Looking at Criminal Records When Hiring

Criminal Records When Hiring

What to look for when you see a criminal record during pre-employment screening: How it relates to workplace safety and how you can avoid reducing your applicant pool.

Federal, State, County, and database criminal record checks

Looking at Applicants with Criminal Records

Criminal records are fairly common in today’s workplace. In fact, according to National Employment Law Project, an estimated 70 million people in the U.S. have a prior arrest or conviction record.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should automatically exclude an applicant from consideration. In fact, we advocate using criminal records to ensure workplace safety rather than reduce your applicant pool. Having a criminal record does not mean an applicant is dangerous, and on the flip side, no criminal record does not mean no criminal activity.

Here are a few things to consider when you see an applicant with a record:

Criminal Record Considerations

The main items to look for when considering a criminal record are the nature and severity of the crime along with the time that has elapsed since, especially when considering criminal records vs federal records. This is to say that perhaps your applicant has a criminal record, but without looking further into it you would never know the crime was non-felony theft and committed 15 years ago when they were 18. It’s up to you decide if that would put your workplace in jeopardy, but you should consider a few key points:

  1. The crime was theft, which does raise a red flag. But upon further review:
  2. The severity of the crime was relatively minor. According to California Law, this crime was non-felony, which means it did not involve a firearm or automobile and was under $950 worth of property.
  3. The crime was committed, say, 15 years ago when the applicant was 18. No other crimes have been found since.
  4. Last, this appears to be the only crime on record, which does not indicate a pattern of behavior. 

All of this is up to you to examine when looking at a record, but we always suggest considering at least these few elements before making a decision.

What to do if Your Applicant has a Criminal History

So you’ve decided to further consider an applicant with a criminal record. What now? We wrote a blog specifically to tackle this issue. You can find it here.

Eliminating Bias

So, how can you eliminate bias when looking at applicants with a record? The number one thing we suggest is using background checks to ensure a safe work environment rather than to simply eliminate candidates from the hiring process.  

This approach can help to reduce the negative effects of systemic inequalities for those with a criminal record, which tends to disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Additionally, by giving applicants with criminal records a fair chance at employment, employers can play a role in breaking the cycle of poverty and make a significant impact on the life of an applicant with a criminal record.

Forbes discusses one reason employers may encounter difficulties in filling positions: automatic exclusion of applicants with criminal records. Which is one of the main reasons for the Ban the Box Laws, which essentially make it illegal to ask about prior convictions on a job application.

Overall, thinking outside the box when it comes to criminal records can help foster a more accepting, safer workplace than simply eliminating any applicant with a prior record.


By taking a more nuanced approach to criminal records when conducting background checks, employers can better assess an applicant’s suitability for a job by considering:

  1. the nature of the offense
  2. the time that has elapsed since the offense
  3. whether the applicant has demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation.

This approach allows applicants with criminal records the opportunity to fairly compete for job opportunities, while also ensuring that employers are able to create a safe working environment for employees and clients alike.

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