Employing the Dangerous Class

Apple’s employment practices made headlines recently when it came to light that they imposed a blanket ban on hiring construction workers who had been convicted of a felony in the last 7 years. Luckily, responses of surprise and outrage resulted in Apple lifting the ban from their screening process. But many companies continue to outright bar convicted felons from employment, and most states don’t consider it discrimination (even where the conviction has nothing to do with the position in question). And, of course, hiring is a deeply subjective process even at its most systematic.

I know: I was a corporate recruiter for a tech company for several years, and although we used rigorous tests and well-established standards to hire thousands of people every year, there was ample room for subjective factors to come into play, particularly where any objective doubts existed about a candidate – which was virtually always. We were instructed not to consider felony convictions unless they were relevant to the position (as in: better than the controversial Apple policy), but the stereotypes that accompany convictions along with the practical implications – career gaps, periods of unemployment resulting from prejudicial hiring practices, lack of formal education or correspondence-school degrees that we valued less highly, etc. – worked against the applicant at each stage of the process.

I argued in favor of overlooking serious (but irrelevant) convictions, and it was obvious that my coworkers generally had not seriously thought of doing so until I pushed back. These coworkers, by the way, were overwhelming young, highly educated, and liberal. In other words, the same demographic who got so mad about Apple’s outright ban, and folks who one might imagine would be particularly sympathetic.

Why the resistance to hiring people who have irrelevant felony convictions? In an economy with an uncomfortably high unemployment rate, employers often have a lot of options and may benefit from culling the herd a little bit outright. And when you’re turning away many qualified applicants, perhaps employers feel justified in giving folks who’ve never been convicted of a felony a leg up – maybe it feels like a merit-based decision. But I think the most compelling explanation for both de jure and de facto bans on hiring people with felony convictions is simply prejudice: thanks to rhetoric about “career criminals” and “super predators” – what I’ve described as the “dangerous class” – individual convictions have come to stand for a criminal identity overall.

It should be noted, though, that this is not a race-neutral prejudice. One particularly distressing study from Arizona State University showed that our broad prejudice against people with criminal convictions still isn’t as strong as our prejudice against Black people: white men with criminal convictions were more likely to be hired than equally qualified Black men with no criminal history.

Getting rid of the screening question altogether (the “Ban the Box” movement) will go a long way to prevent the kind of de facto discrimination I witnessed, and applying civil-rights-style anti-discrimination principles to those with criminal records will help as well. But, as the Arizona State University study demonstrates, the prejudices at work here are layered and will likely need to be addressed simultaneously to effectuate change.

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