Soldiers assigned to Palehorse Troop, 4th Squadron, 2nd Calvary Regiment move over rough terrain during Operation Alamo Scout 13, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Harold Flynn)

The "ban the box" movement to push questions about job applicants' criminal histories later in the hiring process got a big boost last week. The White House proposed rules that would ban federal agencies from asking candidates for thousands of government jobs about their criminal backgrounds until the end of the process, when they receive a "conditional job offer." More than 100 cities and counties and 23 states have adopted similar rules, aimed at trying to give people with convictions a chance to at least be considered for jobs before they're ruled out.

But according to new research, delaying the conviction question may do more than merely give former felons a shot at employment. With the right screening in place, it could lead some employers to workers who are just as good as their peers--if not better.

The new paper, presented at an academic conference but not yet peer-reviewed, examined how former felons do in a particular kind of employment: The military.

It found that--when controlling for a variety of demographic factors such as education or gender--overall termination rates for negative reasons like misconduct or poor performance, with a couple of exceptions, were no higher for enlistees with criminal histories than they were for those without a criminal record. Meanwhile, those with felony criminal backgrounds were also promoted faster through the ranks and more often made it to the level of sergeant than recruits who weren't offenders.

Jennifer Lundquist, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and her co-authors, Harvard sociologist Devah Pager and Amherst colleague Eiko Strader, examined the military because of the ability to get information on a large number of employees--something that's hard to do with other organizations. They filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2013 and received anonymized records for nearly 1.3 million enlistees between 2002 and 2009.

Among them were nearly 5,000 records of recruits who'd received what's known as a "moral character waiver" or "conduct waiver" for committing a felony. While the federal legal code says people convicted of a felony can't enlist in the military, if they apply for a waiver and successfully go through a rigorous screening process, some have been accepted. Those chances go up in periods of war or military expansion--such as between 2006 and 2008, the years surrounding the Iraq surge--but fall significantly, if not altogether, when recruiting drops and the armed forces contracts.

"Now with downsizing it’s harder and harder to even get in the military," Lundquist said in an interview. The Army is currently taking no applicants from felons, an Army spokesman told National Public Radio, which first reported the research.

The military has conducted internal studies on the question of how those who receive conduct waivers perform over time, according to the authors, leading to mixed results. But Lundquist and her co-authors say their paper examines not just whether they leave the service early but why, as well as the pace of their promotions. Their paper also differs by including more recent data from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, they write.

One potential explanation for their results could be that people with criminal records who entered the military simply end up in an environment where they're removed from their friends, communities and day-to-day struggles that could tempt them to commit more offenses. At the same time, the military's hierarchical, responsibility-focused, discipline-driven culture could keep employees from future bad behavior.

Lundquist admits those things may have an effect, but also argues that deployment could lead to more stress and greater surveillance--making for more chances to get caught. The military's strict hierarchy could also be challenging for those who already have issues with authority figures, Lundquist says. In other words, "the military setting could do just the opposite." 

A more likely explanation is that the military's "whole person" screening process, Lundquist says, weeds out people more likely to get in trouble again, and may actually find people who can perform better. It takes into account how old applicants were when they committed the crime, what it was and the context surrounding it, personal references and recommendations, and a qualitative interview, steps many employers never get to when they discount people with records from the start.

"Our main argument is that the 'whole person' criteria ... is something we think employers should explore as a possibility," Lundquist says. By not using a comprehensive screening process, "they may be losing out by just banning ex-felons altogether who turn out to be pretty good employees when given that chance--and when properly screened." 

Lundquist also believes another factor could be at play. "The screening process clearly works, there’s no question," she says. "But I also suspect there may be something else going on here, which is the interesting social question." It's natural to expect that someone would have "more loyalty to an employer who hires you and gives you a second chance," she says. And if that employer is one that offers extremely generous benefits, the chance of career advancement and a sense of mission to their jobs, it could be particularly effective at making people who've been given that second chance want to perform well.

Given that, could the results really apply to more mundane jobs that don't have the same lush benefits or career prospects? They very well may not, though Lundquist says employers who are early to hiring those with criminal records--again, with the right kind of rigorous screening in place--could still see some loyalty benefit, if they're thought to be among the few who take the risk. "If every employer were operating this way," she says, "there's not as much of a novelty or opportunity [associated with it]. But that's also clear speculation."

She's careful to note that the "ban the box" efforts in no way suggests employers shouldn't still do background searches or appropriately vet employees they actually hire. "It’s just the timing of when it happens--so the person has a chance to be treated like a normal person, and the employer has a chance to really weigh all their credentials," she says.

Read also:

What hiring managers can learn from the NFL draft

The problems veterans face in the professional workplace

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