Could a Job Candidate with a Criminal Record Turn out to Be Your Best Employee?

Posted · Add Comment

What if you found that hiring a former felon could be a good thing for your company?

Or that it could even turn out to be a great thing, with such a person actually outperforming other employees with “clean” records?

In light of a recent study from Harvard and Amherst universities indicating that doing so may actually be a wise decision for a number of reasons, it’s a notion worth deliberation.

While this research is yet inconclusive, the study offers compelling statistics, analyses and theories.

Add in the “Ban-the-Box” movement growing in popularity throughout the United States, and it makes for an even more provocative topic for reflection.

As of this writing, 14 cities and counties, and 8 states have adopted “Ban-the-Box” rules that affect private employers. [Tweet this!]

Countless more have enacted legislation that affects public employers.

Further, the White House has proposed rules that would prohibit federal agencies from asking candidates for their background records until the candidate receives a conditional job offer for thousands of government jobs.

This is a radical departure from the past, when asking the candidate if they have been convicted of a felony was part of many employers’ initial applications.

Many companies used to immediately pass over applications from candidates who checked this box.

There were concerns about being victimized by people who had “done time.”

Businesses that catered to the public were often apprehensive about their customers’ discomfort if they knew they were being served by an ex-offender.

Convictions and Linkage to Military

But recently, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, using the U.S. military – the nation’s largest employer – as a test bed, found that ex-felons were no more likely to be dismissed for misconduct or poor performance than other enlistees.

In fact, they were more likely to be promoted to higher ranks.

Individuals convicted of a felony may not enlist in any branch of the military according to the U.S. federal legal code.

However, a recruit with a felony may request a “moral character waiver” which may be granted after a background check that considers the recruit’s age at offense, the circumstances of the crime, his or her individual qualifications, references, and a personal interview.

Recruits with felonies who were granted a waiver were found to be “no more likely to be discharged for the negative reasons employers often assume” including doing a bad job and exhibiting bad behavior.

In fact, the report stated, “Contrary to what might be expected, we find that individuals with felony-level criminal backgrounds are promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than other enlistees.”

Results Validated

The Harvard-Amherst study isn’t alone in its assessment.

Canadian Big Data firm Evolv crunched numbers and found that “criminals can make better employees than anyone else.”

The firm calculated that employees with criminal backgrounds are 1 to 1.5 percent more productive on the job than people without criminal records.

Such productivity “could result in tens of millions in profit and loss gain” said the company.

Why the Surprising Results?

Evolv speculated that perhaps employees with records may feel a sense of loyalty and/or gratitude to a business that would see beyond their mistakes and provide them with an opportunity.

Is that enough to persuade prospective employers?

Evolv’s CEO Max Simkoff said, “…I tell them their own data is showing this—if they want to save $10 million a year, they should make the change. But what they do with the data is ultimately up to them.”

Sociologist Jennifer Lundquist, one of the authors of the Harvard-Amherst paper, speculated that people with criminal records may want to “go the extra mile” for businesses offering them a chance to get beyond their pasts.

“Our main argument is that the ‘whole person’ criteria is something we think employers should explore as a possibility.”

Otherwise, employers “may be losing out by just banning ex-felons altogether who turn out to be pretty good employees when given that chance—and when properly screened.”

“The screening process clearly works, there’s no question,” Lundquist noted. “But I also suspect there may be something else going on here, which is the interesting social question.”

She hypothesizes that criminal record holders may do better than those without a record and outperform their peers because they want to pay back an employer – in this case, the military – that offered them a second chance.

Another explanation may lay in the fact that, in serving in the military, they were removed from an environment that may have tempted or influenced them to break the law.

The military also offers a highly-disciplined hierarchy that is so responsibility-focused it may keep individuals from misbehaving.

Also, while serving, recruits are under greater scrutiny.

On the other hand, serving in the armed forces may be very stressful which could promote negative behavior, as could an aversion to authority.

A military setting, in other words, could bring out the worst in an individual with a propensity for crime.

Yet, according to the Harvard-Amherst study, it doesn’t.

The Uphill Battle

Those who have a criminal record know the tremendous obstacles that may block their path. [Tweet this!]

A conviction for a felony will remain on a person’s record for years (until which point the offender is eligible for, seeks, and is granted an expungement); such a stigma may influence employers to immediately and automatically be suspicious of, afraid of, and intimidated by an individual who has been incarcerated.

Individuals who have served time may have permanently lost the right to vote (10 states restrict some people with a misdemeanor conviction).

An ex-felon may not be able to avail themselves of government benefits including public healthcare programs.

Some regulations expressly prohibit certain types of jobs for persons who have a criminal record.

And a convicted felon may find that even locating a place to live may be fraught with roadblocks, exacerbated by not being able to find a job to earn an income.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, faced with such impediments, two-thirds of released prisoners reoffend and are arrested within three years of release; within five years of release, three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested.

Although, according to the law, they’ve “paid their debt to society.”

The Future

Each year, more than 630,000 individuals are released from prison, more than the population of many cities. [Tweet this!]

As many as 100 million Americans have criminal records.

That’s a lot of potential talent. [Tweet this!]

Of course employers should conduct an individualized assessment of each job candidate as recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); those hiring should refer to relevant “Ban-the-Box” requirements (and their associated adjudication practices as applicable), and also acknowledge that legal or regulatory requirements may be in play to prohibit hiring individuals with specific criminal convictions within industries including healthcare, financial services, energy and other fields.

In addition to giving a fair shake to an applicant who has a record, a few incentives and additional facts may be worth considering:

  • Substantial tax credits are available for hiring ex-felons, such as the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit. Some states even provide partial wage reimbursement, additional tax credits, and other training funds for employers who hire ex-felons.
  • Employers who hire felons can also be eligible to obtain a free fidelity bond funded by the federal government to protect them against employee dishonesty or theft.
  • Ex-felons may be less inclined to quit on you. The harsh reality is they are left with far fewer options than employees with clean records. So many employers that hire former law-breakers have lower turnover than with conventional hires. According to the Partnership for Safety and Justice, “In general, formerly incarcerated people are as reliable as other workers.”

Given the recent studies cited above that indicate individuals who have been convicted of crimes in the past may, going forward, excel given the opportunity – duly considering job applicants solely on their qualifications rather than focusing exclusively on a past transgression may prove to be in a company’s best interests.

At a time when finding good employees without criminal records is a challenge, perhaps focusing on the potential positives of such a hire may be beneficial.

When Can An Employer Ask About Criminal History?
Free background screening report
White Paper: State Ban the Box Laws

This chart describes the question of “when” an employer may ask about criminal histories.

Download Now

Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

More Posts

Follow Me:



The HireRight Blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be comprehensive, and is not a substitute for and should not be construed as legal advice. HireRight does not warrant any statements in the HireRight Blog. Any statutes or laws cited herein should be read in their entirety. You should direct to your own experienced legal counsel questions involving your organization’s compliance with or interpretation or application of laws or regulations and any additional legal requirements that may apply.