records from applying?

March 18, 2024

Getting a job can be a challenge for anyone, especially in a tough economy. But for people with criminal records, the task of finding a job is particularly difficult. Experiments show that job applicants with criminal records have lower chances of getting an interview or job than those without records, and that the chances are even lower for people of color. While 8% of adult men have a felony criminal record, that number is 33% for Black men. Thus, many employers’ unwillingness to provide a second chance by hiring those with criminal records is especially impactful for Black people.

Employers often obtain criminal record information about applicants during the application process. Some ask criminal record questions on job applications or request formal criminal background checks, with a warning of a background check typically stated right on the application. Thus, when an applicant with a criminal record goes to apply for a job, they often see on the application itself that their record will become known to the employer.

But does seeing those questions and warnings affect whether the applicant will even apply for a job? In other words, on top of employer unwillingness to hire them, do people with criminal records not even apply in the first place?

“I felt like I was going to be judged anyways, so I just didn’t [apply].”

A criminal record is highly stigmatized. In all facets of life, including employment, housing, community engagement, and even family, having a criminal record is a major disadvantage. After experiencing rejection, people with criminal records sometimes anticipate unfair treatment and expect their chances of positive outcomes, such as getting a job, are reduced. While a criminal record can be hidden in some instances, when applying for a job, revealing your record is often part of the process.

In our study, we sought to understand if the anticipation of unfair treatment and reduced chances of securing opportunities affected whether applicants with criminal records would go through with job applications, a feeling captured by the quote above from a participant named Latrice. In particular, we examined whether signals on job applications that criminal records would be revealed, such as criminal record questions and background check warnings, resulted in not applying.

We conducted an experiment and talked to people with criminal records in central Ohio to determine whether and how signals on job applications affect going through with actually submitting an application. In the experiment, we presented applications to participants that only differed by whether the application signaled the employer would discover their criminal record. As highlighted by Dwayne’s quote above, participants were over eight times more likely to say they would not apply if there was a criminal record question or background check warning on the application, compared to applications with neither signal.

In our interviews, we asked participants why these signals stopped them from applying. Latrice’s quote above summarizes the reasons well: people didn’t want to experience the stigma of their record, and thus avoided applying. For others, this constant rejection resulted in burnout. In the end, not applying was easier given the futility of the effort. For some, this meant returning to crime for needed income.

It is also worth noting that many people with criminal records continue to go through with applications even when they know their record will be revealed. In these instances, participants noted that stigma was unavoidable. If they wanted access to an income for their own and their family’s basic necessities, they needed to face the stigma. Some people explained that at different points in time, they have avoided applications and continued to apply despite the stigma.

In our experiment, we did not find differences by race and gender in response to application signals. However, interviews revealed some systematic differences in reasoning. Black men were more likely to describe burnout, while Black women were more likely to anticipate stigma. By contrast, White women rarely experienced burnout, and White men disproportionately relied on personal networks to secure employment.

Thus, even though choices to apply may be similar, inequalities are built into the reasons for those choices in a way that reflects the differing cumulative experiences in applying for jobs by race and gender.

“It really does piss me off to see that box on the application because it pre-judges me before I even got a chance to get the job, even have an interview.”

Academics and policymakers have focused on employers’ unwillingness to hire people with criminal records, and rightly so. In many states and cities, “Ban-the-Box” laws have been passed that prohibit including criminal record questions on job applications. These laws move background checks to later in the process, usually after an interview or conditional job offer. The logic is that this will allow people with records to get a foot in the door and not be initially judged and dismissed based on what is on paper.

But not all states mandate such policies. Even in states that do, compliance can be poor, and applicants still encounter criminal record questions. Further, these laws don’t prohibit background checks or warnings about them on applications, which might be another signal to applicants that they are unwanted.

If applicants never apply in the first place, there is additional disadvantage that goes overlooked when only looking at the employer.

Our results have two straightforward policy implications. First, although Ban-the-Box has received criticism for not allowing applicants to signal they have no criminal record (by checking “no”), our study shows that there is additional inequality built into the criminal record box that is overlooked by a singular focus on employer behavior. With this new evidence that applicants preemptively remove themselves from the application pool upon seeing the box, removing it becomes all the more pressing.

Moreover, we encourage deferring background check warnings and consent to a phase in the recruitment process after the application is submitted so that applicants might get their foot in the door before scrutinizing their legal record.  

By increasing chances of employment, taking these steps hold the promise of improving the lives of millions of individuals with criminal records, their families, and their communities, and especially those of people of color who are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration.

Read More

Mike Vuolo, Lesley E. Schneider, & Eric G. LaPlant. “Employment Application Criminal Record Questions and Willingness to Apply: A Mixed Method Study of Self-Selection” in American Journal of Sociology 2022.