Sketchy past? More employers won’t ask upfront

Fatima Hussein, fhussein@enquirer.com11:19 p.m. EDT May 10, 2015

Twenty-three years ago, Dwight Williams got out of prison. And he says he’s still paying the price.

“If you want to turn your life around, and there’s no one who will give you a chance, what options do you have?” asked the 58-year-old College Hill resident, who spent fruitless years searching before he found employment.

Williams served six years for drug trafficking. He is one of more than 134,000 Hamilton County residents (that’s 1 in 6) and 70 million Americans with a criminal record, according to the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and the National Employment Law Project.

The sheer size of the population with a criminal past is causing companies and governments to rethink whether to ask job applicants: “have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”

Sixteen states now have laws that limit or ban asking applicants about their criminal records, up from 10 in 2013. Countless county and city governments have similar measures. Most, but not all, of the state and local laws are limited to potential public employees.

Many private employers are leery of joining the movement. And for good reason, according to business and human resource leaders, citing potential security or liability issues.

Yet some notable companies have joined in “banning the box,” including Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond.

Recently, Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries announced that it was no longer asking job seekers about their criminal history on applications. “Do we want to be judged for the rest of our life for something that happened on our worst day?” Koch’s general counsel, Mark Holden, told USA TODAY in a recent interview.

The move by the company, headed by noted GOP contributor Charles Koch, underscores growing support from corporate America and people of all political points of view for the “Ban the Box” movement.

The nationwide movement started in 2004 by previously incarcerated Americans, attempting to eliminate employer prejudice against qualified job applicants with conviction histories.

When a company “bans the box” from a job application, it doesn’t mean that applicants will be able to conceal a criminal record, said Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. The record will be discovered at a later stage, after a background check is completed.

“We have a broken justice system that spans employment, housing and other important facets of life,” Rodriguez said. “This is a simple procedural change that will lend itself to a broader set of hiring reforms.”

Within the last five years, Cincinnati and Hamilton County removed questions about criminal arrests and convictions from their job applications.

A bipartisan bill pending in the Ohio Legislature would do the same for all potential public employees across Ohio, but not for people seeking private employment. Six of the bill’s 17 cosponsors are from the Cincinnati area, ranging from John Becker, a Union Township Republican, on the right to Alicia Reece, a Democrat from Bond Hill, on the left.

Stephen Johnson Grove, the Cincinnati-based deputy director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, said the Ohio ban could help people with criminal records to be defined by their capabilities and personality, rather than their criminal past.

The discretion to employ someone remains with the hiring manager, but Grove said banning the box “puts common sense factors into place to guide that discretion, and reduces potential discrimination.”

Eliminating the criminal record question would reduce recidivism rates, argued Alana Van Gundy-Yoder, associate professor of criminal justice and coordinator for Justice & Community Studies at Miami University.

She said that once someone leaves jail or prison, an ex-offender faces “significant emotional, mental, social, and physical barriers … to overcome, both on paper and in life.”

“The combination of these barriers and the difficulties of societal re-entry allows for a very limited mobility, and oftentimes will result in the individual” returning to crime and incarceration, said Van Gundy, who added recidivism pushes up poverty rates.

Private employers decline to go on the record

Privately-owned companies, however, have been slower to ban the box. Some are reluctant to talk to about whether they might or have. For example, representatives from Macy’s, Kroger and Procter & Gamble did not respond to Enquirer requests for interviews on this story.

The director of Hamilton County’s program to help ex-offenders return to society said “there are companies out there (locally) that employ people with some kind of (criminal) background.”

“They’re out there, they just won’t openly admit it,” said DeAnna Hoskins.

Hoskins works with employers and the criminal justice system to ensure the transition of county offenders to the community, specifically in getting them jobs.

It can be a difficult task getting some offenders to transition back into the community, Hoskins said, who is skeptical about the ultimate success of the ban the box movement.

“It just pushes that (criminal record) question to the end of the process,” she said.

“Do I think it will help? Yes. Do I think it will usher in big changes for the community? No.”

Robin Throckmorton, president of Strategic HR in Sycamore Township, thinks some companies worry they could face bad publicity if it was known they hire ex-offenders.

“More likely than not, a company is worried about how their customers would react,” she said.

Yet Throckmorton, whose company provides outsourced HR services for smaller firms, said she is in favor of the passage of a ban the box law for public workers. “With a tighter labor force (as the recession has ended), it opens up an entire pool of people to be considered for jobs who may have not been before,” she said.

Skeptics offer the downsides of banning the box

There are strong reasons for keeping the criminal record question on job applications, other experts say.

Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) holds the position that the safety and financial security of a business could be at risk if the box is banned.

“The important thing is for employers to have the ability to do background checks on potential employees to ensure the safety of their employees and customers and the integrity of their business,” said Mike Aitken, vice president of government affairs at the society, a trade group for human resource officers.

Asking about criminal records assists employers in the prevention of potential workplace theft and embezzlement, the society’s legal counsel told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2012. Lawyer Jonathan Segal told the commission that the National Retail Federation’s annual survey found the industry “lost more than $34 billion in 2011 due to employee theft.” (The 2014 survey increased the losses to $44 billion.)

“With losses such as these, it’s understandable why employers are using every type of screening method they can to avoid making a poor hiring decision,” Segal said.

Companies seeking to avoid future legal and insurance problems may be unwilling to get rid of the application screening question, said Brian Carley, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “I would encourage employers to be creative in finding ways to employ the best candidates for the job,” he said.

Getting a job after you have a record

Former offenders should be aware of the best ways to get a job, despite their record, said the reentry program’s Hoskins.

“People shouldn’t apply for certain jobs if their record is related to the position they’re applying for,” she said.

For example, Hoskins said a person with a fraud arrest or conviction would not likely get a position at a bank or place where trust is required. “I wish people knew that.”

Ebow Vroom, president of Hyur Staffing Services in Montgomery, said it helps when a former offender looking for work has a “sponsor,” such as staffing company or non-profit that vouches for the applicant’s skills.

“Working with a strong advocate will definitively give a leg up to potential job applicants,” Vroom said.

Charles Ford, an Avondale construction worker, said he’s been out of prison for 15 years, and despite getting a job, he still has a feeling he’s discriminated against on a daily basis.

Ford said it’s as simple as coworkers not wanting to sit near him at lunch – and as severe as not being paid as much as his coworkers.

“There’s things you have to deal with after you get out of the system that make life very, very hard,” he said. “I can tell people treat me differently even though I’ve been out for this long.”

“I want to live my life like everyone else,” Ford said.

Williams, who works through the county’s reentry program, is also a mentor to men and women getting out of jail or prison.

He hopes employers will be open minded about hiring ex-offenders such as himself.

“And that means offering well-paying jobs” that will remove an ex-offender’s economic incentive to re-enter a life of crime, Williams said.

“Just because someone does something in their past doesn’t mean they should be condemned forever,” he said.

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