Research Brief: Why Do Employers Discriminate Against People With Records? Stigma and the Case for Ban the Box

Earlier today, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment released: “Why Don’t Employers Hire People With Criminal Records? Stigma and The Case For Ban the Box,” addressing whether employers are using criminal records as a source of information for risk management or if general stigma impacts employer hiring practices. 

The study provided 2,841 hiring decision makers with job applications with varying signals of prior illegal drug use. It then examined differences in employer perceptions of the applicants’ suitability for hire. Survey respondents evaluated one of three randomly selected versions of otherwise identical job application materials: (1) one with no indication of prior drug use and a background report showing no criminal record (control group); (2) one with a social media signal of past drug addiction through a Facebook page and a background report showing no criminal record; and (3) one with the same social media signal of past drug addiction plus a background report showing a corresponding drug possession arrest and conviction.

Among other findings, the study finds:

  1. In hiring decisions, employers view criminal records more negatively than other evidence of the same illegal conduct.
  2. Employers expect applicants with criminal records to engage in many undesirable behaviors on the job, even ones unrelated to the conduct indicated by the record.
  3. Employers penalize applicants with criminal records most in hiring decisions for higher status job positions.
  4. Employers’ aversion to hiring applicants with criminal records is not greater for customer service positions, where negligent hiring should be the biggest concern.
The study finds that employer aversion to hiring people with criminal records was driven not only by concerns with future criminal behavior or other associated risks, but also, in significant part, by the stigma that accompanies a criminal record. Consequently, permitting decision makers unrestricted access to and use of criminal records allows for forms of exclusion that are based, at least in part, on stigma and stereotypes associated with contact with the criminal justice system rather than purely practical business concerns. Report authors conclude that regulating employers’ access to and use of criminal history through Ban the Box policies and other variants can both combat hiring discrimination and advance broader socioeconomic equality.

This brief summarizes, contextualizes, and addresses the policy implications of research reported in “Employer Aversion to Criminal Records: An Experimental Study of Mechanisms,” by N. F. Sugie, N. D. Zatz, and D. Augustine, Criminology, 58(1). © 2020 American Society of Criminology.