Employers Who Perform Background Checks Hire More Black Workers

A new study in the current issue of the Journal of Law and Economics finds that employers who choose to perform criminal background checks end up hiring more black workers - especially black men.

Employers who systematically check criminal background during the hiring process are 8.4 percentage points more likely to have hired a black applicant into their most recently filled position.

“The results are consistent with the proposition that in the absence of a criminal background check, employers use race to infer past criminal activity, especially employers with a strong stated aversion to hiring ex-offenders,” write Harry J. Holzer (Georgetown Public Policy Institute), Steven Raphael (University of California, Berkeley), and Michael A. Stoll (University of California, Los Angeles).

Using a multi-city survey of more than 3,000 establishments in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles, the researchers found that the employers who are most averse to hiring ex-offenders were also the most likely to statistically discriminate. Those who perform criminal background checks are more likely to hire black applicants than those who do not, even when adjusting for proximity to black residential neighborhoods and proportion of black applicants.

“Calls to seal criminal history records fail to take into account this unintended consequence,” write the authors. “The results of this study suggest that curtailing access to criminal history records may actually harm more people than it helps and aggravate racial difference in labor market outcomes.”

This bias also extends to other stigmatized groups, specifically, workers with gaps in their employment history, the researchers found. Currently twenty-three state have some form of public access or freedom-of-information statutes pertaining to criminal history. Nearly all make a distinction between arrest records and conviction records and are generally less likely to disseminate information on arrests.