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Has ‘Ban the Box’ turned a job interview into another courtroom?

Many people with an unspent conviction will welcome an organisation removing the box asking about criminal convictions from their application forms. However, Noah feels that for individuals with more complex criminal records, there may be some unintended consequences of doing so unless employers make other changes too.



For anybody that doesn’t know, ‘Ban the Box’ is an initiative that encourages businesses to stop asking ‘Do you have any criminal convictions?’ and including a tick box on their application forms. This box makes it far too easy for employers to immediately bin job applicants that have a criminal record, even if minor or long ago. Ban the Box means each applicant can be evaluated as an individual, on merit, rather than immediately dismissed as an ex-offender. For many, this works well. Those who have convictions from the distant past may find them easier to explain in a job interview than on a form, and can explain the circumstances. However,for others, Ban the Box can make a job interview feel like a courtroom.

For someone with a clear, linear narrative, Ban the Box can work really well. For example:

There was a time in my youth where I ran with the wrong crowd and got into some trouble. I did some time in prison for burglary. It was a stupid thing to do and I’ve long since moved on from it.”

You can see how an employer will view this disclosure – it’s an offence from a long time ago, the individual made some mistakes, learned from them and has had a ‘clean’ record since then.

How about:

I’ve been in and out of prison over the last eight years, mainly for crimes associated with a drug habit. I’ve been clean for six months, thanks to a drug rehab programme. I’ve completely turned my life around.”

An employer in this situation will need to make an assessment of the person’s recovery and their criminal record, and decide whether a ‘career criminal’ with a previous drug problem will make a positive contribution to their business or whether they will damage their brand. However the criminal behaviour is clearly linked to a behaviour that the person is now being treated for. This can reassure an employer.

Those with a more complicated history can present a more difficult situation for an employer to judge. Some offences are relatively minor and may result in a fine or community order but are nonetheless socially unacceptable, for example racially aggravated harassment or animal cruelty. These behaviours can be difficult to explain, even if they were a long time ago. Those convicted of murder, or sexual or terrorism offences can struggle to create a relatable narrative around their offence.

This often means that ex-offenders with difficult histories are faced with the humiliation of attending job interviews where their offences are examined and judged, only to be rejected at a later date. Some employers have banned the box but still operate blanket bans on some conviction types. Some larger employers leave decisions to local managers and this can result in conflicting decisions between sites. Sometimes interviewers are not the ones making a decision – a person might be recommended for the job having disclosed their criminal record, only to be rejected by HR at a later stage.

At least in the courtroom, the accused has legal representation and the rule of law guides any decision taken by a judge. In a job interview, an employer will make a decision based on their personal interpretation of the applicant’s narrative. Therefore, the unintended consequence of Ban the Box is sentencing ex-offenders with difficult conviction histories to a lifetime of job interview humiliation.

By Noah (name changed to protect identity)


A comment from Unlock

Employment can dramatically reduce re-offending rates and contribute to a safer society, yet – over 5 years since the launch of the Ban the Box – three-quarters of employers continue to ask about criminal records at application stage.

We think it’s difficult to justify collecting this data at such an early stage, and encourage the government to find ways to put Ban the Box on a statutory footing. However, that’s not the end of the story. As Noah describes, those with an unspent conviction will usually be asked to disclose at some stage – usually at interview. We don’t have reliable data on whether applicants with convictions are more likely to succeed if disclosing in interview, but asking later in the process allows an applicant to be judged on merit first.

Disclosing in interview can be daunting, particularly for those who don’t have a clear, linear explanation for their conviction/s. There are a few things employers can do to manage the process better.

  1. Be upfront – If you operate a blanket ban on conviction types, let applicants know this before they apply. Nobody wants to get their hopes up, send off a CV and plan their disclosure only to be told ‘sorry, we don’t take XXX’.
  2. Focus on what’s relevant – Employers should consider whether asking about criminal records is necessary and if so, what convictions are relevant to the role. Some employers do this well: we know of a financial services company that asks only about theft, fraud or other finance related convictions. Another has a blanket ban on offences against children but don’t ask about any other offences. This is a positive step, but employers who take this approach must have a clear policy and follow it. A DBS check will reveal convictions of any category. If you decide only financial convictions are relevant, you must ensure you ignore other conviction types when making decisions.
  3. Only ask the preferred candidate/s – Once a person has been selected on merit, there is no question that they are the best person for the job. Asking about criminal records at offer stage means employers can be really clear about what is driving their decision. Sometimes this will mean the preferred candidate will be rejected because their criminal record really does make them unsuitable for the role. More often, it will mean that a skilled and qualified candidate is considered holistically and fairly, and employers won’t miss out on someone who has a past, but also has potential.

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