The Impact of Criminal Background Checks on Employment Opportunities

People with criminal records face a barrage of barriers to employment. This prevents them from generating income, building financial security, and contributing to the community.

Many states have passed “ban the box” laws that allow employers to ask about convictions only after extending a job offer. But, these laws do not remove all barriers.


Felons often have a hard time finding work. While some jobs are felon-friendly, many rely on a criminal background check for employment to find qualified candidates and avoid negligent hiring lawsuits.

Depending on how the company does its background checks, felony convictions can be reported for as long as they are in effect. But, the company may not be allowed to consider a person’s arrest records and charges that did not lead to convictions. This disproportionately impacts Black applicants since people of color are arrested at higher rates, and many of those arrests do not result in convictions.

In addition, even when controlling for location and position, a person’s criminal record decreases the probability of being hired by about 4%. This is mainly because a criminal record can be taken as evidence of guilt and poor job performance.

Despite this, over 80% of managers and two-thirds of HR professionals said they would hire someone with a felony. This is partly due to a 2016 White House initiative, which included several major corporations like Facebook, Airlines, and Starbucks as signees committed to giving ex-felons a fair chance when looking for employment. These businesses have agreed to “ban the box” on job applications and decide to delay asking about an applicant’s criminal record until later.


Although they may seem less severe than felonies, misdemeanor convictions can still significantly affect a person’s life. While they typically don’t involve incarceration, they may still result in fines or the loss of privileges like driving and working with children.

They are also often reported on criminal background checks, particularly those conducted by private employers. A misdemeanor on a person’s record can also limit future employment opportunities, and they may be required to disclose it to potential employers.

The impact of criminal records depends on the type of crime committed and its severity, as well as other factors such as how old the individual was when they were arrested or convicted and whether it was a first offense. A criminal record can cause a person to be denied a job, which may prevent them from being promoted or even finding a new position in the same industry.

In addition, workers with a criminal history are at greater risk of being fired, especially in positions requiring them to work with the public or handle money or personal information. This research found that sales and customer service employees with a criminal record were 19 days more likely to be involuntarily terminated than those without a history. The findings were similar for both men and women.

Non-Criminal Offenses

A wide range of crimes may appear on criminal background checks, including drug possession, burglary, and vandalism. Although they are not as serious as a felony, many people find it hard to get a job with these types of convictions on their record.

These types of records can prevent someone from getting a job that involves driving, working with children, or using a weapon. While they may not affect overall productivity and success, an employer needs to consider how these records will impact the specific job requirements and whether they will cause safety risks to employees or customers.

Employers often treat criminal convictions and arrests without conviction as a proxy for potential workplace misconduct or poor performance. However, whether these concerns are founded on correctly understanding how workers with criminal records behave in the workforce or on a fear of negligent hiring lawsuits or bad press is unclear.

Moreover, the use of criminal history information may exacerbate existing disparities in the workforce due to racial discrimination embedded in our nation’s legal system. A disproportionate number of Black people are stopped by police, arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, a fact that is compounded when criminal background checks systematically exclude Black candidates from employment opportunities.


As you review criminal history background checks, remember that the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act governs what information a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA) can include in its reports and how an employer can legally consider it in hiring decisions. In addition, there are a variety of state and local laws governing what can be reported, including ban-the-box laws that restrict when employers can ask applicants about their convictions and which crimes are considered felonies or misdemeanors.

A candidate’s arrest record may reveal information relevant to your position and business, but there are many reasons why an arrest could have occurred. Some arrests result in convictions, while others are dismissed or the charges drop. An applicant’s record can also contain inaccurate information, such as a wrong conviction date or multiple listings of the same offense. Inaccuracies in a criminal background check are more common than those in a credit report and can be challenging to correct.

A successful policy to expand opportunities for people with criminal records would require employers to re-examine their assumptions about applicants with histories. Fortunately, existing data can be used to measure how much employers do this. Without such measures, it remains difficult to measure whether a change in policies or procedures will increase job opportunities for people with conviction, arrest, and incarceration records.