Do you give all job applicants a fair shot?

Billie Hartley
Billie Hartley

If your business screens potential employees based on criminal charges, you need to ask yourself whether or not the reasons are legal and justified.

I’m a small business owner who also works as an employment specialist at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. In that role, I  assist, coach and train all types of job seekers to find and retain employment. It’s not uncommon for job seekers to have criminal charges on their records. National Public Radio reported that one in four Americans have some kind of charges on their records. That statistic made me question my own screening policies for the application process.

My business screens for criminal charges, and questions about criminal charges appear on job applications. My business is justified and lawful for excluding applicants with certain criminal charges because of state mandates I must follow in my type of business — just as there are mandates for such other professions as nursing or teaching. 

However, there are many employers that screen for criminal charges and ask questions about charges on job applications that have no legal grounds or reasons to do so. If these employers choose to continue this practice, they could face lawsuits. Commonly known as “ban the box,” legislation restricts private-sector employers from inquiring about criminal history in preliminary application forms. The intent of the legislation is to give qualified applicants a fair chance during the job application process instead of automatically being screened out for their criminal charges.

In Colorado, “ban the box” legislation was enacted in 2012, but is limited to the private sector. The National Employment Law Project reported that 24 states have adopted some type of “ban the box” legislation for private employers. The Council of State Governments reported that more than 60 counties and cities also have passed ordinances removing questions about criminal charges from public sector job applications.

This type of legislation benefits employers, applicants and the community. Employers benefit because they gain an increased talent pool of qualified applicants. Applicants benefit because they get a fair chance and are allowed to move on in the application process based on their skills and qualifications. The community benefits from the possibility of reduced unemployment and recidivism rates. By one estimate, the recidivism rate for people released from Colorado prisons is 49 percent, and one of the main causes is the inability to gain employment.

Employers who follow “ban the box” or similar legislation can help end the cycle of recidivism by giving qualified applicants a fair chance during the application process. It makes sense that if qualified job applicants are at least given the opportunity to move beyond the application process, their chances of getting hired will increase and recidivism rates will decrease.

If you’re still skeptical about hiring applicants with criminal backgrounds, look into the Federal Bonding Program. The program offers insurance to reduce the risks associated with hiring “at risk” applicants. The premiums for these policies are covered by the federal government for the first six months, which should offer enough time to decide if a new hire constitutes a good fit. In addition to federal bonding, employers earn Work Opportunity Tax Credits for hiring employees from certain groups, including long-term welfare recipients, dishonorably discharged applicants and former felons.

Review your screening process and look into these programs. More information about the Federal Bonding Program and Work Opportunity Tax Credits is available from the Mesa County Workforce Center and U.S. Department of Labor.