Can ‘Ban the Box’ Help Convicted Tech Pros?

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Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law prohibiting employers from asking about criminal history on an initial employment application. The law, known as “Banning the Box,” prevents employers from asking about a criminal conviction any time prior to extending a conditional offer of employment.

Ban the Box is also the name of a larger movement with a similar purpose. Its name comes from the checkbox on a job application that asks if the candidate has a criminal record. Civil rights groups claim that box hurts the employment opportunities of anyone—including tech pros—convicted of a previous crime, but who can still offer an effective skill set.

According to Michelle Rodriguez, senior staff attorney for the National Law Employment Project, “People don’t understand what an arrest, conviction, even a felony conviction actually means. Sometimes it just means you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

A criminal record doesn’t necessarily predict poor work performance, she added: “We’ve seen no evidence that it does. Most of the time, a record isn’t going to be job-related if you’re actually looking at what the job entails.”

By removing the conviction inquiry from the initial application, applicants have a chance to explain their conviction to an interviewer.

Goodwill of Central Texas, for example, removed the “felony” checkbox from its applications, relying instead on conversations throughout the interview process to delve into a candidate’s criminal history. “Removing the felony box from the application does not preclude you from asking the question or from choosing not to hire an individual,” said Traci Berry, the organization’s senior vice president of community engagement. “It just gives qualified candidates an opportunity to be seen and heard. We have found tremendous talent using this technique.”

Employers are generally not aware of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, Rodriguez added. “They should be evaluating a conviction based on whether it’s job-related, how old the record is, and give the individual the opportunity to explain and give context.”

With the largest per-capita incarceration rates in the world, the U.S. loses a large talent pool when it excludes everyone with a criminal record, to the point where it becomes an economic issue. According to a National Employment Law Project (NELP) report (PDF): “Economists estimated that because people with felony records and formerly incarcerated people have poor job prospects, the nation’s gross domestic product in 2008 was between $57 and $65 billion lower than it would have been had they been gainfully employed.”

With those sorts of numbers in play, it’s inarguable that a wealth of tech-pro talent is lost to convictions.

Alfonso Hooker, CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based IT consulting firm TekPerfect, pursues and hires people with a criminal record. “I had a very difficult time hiring a friend who had a criminal record several years ago,” he said. “I personally knew the circumstance that lead to the conviction and knew it was not relevant to the duties this individual was going perform.”

Hooker still sees industry-wide obstacles for those who’ve been convicted at some point: “My biggest concern about pursing IT talent for this field is not related to their past or criminal history. It’s my ability to secure work for them because of the criminal record. Many employers and firms believe that will have a liability burden.”

Nationwide, over 100 cities and counties have adopted “Ban the Box” laws. Other programs similarly aim to integrate those with convictions back into society. For example, there are incentives for employers to hire military veterans who have a criminal record; depending on the job, the employer may receive a significant tax credit for hiring a veteran who has been convicted of a felony and/or released from incarceration.

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