Can you get a job with a criminal record? Here’s what the latest research has to say

The United States consistently ranks as one of the global leaders in terms of population-wide incarceration rates. Just last year under two million Americans found themselves in prison, and if we add in individuals placed under parole or probation that number rises to over five million. Some estimates even state about 1% of the entire U.S. adult population is or was behind bars. Suffice to say, that means there are a whole lot of people out there actively seeking employment with a criminal record.

Historically, it’s much harder for ex-cons to land a job than other professionals, but just how difficult is it to be hired with a criminal record in 2024? Recent years have seen a number of noteworthy studies undergo publication focusing on this very topic. This article will cover what the latest research has to say.

Unemployment & arrests intertwined

Shocking research published in Science Advances in 2022 tells us more than half of all unemployed American men in their 30s have either been arrested or convicted of a crime at some point in their lives. More specifically, the study reports that by age 35, 64% of unemployed males have been arrested and 46% have been convicted of a crime. 

What do these numbers tell us? The U.S. employment market is clearly missing out on a substantial portion of candidates due to the stigma a criminal record can carry. While employers have every right to be wary of a problematic past, countless arrests never result in an actual conviction and millions of ex-cons have done everything society has asked of them in the name of rehabilitation – and yet continue to miss out on employment opportunities in droves.  

“Employers need to understand that one big reason they cannot find the workers they need is too often they exclude those who have had involvement with the criminal justice system,” comments Shawn Bushway, the study’s lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, in a media release. “Employers need to reconsider their protocols about how to respond when applicants have some type of criminal history.”

A shift in perception?

On a more positive note, a survey encompassing over 1,000 U.S. employees as well as 400 executives suggests the majority of everyday working Americans have no issue sharing an office space or zoom call with a colleague who may have a criminal record. That poll found as many as four in five workers support the notion of their employer hiring someone with a prior conviction. Of course, the crime involved is a big consideration as well. Many employers will automatically deny applicants convicted of certain offenses, such as violent crimes. 

Still, there’s reason to believe more and more modern companies are open to hiring ex-cons. Take one study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics for example. Researchers from Harvard Business School found as many as four in 10 businesses are willing to hire workers with a criminal past for entry level positions, and the demand for ex-con employees is even greater if employers have access to prior performance reviews, the applicant’s most recent criminal records, or crime and safety insurance. 

In it for the long haul?

One of the biggest headaches facing modern organizations and employers today is the prospect of great talent walking out the door. Workers nowadays have never been more keen to explore other options and hop from job to job. Well, a research initiative published in the scientific journal IZA Journal of Labor Policy reports employees with a criminal background working in sales and customer service jobs appear both less likely to quit voluntarily and usually enjoy longer tenures in general. Researchers theorize such employees may feel a sense of loyalty to employers willing to give them a chance.

“In sales and customer service positions, turnover is a major labor cost. Our study found that employees with criminal records had a longer tenure and were less likely to quit their jobs voluntarily than other workers. This finding suggests that individuals with a criminal record represent an untapped productivity pool,” says study co-author Deborah Weiss from Northwestern University in a press release.

How can candidates with a prior conviction help their hiring chances?

It’s common for prisons and correctional institutions to offer inmates educational programs or jobs that can help them hone new skills in preparation for re-entering the job market one day. Unfortunately, upon release, many ex-cons are hesitant to bring up the work and skills they developed in prison at all for fear of the stigma associated with incarceration. Research published in Criminology details how some job seekers embrace the education they received in prison, yet many others avoid the matter entirely. 

While it’s understandable why many applicants with a criminal background may want to avoid bringing up their past, honesty is always the best approach when pursuing employment – and that applies whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime or not. While laws vary by state, it’s prudent for ex-cons to assume a background check will be mandatory prior to starting with a new company. That means employers will find out about any prior convictions eventually, and it’s always better if they hear it from the candidate themselves.

Moreover, another research project also published in Criminology indicates the right amount of education (and references) can make all the difference for individuals with a criminal record seeking full-time employment. Study authors explain certain credentials, such as relevant on-the-job experience, a college degree, a GED, or a letter or recommendation from a professor/supervisor, helped ex-con applicants enjoy better odds of being chosen for the job in comparison to other applicants with no criminal record but lacking those same accomplishments. Experience and skills gained in prison were also deemed just as helpful in terms of securing employment as any other relevant qualifications, suggesting there’s no reason to hide or avoid mentioning educational programs completed or jobs held during incarceration.

Finally, a notable report published in the Journal of Applied Psychology offers a surprisingly simple way for job applicants to approach discussing prior arrests or convictions. As opposed to offering up some type of excuse, explanation, or justification of what transpired in the past, researchers found that simply acknowledging and apologizing for whatever happened appears to be the best strategy. Excuses and explanations run the risk of conveying to employers the applicant isn’t all that repentant for what happened and may not have learned from their mistake.