There is debate about how effective this policy is in making employment more accessible for ex-offenders.
Champions say that it helps to reconfigure the mindset of employers and hiring managers in a powerful way, helping them to see beyond a person’s convictions to their skills and qualifications. According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, these policies improve callback rates for people with criminal records, which means that they are effective for eliminating the tendency of hiring managers to immediately disqualify any candidate who self-identifies as having a criminal rap sheet.
That finding is significant, given the fact that–per the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)–a criminal background can reduce a person’s likelihood of a callback or employment offer by almost 50 percent.
However, critics of this legislation argue that it merely delays the moment in hiring when an employer would disqualify a candidate for a relevant criminal conviction, wasting both the candidate’s and hiring manager’s time. The Urban Institute study also found that banning the box has “reduced the likelihood that employers call back or hire young black and Latino men.”
This query is one of the most frequently asked questions about banning the box from both employers and job seekers. Especially as the campaign started picking up steam a few years ago, professionals often mistakenly interpreted it as a ban of all criminal checks for hiring purposes.
In truth, these laws do not typically forbid employers from running checks on their applicants. However, some box-banning legislation does require a delay in obtaining a criminal check until after the first job interview or after making a conditional employment offer.
Some of these laws also restrict how an employer can use the information obtained in a check, require employers to give additional notices to applicants, or delay the hiring process by granting candidates the right to appeal employer decisions based on criminal history information.
None of these limitations states that employers can't disqualify applicants based on past convictions. A conditional offer of employment can be withdrawn. Some ban the box laws (including the Hawaii prototype law) do limit withdrawals to situations in which check findings indicate that an applicant has a criminal conviction history that directly affects their ability to perform the job in question.
For instance, an employer could fairly disqualify a candidate with multiple DUI or DWI convictions from consideration for a truck driver position, because those convictions speak directly to that person’s safety and responsibility behind the wheel. On the other hand, those same convictions have a very minor relationship to an office job and wouldn’t necessarily be legal grounds for an employer withdrawing a conditional hiring offer.
Ban the box laws encourage employers to consider criminal histories on a case-by-case basis rather than rejecting all applicants who check a crime records box on a job application or report specific types of criminal history. They function not to bar employers from considering conviction history when making hiring decisions but rather to bring nuance to those considerations.
These legislative requirements are part of a broader “Fair Chance” employment movement.
Proponents of this kind of hiring argue that discriminating against job candidates based on the slightest trace of crime records forces offenders to keep paying for offenses even after they have served out their sentences and paid their dues to society. Some employment advocates claim that offering more gainful employment opportunities for ex-offenders can reduce recidivism and prevent crime.
Sometimes, Fair Chance laws include banning the box elements. Other times, they focus on different factors, such as encouraging employers to consider past criminal misdeeds on a case-by-case basis rather than with a blanket policy that denies all candidates ever convicted of criminal activity.
Sometimes, these hiring laws don’t concern criminal information at all. For example, some localities have ordinances in place limiting employers’ ability to conduct credit history checks on their candidates.
Not all Fair Chance laws apply to hiring. As banning the box has grown more common, it has also developed momentum in housing. Some jurisdictions are limiting landlords in their ability to disqualify housing candidates based on criminal history.
Banning the box has also gained a foothold in higher education, with colleges and universities becoming more interested in fairly admitting students with criminal backgrounds.
While the box-banning campaign and the Fair Chance movement are often treated as synonyms, ban the box is just one piece of a broader movement.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
These laws vary significantly from one state or local jurisdiction to the next. While your business is statistically likely to be in a part of the country where such a law exists (NELP says that three-quarters of the U.S. population now “lives in a jurisdiction that has banned to box”), that doesn’t mean that your company is obligated to do anything right now.
Of the 36 states that ban in the box, only 14 of them extend their requirements to private entities (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington).
20 areas–including Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and the District of Columbia–extend their protections to private jobs. Otherwise, most of these laws currently apply only to public employers.
You should take the time to research the legislative requirements in your state, county, and city or town. If a relevant law or ordinance is on the books, review the language of the law closely to determine whether it applies to your company. If you need help deciphering the law, our terminology page can help.
If the law does apply to your company, you will need to take the steps to comply–whether that means removing questions about criminal backgrounds from your applications, delaying your criminal checks until later in hiring, or something else.
Your business can also opt to abolish the box of its own accord. Some organizations have taken this step to signal that they are welcoming to individuals who have made mistakes in the past and are trying to rebuild their lives. Banning the box before you are legally required to do so can also put you ahead of the curve for compliance if your state or local jurisdiction does decide to end the box.
The first step to understanding the implications of this law is to define what the law is. The “box” in the phrase refers to the question on job applications that asks applicants whether they have ever been convicted of a crime. Typically, candidates are asked to check yes or no to answer this question, hence the “box.”
Applications with this question require job seekers to self-identify as criminal offenders from the start of the job application process. A ban the box law is a legislative action that requires employers to remove this question–as well as any other criminal history questions–from applications.
These laws seek to prevent employment discrimination against individuals with crime records. The idea is that an employer gets a chance to form an initial impression of each applicant’s character, skillset, and overall job fitness before learning that he or she has a criminal past.
With no criminal history questions on the job application, and with checks often delayed until late in hiring, an ex-offender will theoretically have a better chance of being “the best person for the job.”
Most banning the box legislation also places other restrictions and requirements on employers. For instance, some states prohibit employers from inquiring about arrests, dismissed charges, sealed records, or history in a diversion program.
Some of these laws restrict employers from inquiring about criminal history until after the first interview or after they make a conditional offer of employment. Some jurisdictions require employers to consider other factors, such as time-related restrictions or whether the criminal history is job-related.
One of the most critical things to understand about banning the box is that it is not just one law. Rather, it is a broader trend made up of hundreds of different laws, ordinances, pieces of pending legislation, and on-the-ground advocacy campaigns. While it is possible that, someday, there could be a nationwide law, the current legislation is a patchwork.
Unfortunately, the current structure of banning the box legislation makes it more challenging for employers to understand their obligations. Some laws are enforced on the state level; others are ordinances that only apply to specific cities or counties. Some laws apply only to public employers; others include companies that do contract work with government departments, while some extend to private companies.
Even when banning the box legislation does apply to private businesses, it sometimes only requires compliance for employers with more than a certain number of employees, leaving smaller businesses to make their own decisions.
The trending nature of the fair employment movement means that laws are constantly changing. New jurisdictions are adopting their own box-banning legislation each year, while jurisdictions that already have laws or ordinances in place sometimes amend and update those laws to include new requirements.
Because of these factors, employers need to be vigilant about keeping up with the latest laws in their local jurisdiction and state. Before establishing a hiring policy or background check protocol, all employers should check relevant laws and ordinances to determine their obligations for compliance.
Failure to comply with these laws can result in fines and other legal consequences. Doing research before drawing up a job application or deciding when to run a check can help employers to avoid these costly lapses in compliance.
To help you, here are a few frequently asked questions about these laws, including the key details that employers should know about this legislative movement.