"Banning the box" may have unintended consequences, thanks to racist employers

ByJames Dennin

The movement to prevent employers from inquiring about a job applicant's legal history — often referred to as "ban the box" — has been gaining traction, but it may have unintended consequences, according to multiple new studies

Efforts to ban the box took off earlier this summer when President Barack Obama wrote a memo proposing that federal agencies remove the "box" — which prospective employees must check if they've been convicted of a crime — from job applications. 

Advocates of banning the box argue that it traps ex-prisoners, particularly men of color, in the prison industrial complex by making it too hard for them to find jobs and reenter society. 

There's some evidence to support that notion, as more than one-third of nonworking men have criminal records. More than 100 municipalities have passed laws banning the box in one form or another, including large cities like New York City and the state of New Jersey.  

However, these programs may not be working out as well as advocates hoped they would. 

Larry French/Getty Images

While banning the box does improve the prospects of potential employees with criminal histories, it may also be hindering other people of color's prospects, according to two new studies. 

The first, from researchers at Princeton and the University of Michigan, submitted 15,000 fake job applications before and after ban-the-box policies were passed in New Jersey and New York City to test how many applications resulted in callbacks. 

What they found was pretty depressing: Employers in ban-the-box jurisdictions may interview more people convicted of crimes, but they also interview far fewer people of color. 

"Before BTB, white applicants to BTB-affected employers received about 7% more callbacks than similar black applicants, but BTB increases this gap to 45%," the study's authors wrote. 

That research was supported by a second study published in July, which found that such policies actually reduce employment for low-skilled black and hispanic workers by 5.1% and 2.9% respectively.

What's going on? 

Writing in the New York TimesSendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor at Harvard, argued that once ban the box policies were enacted, employers "seemed to treat all black applicants now as if they might have a criminal past."

Reversing this entrenched racism, Mullainathan wrote, will require changing hearts and minds, which takes time. 

On the flip-side, there's still statistical evidence that banning the box works. Not only does the policy increase the likelihood of formerly incarcerated people getting job interviews, but it also reduces the "chilling effect" that discourages these people from applying to those jobs in the first place.