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Ban the Box: What You Need to Know About Your Employment Rights and Criminal Convictions


Whether you are applying to serve fast food, work on a construction site, style hair, teach, or be a tattoo artist, almost all job applications have had one thing in common for years. They ask the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

And whether your answer is yes because of a silly trespassing charge you picked up as the result of a childhood prank or your answer is yes because you spent serious time in prison at some point in your past, the result has historically been the same. Either you tell the truth and you don’t get the job because you have a conviction, or you lie and you run the risk of ultimately being fired when your employer does a background check.

Either way, for generations you have had no recourse. However, in some parts of the country this is changing as various states and municipalities enact “Ban the Box” legislation.

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What Is Ban the Box Legislation?

Ban the Box laws are laws that prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. There are usually exceptions for certain professions like law enforcement or people who work with young children. There are sometimes also exceptions for certain crimes. Finally, in some places, employers are allowed to ask about criminal history later in the hiring process.

Hawaii was the first state to take this monumental step, way back in 1998. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Minnesota followed. Recently, New Jersey, Illinois, the District of Columbia, and San Francisco passed similar laws. In Washington, D.C., an employer is now only allowed to ask about a potential employee’s arrests, convictions, or criminal charges after having made a conditional offer of employment.

Philadelphia’s law prevents employers from firing you or making an employment decision based on a closed case that did not result in a conviction. These laws are becoming more popular nationwide and new cities are regularly passing ordinances. So even if you are not in one of the cities or states mentioned in this article, that does not mean you are not covered by this type of law.

Why Does Banning the Box Matter?

At first glance, it may seem like employers should be able to know about criminal history. For example, if a potential employee has recent convictions for stealing it may make sense for a potential employer to know about that before hiring him or her to run a cash register.

The problem is that too many employers have for too long considered all convictions or even arrests to be disqualifying. This prevents qualified people from obtaining work and prevents people who have committed serious crimes from reforming and living a productive and law abiding life. As a society, we want people who have done bad things to turn over a new leaf, but that can be impossible to do if employers are allowed to blacklist you because of a conviction.

Ban the Box Laws and Anti-Discrimination Laws

Ban the Box laws can act with anti-discrimination laws. One example is the law in Minnesota. In addition to that state’s Ban the Box law, the state has also recognized that criminal convictions are often used as a pretext to cover up what is actually racial discrimination in hiring practices. So, in that state, employers are required to consider the recency and job-relatedness of convictions before using them as an excuse for an employment decision.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you know someone who was denied a job because of a criminal conviction in his or her past? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Daniel Kalish
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Paul Heroux
Paul Heroux

Ban the box is not an attempt to avoid my past; that can’t be done. It is asking for the right to tell an employer about my past in person. The integrity to do that should be matched by an employer’s integrity to sit down and speak with me.

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