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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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I didn’t know the real sentence would start after leaving prison


I’ll start this with the following statement:

If someone had told me I’d have a criminal record and get a prison term three years ago, I’d have laughed.

However, the reality of this journey has been eye-opening and frightening! The pre-prison journey was horrendous and my lack of knowledge concerning the working of the law cost me dearly. Legal aid means only the basics are covered and it’s very true that without money to defend yourself you’re in a very poor position to fight. Prior to this experience, I had absolute respect for the criminal justice system; this I’m afraid is no longer the case. Perhaps I’ll write about that some other time.

From my own perspective, post prison is where the true sentence begun. Regardless of  the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, a criminal record causes a significant impact on the simple things in life! For those with a life licence, you have my absolute sympathy. Thankfully in time, I will no longer have to ‘disclose’ and matters will improve, that’s not to say I’m naive enough to think things will be perfect. If you leave prison and they offer you hostel accommodation, take it! In my case they opened the prison door and left me to it. Probation couldn’t help with accommodation or work – it’s not their responsibility. Writing to housing associations didn’t achieve great results and the council were less than helpful. Therefore, if you have a hostel place be grateful for it because it will give you the opportunity and time to sort your life out. It might compromise your life for a while but it’s better than being homeless as I’ve discovered.

Life on licence is bearable. I’ve found my probation officer to be very supportive and feel that in many cases, they only come down hard on you if you give them reason to. Finding work with a criminal record has proved to be a journey in itself. If you prepare yourself for a lot of rejection, then you’ll be OK. The Job Centre should and will work with any restrictions that you have. Initially my work coach asked me to apply for every job under the sun which really wasn’t appropriate. I had to be very clear about what my options were. Job Seekers Allowance or Universal Credit requires active seeking of work but you shouldn’t be penalised if you can only apply for two jobs a week. You may find that a lot will depend on the relationship you develop with your work coach so try hard to get them on board.

I was placed on the Mandatory Work Programme. This consisted of 5 hours a day of hot housing on the job hunting front. My work coach thankfully had a lot of experience of working with ex-offenders and, with a bit of prompting, was able to quickly understand what I could and couldn’t do. Initially they asked me to join every recruitment agency in the local area and as I soon discovered, this wasn’t the most helpful piece of advice I was given.

In my experience, it’s best to concentrate on joining agencies that specialise in getting ex-offenders back into work – they do exist. Talking to my work coach enabled me to find out which ones in the area were the best to join. I was prepared to work anywhere and was realistic about what I could achieve but was horrified to find that I was having problems applying for shift work in a factory. I got the feeling that agencies were sometimes loath to put me forward for jobs and sell me to employers and I got very depressed with the constant rejections.

Talking with employers face to face was much more successful as I was able to speak for myself, sell my strengths and explain how I’d come to be convicted. I’d certainly recommend this to anybody looking for a job and it did achieve more positive results for me. Banning the Box’ is something I definitely support as I really believe that there were times when having ticked the ‘yes’ box on a form, my application was taken no further despite having the relevant skills and experience required.

It’s been necessary for me to take a long hard look at my CV and sadly, I’ve had to remove the majority of my qualifications. My degree and post-graduate qualifications are at this time no longer relevant and in fact, proved to be a hindrance in achieving work as I was deemed ‘over qualified’. If you have any professional qualifications then dumbing down you CV will improve your chances of getting a job. I’m now employed as a car valeter – it’s not glamorous but it’s 40-45 hours of regular work and regular pay. My current employer never asked anything about my past. All he wanted to know was that I was reliable and committed to the job. I was able to sell myself without having to tick a box. My employer isn’t silly by any means, he probably realises that there might be a ‘skeleton in my cupboard’ but as far as he’s concerned I contribute to his company – I’m hard working, never let him down and I make him money – and that’s all he wants.

Remember, if an employer doesn’t ask you about convictions, you  don’t need to disclose. Unless you have restrictions on your licence, don’t let your probation officer force you into disclosure. The law is clear on this, if you’re not asked then you do not need to say anything. The same applies to car and house insurance although do check out the small print to make sure you’re not missing a question somewhere!

The future moves on for me and I know that there will be other difficult occasions to overcome. Patience and resolve will allow you to make progress you’ve just got to hang on in there. I haven’t enjoyed the constant ‘black-listing’ and perhaps this will continue, but I’ll not give up. It can feel as though the system is designed to set you up to fail but don’t let it.

We’re all worth something and I believe that if a company says ‘no’ then it was their loss. When you walk into an interview, its in your hands to prove that you have the skills and experience to do the job and that you’re worth the faith and trust they’ll be placing in you.

By Adam  (name changed to protect identity)


Useful links

  • Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below
  • Information – We have practical self-help information on looking for (and keeping) employment and volunteering and insurance  for people with convictions on our information site.
  • Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to education and training from people with convictions on our online forum.

New York Times Editorial – A Criminal Record and a Fair Shot at a Job

This was originally published by the New York Times on the 13th November and we thought it would be of interest to people with convictions.

A Criminal Record and a Fair Shot at a Job

Nineteen states and 100 cities and counties forbid public agencies — and in some cases, private businesses — to ask job applicants about criminal convictions until later in the application process, when they have had a fair chance to prove their qualifications. Last week, President Obama added the weight of the federal government to this movement when he ordered federal agencies to stop asking most people about convictions at the outset.

He should not stop there. The president could send another powerful message by issuing an executive order that extends the fair-chance requirement to government contractors and that uses the approach that has been laid out by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Without employment, after all, people who have served time in jail will remain trapped at the margins of society.

Seventy million Americans have criminal histories that can limit their job opportunities or shut them out of work altogether. This sometimes means they had an arrest that never led to conviction, faced charges that were eventually dismissed or committed minor crimes in the distant past.

Fair-chance — or “ban the box” — laws have gained traction in both liberal and conservative states as elected officials and businesses have come to understand that shutting people out of work weakens families and communities. It also leaves qualified people out of the applicant pool.

Scores of municipal governments have expressly postponed the criminal history question until the applicant has been given a conditional job offer — a policy that the federal government should follow. And giant companies like Walmart, Target and Koch Industries have removed conviction questions from job applications.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave the fair-chance movement a lift in 2012 when it reaffirmed a longstanding ruling that bars employers from automatically turning away applicants based on their arrest and conviction records. Rather, the agency said, employers should take into account the age at which a person committed the offense, the nature of the offense and whether it is directly related to the job.

The agency also made it clear that arrest alone is not proof of illegal conduct or grounds for exclusion of employment applicants. Two developments made the need for this new guidance urgent: the rise of computerized arrest and conviction records that often contain mistakes and the sharp increase in the number of people who have been arrested for minor offenses as a result of “zero tolerance” policing.

A year after that clarification, a federal commission led by then-Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. recommended making the federal government a “model employer” in the way it treats people with criminal records.

President Obama’s new directive gets the government closer to that. But an executive order that instructed federal contractors to abide by the employment commission’s guidance would fulfill that promise.

The president, who no doubt wants to avoid another dust-up with Congress over executive authority, would ideally like lawmakers to pass a pending “ban the box” bill. That would be the right thing for Congress to do. But since Congress is unlikely to act, Mr. Obama should go ahead and complete the job he has begun.

This content originated from: The New York Times
Available at (last accessed 13th November 2015)

Useful links

  • Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below
  • Information – We have details of friendly UK employers on our Information Hub.
  • Policy work – Read about the work Unlock is doing on Ban the Box in the UK

Banning the Box and the Demands for Disclosure – Part 1

It’s a sobering thought when you’re sat there, faced with three strangers you’ve never met: the panel at your job interview has more information about your criminal record than a jury would if you were on trial. And, in a capitalist economy where we all have to earn a living, employers are every bit as powerful an influence on your life as judges.

In a criminal trial, the jury is not allowed to know if you have a previous conviction. This is to make sure they aren’t prejudiced against you so that you get a fair trial. Research with mock juries has shown that jurors are likely to believe a defendant guilty if they know the defendant has been convicted a similar crime in the past. So it’s probable that interview panels are more likely to believe people with convictions might commit a crime while they’re employing them if they know about previous convictions. But, with one in five unemployed people having a criminal record, how are they supposed to get a fair interview if they’ve already had to disclose their convictions to the potential employer on their application form?

Some employers make sure that interview panels aren’t shown your disclosure so that they aren’t prejudiced. Many do not. And many small firms don’t have an HR dept., it’s just the boss, your application form, you and your record. So it’s impossible to remove prejudice. And that’s exactly why ‘Ban the Box’ action is crucial.

The practice of employers seeking a disclosure is very common, according to one survey carried out for British Industry in the Community (BITC) it’s a staggering 73%. In response, one year ago, BITC supported by Nacro, Unlock and others, launched the UK’s own Ban the Box campaign, #bantheboxuk.

The idea is to work with employers to get them to remove the criminal convictions question (‘the box’) from application forms and only ask about convictions at a later stage in the process – this varies depending on the employer, but many instead ask at interview.

So, imagine being in an interview in your forties and being quizzed about the worst and most stupid thing you did in your teens. Does that seem like a reasonable interview question to you? No? Well, that’s exactly the kind of situation people with convictions face every day.

Emotionally, it can be a truly gruelling process. Even the most well-meaning of employers, like charities who work with the disadvantaged, walk you back through the worst time in your life, get you to talk about what was going on for you at the time, assess your level of regret and remorse then thank you very much for your honesty and show you the door. If they don’t give you the job, there was absolutely no need for them to put you through that or for them to have that information. It’s an invasion of privacy of the highest order, and many people who’ve been through it never again seek work from employers who behave that way.

If employers ask about records on application, it means everyone who applies needs to make a disclosure, even though only one person – the successful candidate – ever really needs to. All the other applicants and interviewees are just members of the public with no legal obligation to disclose or undergo a DBS check. Their offending isn’t relevant to the employer because they are not employed, and are not going to be. So they should be able to exit the recruitment process with their privacy and dignity intact, shouldn’t they?

This is Part 1. More to follow….

You can read more about Ban the Box at

Applying with conviction

by Richard, editor,

I’m writing in response to Nicola Inge’s article Beyond conviction (DDN, June, page 8). The ‘Ban the Box’ campaign is an excellent idea and fully supported by online magazine theRecord and our partners at Unlock. The principle behind the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was to break the cycle of offending and re-offending by enabling people with convictions to gain employment, and led to the concept of a spent conviction.

Sadly, with the inception of the CRB, now DBS, this principle suffered a massive setback, and asking about previous convictions at the application stage became commonplace, particularly in health, social care and education – the very services that espouse a progressive approach to rehabilitation. This, in turn, led to people with convictions not even applying for jobs that require a disclosure at the application stage.

The US approach based on the equal opps agenda and its accompanying legislation is well worth emulating in the UK, for all the reasons set out in the article. And, following Gandhi’s famous dictum, it would serve people with convictions, the recovery industry and the wider society well if drug and alcohol treatment services were to ‘be the change they want to see in the world.’
If recovery services were truly committed to equal opps, they would never expect candidates to discuss their offences at interview because this never gives people with convictions the opportunity to present themselves as equal to those without convictions. This differentially discriminates against those from minorities, as mentioned above, and male applicants – often under-represented among the recovery workforce – because they are seven times more likely to have a conviction than females.

There are only three reasons employers ask about convictions on application forms: because they think they ought to, because they intend to use that information to discriminate or because they are just plain nosy. The simple fact is that an employer only needs to know about the criminal record of people they will employ, i.e. the person who emerges as the leading candidate, after the interview stage is complete. There is no need for any employer to elicit or, more seriously, retain information about a person’s criminal record if they are not going to employ them. It is only the successful candidate who ever needs to be asked. The other candidates should be able to exit the recruitment process with their privacy intact. Sadly, this is not the case with any of the treatment service recruitment processes that theRecord is aware of.

Often, employers are also labouring under the illusion that screening for convictions at the application stage is a form of risk assessment. It is not. The absence of a conviction tells you nothing about a person’s honesty or safe conduct, it only tells you that they have never been caught and convicted.

A person with a history of, say, violence or fraud, but who was never caught, can sail through the process untested, while the poor sod convicted of possessing a few grams of weed or stealing a car 20 years ago gets grilled by complete strangers in a powerful position in a non-therapeutic setting. Any therapist will tell you that this can be devastating, even relapse-inducing. Both Unlock and theRecord regularly receive mail and calls from people who’ve been treated in this way only to be told that a stronger candidate got the job, so there was never any need to put them through that part of the interview because their record was never actually relevant to the employer. And even when they are successful, they are often then faced with working alongside people to whom they have disclosed their convictions – the people who interviewed them. It might be better if such disclosures are only ever made to HR and passed to senior management, not colleagues, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

So, if recovery employers want to offer an equal opportunity and run a safe and legal service, there are just three things they need to do. Firstly, ask only the prime candidate about previous convictions. Secondly, follow that up with the appropriate level of DBS check and, thirdly, risk assess that candidate regardless of whether they have a conviction or not. There are several psychometric tests that can be used for this in consultation with a suitably qualified psychologist. If their favourite candidate proves risky, then move on to the next. It would also be very helpful if employers would state at the application stage which level of DBS check is required for that specific post. This would give the candidate an informed choice whether to proceed with an application or not.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 edition of Drink and Drug News

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