When employers interview new applicants, they’re looking for people who are honest, reliable, and responsible. Running criminal background checks is one way to screen applicants, but critics say these checks are unfair to black men, who are stigmatized by statistics: Black men are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white men over the course of their lifetimes. But a new study by Berkeley Public Policy Professor Steven Raphael and colleagues found the reverse: Criminal background checks can actually boost the hiring of African Americans.
“The results were a bit of a puzzle because we expected the opposite,” Raphael says. “Employers who are averse to hiring exoffenders, but who don’t run criminal background checks, sometimes use perceived signals of criminality—such as race, gaps in employment, or a GED—[to rule out applicants] instead.” In such scenarios, African Americans with clean records are at a significant disadvantage.
Raphael’s team found that among employers who say they won’t hire ex-offenders, background checks increased the hiring of black men by 5.6 percent. The criminal checks also helped boost employment among other groups often assumed to be dishonest: welfare recipients and those with spotty work histories.