Saturday, August 3, 2013

Setting Them Up for Failure...

The city of Richmond, California – already notorious for it's bankruptcy filing – raised eyebrows again with an ordinance it passed this week that prohibits any city contractor from querying its employees (or prospective employees) about their criminal background.  The city also threatened to use eminent domain to buy mortgages at the current market value of the properties.  They're on a real roll in Richmond! 

But this post is about the banning of criminal background checks.

Before I read this article, my thoughts were along the lines of “Oh, great.  Here goes the nanny state again, setting up employers to take the fall.  They'll be held liable for criminal employees, but not allowed to screen out the criminals.”  The article didn't exactly change my mind on that, but it did open my eyes a bit to the complexities of the situation.

The city really isn't trying to let hardened, potentially violent or flat-out dishonest criminals get jobs – though almost certainly that would be a consequence.  What they're really trying to do is to let those with a criminal record who are not likely to be a problem get a job.  The barrier, as the city sees it, is that criminal background checks have a basically binary result: you either do or don't have a criminal background.  For example, suppose you were busted for smoking pot at age 19.  You'd have a criminal record, and a background check would always pick that up, for your whole life.  The city is saying that employers see that “hit” on the criminal background check, and immediately deny the job.

I have two experiences (at two companies) with the use of criminal background checks.  One of these experiences validates the city's concern: at that company, if someone applied for a job and had a criminal background, they were excluded.  It didn't matter what the crime was, or when it was – they simply didn't get a job.  At the other company, more recently, when someone applied for a job and had a criminal record, the nature of that criminal record was weighed against the nature of their job.  If the criminal record was solely drug purchase, it was ignored.  If it included theft or violence, the applicant was turned down.  Other crimes were judged carefully, and factors like how long ago they were, the nature of the role being applied for, etc., were all considered.  In other words, considerable judgment was applied – which, I'd imagine, is precisely what the city of Richmond would really like to see happen.

I think Richmond's legislative fix is a bad one.  As is often the case, the motives were good, but the top-down approach is going to have consequences nobody really wants.   In particular, now when employees commit crimes, companies will be able to point to the new law and make a good case that they can't be liable for something the city mandated.

If employers in Richmond are really too quick to reject applicants with even minor criminal records, perhaps the city would better off considering why that is the case.  Businesses aren't run by stupid people; they must have a reason for rejecting those applicants.  I can only think of two reasons (and both may be operative): the cost of hiring an employee who commits a crime is extremely high, or there are so many applicants for jobs that using a filter like “criminal record” doesn't make it hard to get good employees...

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