​Americans with criminal records may outperform on the job

America is increasingly the land of the incarcerated, given that nearly one-third of adults now have some type of prior arrest or conviction record, according to the National Employment Law Project. While troubling on many levels, the trend has a dire economic impact, given the hurdles those 70 million people face in finding employment.

Employers are often unwilling to give a chance to people with a prior arrest or conviction, but new research indicates that workplaces may be losing out on a solid pool of employees. The study examines the nation's largest employer -- the U.S. military -- and its practice of providing waivers for people with felony or misdemeanor records, allowing them to enlist.

Rather than reaffirming the biases that many people have against those with criminal records, it turns out that enlistees with prior offenses are no more likely to get kicked out of the military for bad behavior than their counterparts with clean records. What's more, they're actually more likely to get promoted than people without prior offenses, the researchers found.

The findings come at a time when the country's policymakers and business leaders are increasingly looking at the issue of the growing ranks of Americans with arrests and convictions. The "ban the box" campaign, for instance, is pushing for states and employees to remove a box from their hiring applications that asks if an applicant has a criminal record. To that end, the new research may help to overturn some of the stereotypes that employers harbor when deciding whether to consider an applicant with a record, said Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

"This focus of looking at how workers with records perform on the job is great; it's getting to one of those myths or stereotypes that some employers have, that if you have a record you won't be as trustworthy," Rodriguez said. "This is a a great way to challenge that stereotype. There are some amazing workers out there that just happen to have a record."

The research has economic implications, given that the number of incarcerated Americans has jumped more than 400 percent from 1978 to 2014, according to the ACLU. People of color, who tend to suffer from higher unemployment rates and lower pay, have been disproportionately impacted by the trend, largely because of drug-related arrests and sentencing. While imprisoning Americans is costly for taxpayers, it's also tied to worse outcomes for individuals with records, such as having a tougher time finding work and lower income.

The study, conducted by Harvard University professor Devah Pager and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Jennifer Lundquist and researcher Eiko Strader and currently under review at a scholarly journal, used the Freedom of Information Act to collect data on about 1.3 million enlistees, both with and without criminal records, between 2002 to 2009. Until now, little research has looked at how people with criminal backgrounds perform on the job, although biases about hiring workers with arrests and convictions are widespread.

"Unfortunately, virtually no empirical evidence exists with which to assess the workplace risk or potential of individuals with criminal records, leaving these debates largely theoretical," the authors wrote in the report. "Meanwhile, a little known initiative has been operating in the U.S. military, which regularly recruits and hires individuals with felony-level criminal records to serve in the armed forces."

That sparked the question of whether the military's employment data could shed some light on whether former offenders performed better or worse than those with clean records. Counter to widely held beliefs about the suitability of people with criminal backgrounds, the research found that ex-offenders were no more likely to be discharged for negative reasons that employers believe they would be -- such as misconduct -- than those without records. Perhaps more surprising, enlistees with criminal records outperformed when it came to promotions.

"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," the researchers noted.

That backs up what some employers are reporting on an anecdotal basis, Rodriguez said. For instance, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System has made an effort to hire ex-offenders, and found that the group had a lower turnover rate than non-offenders.

"What we heard time and again from people who hired people with records is they found some very mature workers who have gone through life experiences and had some negative experiences, and arrived a at a point where they are dedicated to making things work," she said. "That means working hard, and developing loyalty and commitment to the employer."

Employment often proves to be a stabilizing element for people when they leave prison, but it's often tough for them to find employers who are willing to examine their qualifications and whether they're a good fit. To that end, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has warned that using criminal history information in hiring may violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The commission recommends employers consider factors such as whether the criminal offense is related to the job and how much time has passed since then.

That's similar to the U.S. military's approach to providing waivers to people with criminal records. Not everyone with a record is approved to enlist in the military, since the armed forces screen candidates before granting a waiver, including a "whole person" evaluation that examines the severity of the offense and any special circumstances surrounding it, the researchers noted.

The findings are likely to be "very influential in this larger movement" to convince employers to consider hiring people with records, Rodriguez said. "It does address one of those core issues that comes up again and again: Can I count on employees with records to be good employees? Yes, you can."