One Study Suggests Ban the Box Rules May Have Unintended Consequences

By Michael Klazema on 6/14/2018

To date, nine states have taken steps to enact "ban the box" laws that prohibit public and private employers from asking individuals about their criminal pasts on job applications. Seven more states have opted to place those restrictions only on public employers. In practically every case, providing a fair and equal chance for employment is the reasoning that underpins these laws. 

The stated goal is to open new opportunities for employment for those who made mistakes in the past. Often, ban the box laws are also implemented to improve opportunities for minority populations disproportionately affected by criminal history questions. However, one study recently undertaken in Minnesota indicates the state's new rules may not be reaching the intended outcome.

Conducted in 2015 by Amanda Agan (Rutgers University) and Sonja Starr (Univ. of Michigan), the study sought to determine whether ban the box rules had a positive effect on employment rates for black Americans. They did this by creating fictitious male personas and sending out job applications to employers in New York City and New Jersey. Applications were sent prior to the implementation of ban the box rules and after.

In total, the researchers distributed 15,000 job applications across all phases of the study. Some used names that would typically belong to a white male, while others used names that could be read as belonging to a black male. Whether the individuals indicated a felony conviction in their pre-BTB applications also varied randomly.

In applications sent out prior to ban the box regulations, only about 8% of applicants received calls from businesses interested in scheduling an interview. Many more applicants of either race received calls when they did not indicate a felony conviction. That's not unexpected: an employer who can trust they'll find a clean record on an applicant's criminal history check, like those available through, is more likely to prefer that person. The results from applications sent out after regulations, however, were surprising. Not only did callbacks drop for all candidates, but the difference was particularly stark for black applicants.

The gap in the interest in applications with "black-sounding" names widened substantially, while opportunities for those with no criminal records were also negatively impacted. The researchers suggest this could be a function of implicit racial bias in business owners, who may associate "black" names with a higher likelihood of a criminal past. While this is only one study, it does reveal a troubling trend that could indicate ban the box laws may not yield the results advocated by the fair chance movement.

Even in areas with ban the box laws in effect, criminal history reports are an important tool for employers to use after identifying strong candidates and extending a conditional offer. delivers fair and fast results, from county-level background reports to access to drug testing services, which aid businesses in remaining compliant with all regulations. As regulators grapple with the effects of ban the box laws, the conversation about how to truly provide every applicant an unbiased first look continues.

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