Even without ‘the box,’ job applications are still flawed

Banning the criminal record box on job applications is not enough to prevent discrimination when applying for a job.

President Barack Obama announced a new executive order that prohibits federal agencies from requiring applicants to disclose criminal records as a part of their overall criminal justice reform effort. But the thing that needs to be reformed is the job application format. The push to “Ban the Box”, as the movement is often called, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination when applying for a job.

The job application still creates room for employers to discriminate. Banning the box does not solve all of the problems that come with discrimination in the workplace.

Employers are struggling to find workers who are equipped with the right talent for specific positions. Ban the Box invokes the argument that qualified workers who have also been convicted of a crime might be unfairly discriminated against and excluded from job consideration.

The argument raises a valid point. What do employers have to know up front in order to hire an applicant with the right skills and experience? Shouldn’t employers be making decisions based on information relevant to open positions?

Job relevance is the center of equal opportunity. Employers can be put on the right and wrong side of employment laws such as the Equal Employment Opportunity and American Disabilities Acts—laws that prohibit employers from asking applicants about their race, gender, religion and medical conditions.

There are no questions regarding someone’s race, religion or ethnicity on the application, but that does not stop employers from discriminating against applicants.

First names still leave room for discrimination against gender. Unisex names do not make an applicant’s gender as obvious, but other names can give away an applicant’s gender fairly easily.

Even asking for a person’s first name on a job application could eliminate a sufficiently qualified applicant by a biased manager which is not only unfair to the candidate but a bad business practice. Last names also have the ability to reveal race, ethnicity and even religion.

An applicant’s address can create bias. A city or street can lead employers to believe the applicant is of a certain race or economic status, details that are off-limits and irrelevant when it comes to skill requirements.

The bottom line is that the effort to find potential candidates can still be sabotaged by more than someone’s criminal record.

Obama’s new legislation opened my eyes to an even bigger problem that stands in the way of the employee selection process.

Basic information still needs to be a part of the process. Name, address, contact information and convictions should still be asked. The main issue is not if they are asked but when they are asked.

The job application can include an email or phone number in order for employers to contact applicants. The manager can view job relevant information like previous experience, education and accomplishments. Applicants can then respond to questions regarding availability and attributes that make them the right hire for the job. All of this can be done without knowing a person’s name, address and their criminal background.

In a fair system of job-seeking, prospective employees are judged based on their skills rather than their past. No system of employee screening can be perfect. There is no way to guarantee that banning the box will result in total equity, but it is a new approach that will help employers find and hire qualified workers who would otherwise have been discriminated against.

Ban the Box is not just about protecting convicted criminals; it has drawn attention to a bigger issue—the job application itself.