Ban the Box: What's Next? Ban the Job Application?

close up of resume form with...
close up of resume form with...

As an employer and small business owner, my first reaction to Ban the Box legislation is "no way."

For those of you unfamiliar with Ban the Box, it's a campaign by many civil rights groups and social advocates to remove from the job application, the "check box" that asks if applicants have ever been convicted of a crime or felony. The purpose of the campaign, already effective in over a dozen states as well as hundreds of municipalities, is to make it easier for ex-offenders to find a job.

It's no surprise that many business associations oppose the legislation, believing it will expose the business to theft and its customers and employees to possible harm.

But during a recent table discussion at a conference, I began to see Ban the Box as just the tip of the iceberg about what's wrong with the traditional job application.

By the way, Ban the Box legislation does not require an employer to hire any candidate with a criminal background. Employers may still conduct background checks. Ban the Box simply pushes the question later in the hiring process, just like drug screening, background checks, and medical examinations.

With the war for talent building momentum and the job skill gap widening, more and more employers are struggling to find workers with the right skills they need. The argument that Ban the Box proponents make is that qualified and skilled workers who just happen to have been convicted of a non-violent crime or one committed decades ago might be unfairly and unnecessarily excluded from consideration.

I'm not here to argue for or against this particular legislation other than to say, the argument raises a very valid point. In order to identify applicants who have the right skills, experience, abilities and knowledge what does an employer need to know up front? Shouldn't an employer be making a hire or no-hire decision based on job-relevant information alone?

Job relevance is the heart and soul of equal opportunity and fairness. It is what puts employers on the right and wrong side of employment laws like Equal Employment Opportunity and American Disabilities Acts. These laws already prohibit employers from asking questions about race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion and medical conditions among other things on job applications. Requesting applicants to attach or upload a photo was banned years ago.

So I've been thinking. What else do employers ask that bias recruiters, HR professionals, and managers right off the bat?

Let's start at the very top -- the first name. Names like Jerry, Sam, Ashley, Jordan, Tracy and Kim are unisex names. But names like George, Robert, Nathan and Melvin or Susan, Mary, Emily and Elizabeth likely give away gender fairly easily. Whether intentional or not, even asking the first name on a job application could screen out a qualified applicant from the search by a biased manager. That's not only unfair to the candidate but bad practice for the business if they turn away talent they need.

But gender isn't the only thing that the first name gives away. What about names like Lakisha, Jamal, Abdul and Wei? Not only can they reveal gender but race, ethnicity, and even religion too.

And don't get me started on what last names might reveal! The bottom line is that efforts to search far, deep, and wide for high potential candidates are sabotaged early and often. Employers shoot themselves in the foot at the very instant they ask for first name and last name. They bias what is supposed to be an objective and strategic process with almost reckless abandon.

I think you are getting my drift. Here is my final example: Consider how biased an applicant's home or mailing address might be. A city or street address can reveal race, ethnicity and economic status -- off-limits for most job applications and irrelevant for skill requirements.

While Ban the Box at first seemed to me like just more social activist and civil liberties intrusion into my life as a business owner, the discussion opened my eyes to an even bigger hurdle standing in the way of improving employee screening and selection. In order to put the best candidates at the front of the line, the job application needs a fresh look.

For sure, employers need to collect basic information like name, address and contact information. But like the question about convictions, the question isn't if it can be asked but when.

So here's a crazy thought but one that might improve the odds of finding that needle-in-a-stack skilled worker and keep employers out of hot water.

Ban-The-Name and Ban-The Address, too. The job application can include an email or phone number to contact the candidate. An automated tracking system can assign a candidate ID and hide the name and address or an independent employee can mask the information from recruiters and managers. The recruiter or manager can see only job relevant information such as experience, education, licenses and certifications, and accomplishments. Applicants can respond to questions about availability, ambitions, and attributes that make a good fit for the job. They can even complete a pre-employment test to provide information about job fit, attitude, technical skills, and cognitive abilities (if relevant). And all this can be accomplished without knowing the name, address, and criminal background.

Ban-the-Box, Ban-the-Name, Ban-the-Address -- that's the way a fair, valid and job relevant screening process is supposed to work. It's not perfect and it won't work for everyone. But it's also an innovative approach to help employers identify highly skilled and qualified workers who are currently sifted out of consideration for the wrong reasons. Ban the Box and other initiatives aren't just about protecting workers with criminal backgrounds. It is more than a discussion about civil liberties. It presents a viable solution for employers seeking ways to find more qualified workers to fill open jobs in their companies.