How do different kinds of positive employment credentials affect employers’ stigma towards job applicants with criminal records? Samuel DeWitt of the University of North Carolina Charlotte and Megan Denver of Northeastern University explore this issue in a study published in September in the journal Criminology. They conducted nationwide surveys with adults, a subset of whom had experience as employers.
The stigma that comes with a criminal record is often damaging to many areas of a person’s life, especially their employment opportunities. Common methods used to improve employment outcomes for people with criminal records usually aim to neutralize risk. However, positive employment credentials can provide more meaningful information about a person’s accomplishments.
Not all positive employment credentials are the same. Some positive credentials, like certificates of rehabilitation, send one kind of message: a person was once a criminal and now he or she is. Other positive credentials, like job training certification or reference letters, can give employers a better sense of an applicant’s skills and other positive qualities.
Participants in the study were randomly assigned to read a hypothetical job application from people with or without criminal records, and with or without different types of positive credentials. The positive credentials included involuntary or voluntary job training, an occupational license, or a reference letter from a past employer.
Then, participants answered questions about their likelihood of calling the applicant for an interview, their perceptions of the applicant, and the factors that influenced their decisions.
Participants who viewed applications from people with a criminal record and without any positive credentials identified the applicant’s criminal record as the most influential factor in their decisions. The participants were most concerned that an applicant with a criminal record would commit crime again, whether on the job or not.
For participants who viewed applications from people with a criminal record and with positive credentials, the concept of trust was highly important. The influence of trustworthiness on participants’ likelihood to call an applicant was strong for all positive credentials, but it was by far the strongest for positive reference letters from prior employers. This result suggests that positive credentials may reduce criminal record stigma the most through trustworthiness.
Participants also described trust as a quality that is transferable from an applicant’s reference to the applicant themselves. This transfer of trust improved the participants’ perceptions of an applicant’s work ethic, character, trustworthiness, and rehabilitation. In essence, when others demonstrated their trust towards an applicant, they were perceived as more trustworthy by potential employers.
Regardless of which hypothetical application the participants viewed, they were always concerned with an applicant’s skillset, work ethic, and dependability. In general, having positive credentials improved an applicant’s chances of being viewed as a capable and dependable employee.
The study’s authors outlined valuable policy and practical implications of their work. Importantly, credentials issued by the government may not have much of the social capital needed to convey trustworthiness to potential employers.
Instead, credentials like documentation of work history and reference letters from prior employers can be ways to neutralize risk while also highlighting an applicant’s trustworthiness and other positive qualities.
Past employment is one of the best ways to get hired in the future. The authors recommended providing more entry-level job opportunities such as temporary jobs for inexperienced workers or subsidized and transitional job programs for formerly incarcerated adults.
Overall, these strategies could provide the essential job training, work history, and positive reviews of a
worker’s performance to be included in applications for future employment.