Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ban the box with education, not regulation

“Ban the box” is a movement spearheaded by civil rights groups that is aimed at persuading employers to remove from their applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record.

In some municipalities, it is more than a suggestion – it’s regulation. Buffalo, Rochester, and New York City, for example, all have laws on the books prohibiting that line of questioning.

Some unsuspecting firms that have multiple locations across the country have run afoul of these laws. For them, it’s a difficult law for human resources offices to manage with only 150 cities and counties having such laws in place. There’s inconsistency in its mandated use and if corporate HR is not up on local laws, there are problems to be had.  

Case in point: In 2016, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman penalized two retailers mightily for breaking the city of Buffalo’s two-year-old bam. Big Lots paid a $100,000 fine while Marshall’s was on the hook for $95,000.

It’s rather unfortunate that these laws are in place. Interviewing and/or hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds should be at the sole discretion of the employer.

Many businesses want to minimize risk and eliminate wasteful hiring practices. You certainly can’t fault retailers for not wanting a repeat thief managing their inventories or operating their cash registers. And why make social service organizations and non-profits not be able to initially set aside unqualified candidates who put their clients at risk (such as job applicants who might be registered sex offenders or those who have been arrested for DWI) before delving into the initial interviews and subsequent criminal background checks?

On the other hand, there are employers who don’t use the box. I’ve written here before about the value in hiring those with criminal records and specifically former convicts. When they are given that chance to work, they succeed. Ex-cons have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic. At one point just a few years ago, over a quarter of my workplace had criminal records and about a third of that group had considerable time in prison under their belt.  

While I see the value in society’s investment in ex-cons (the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year) and cherish the redemption and reformation of men when given steady, gainful employment (and hope), I also see that their employment could pose a risk in certain workplaces because not everyone reforms. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested (I would argue, though, that it may be attributed to the stigma employers have placed upon them -- here in New York, more than 60% of ex-cons remain unemployed 1 year after their release because of their records).

But to each their own when it comes to hiring. I don’t mind assuming the risk and can’t fault those who won’t.

That’s why I have enjoyed the approach Governor Cuomo’s office has taken with this issue. He could easily force legislation or institute executive decree that would mandate the banning of the box statewide. But, he hasn’t. Instead, he’s focused his team’s efforts on things like the community reentry council and ongoing employer outreach.

Last month, Cuomo and his team shared their message yet again, reminding employers of these endeavors while discussing the value of hiring ex-convicts in regard to business operations and public safety. He also officially launched the Work for Success Pledge and which aims to help pair job candidates who have criminal convictions with companies in need of labor.

That’s the best way to ban the box…with education, not regulation.

It’s simple: 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record. Who are we to judge? And, at the same time, who are we to judge those who do judge?

Let employers make the decisions that best fit their corporate and personal cultures. They know their workplaces -- and themselves -- far better than any lawmaker ever could.  

From the 07 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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