As a small business owner, I welcomed President Obama’s announcement that the federal government won’t ask job applicants about their criminal record until later in the hiring process.
It matters because the difference between finding a job and not being able to provide for one’s family can come down to a single question: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” While I’m fortunate to be able to answer no, I can’t say the same for members of my staff and my family.
They are among the 70 million Americans who have an arrest or conviction record. Decades of over-criminalization and the war on drugs brought us to this point. Now, our nation is trying to restore balance and proportionality to the criminal justice system. Expanding access to employment will be crucial to successful reform — and that’s where business owners play an important role.
My business partner and I started our business in my garage in 2006. While we haven’t yet achieved the wild successes of other garage start-ups like Apple and Amazon, we have experienced significant growth over the last nine years and attribute that to the hard work and talent of our employees.
Sometimes we find those great qualities in an employee who’s made a mistake in the past. A prior criminal conviction doesn’t mean you can’t bring a wealth of experience to the table. Employers who judge an applicant based solely on a prior conviction are missing out on all the person has to offer.
That’s why we practice fair hiring and don’t ask applicants their criminal conviction history until the end of the hiring process. First and foremost, we’re interested in finding the applicant with the best resume and experience. So “banning the box” — i.e., removing the criminal conviction question from job applications — is a no-brainer for us.
When a job applicant answers “yes” to the criminal conviction question, employers and hiring managers too often use it as a reason to discard these candidates — judging them based on a mistake they made in the past rather than who they are today. When applications are tossed aside without fair consideration, it’s not just the applicant who suffers; the employer may be missing out on someone who could be perfect for the job.
It’s important for small-business owners across the country to take a look at their application process and ask themselves if they’re limiting their options too much.
The Main Street Alliance recently released a survey of more than 1,100 small-business owners in nine states. In Florida, business owners were asked if they believed having to check a criminal history box on an application hurt an applicant’s chance of being called for an interview; 95 percent said yes. When asked if they would support a policy that would remove the criminal conviction question from the initial application, 75 percent said yes.
Small-business owners like me support policies that increase access to local employment and bring down jobless rates. We see the vicious cycle of incarceration and poverty in our communities. We see the effects of a flawed justice system and employment discrimination on our revenue sheets.
Breaking down barriers to employment will help reduce the rate of recidivism, but we must also be committed to reducing the rate of incarceration. Over-policing of low-income communities of color and limited funding for education and after-school programs is a recipe for disaster. Children are left with few outlets for their adolescent frustrations, often leading to poor decisions and incarceration.
The president’s decision to “ban the box” for most government jobs is a huge step in the right direction, but we must begin to address the root causes of crime and end employment discrimination at our local community businesses. Private employers should follow the president’s lead (and the lead of companies such as Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and Starbucks) and remove the criminal conviction question from their applications, making a commitment to hire the best possible applicant, and not be prejudiced by a prior record.