Invisible stripes: individuals with a criminal record are discriminated against in the UK labour market

Invisible stripes: individuals with a criminal record are discriminated against in the UK labour market


Man reviews a CV while talking online with a candidate

In a society that values second chances and the reintegration of individuals with a conviction, it is vital to examine the effects of disclosure of criminal records on employment prospects.

Recent research conducted by Dr Martí Rovira, former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford’s Sociology Department, delves into this pressing issue in the context of the British labour market.

In a new article in the British Journal of Criminology, Martí offers insights into the repercussions of disclosing a criminal record in the employment process and the potential implications of introducing "Ban-The-Box" policies in the UK.

Consequences of Criminal Records in the UK

The article begins by shedding light on the current situation in the United Kingdom, where over 12 million individuals possess a criminal record.

Requests for information on prior convictions in the British labour market are not uncommon, with recruiters soliciting over 7.6 million criminal record certificates in 2021, even for positions that don't legally require them. 

Martí highlights the detrimental effects of unjustified discrimination against individuals with criminal records. This discrimination imposes "collateral consequences" on individuals that extend beyond the initial sentence; it is ineffective because it hampers societal efforts to support ex-offenders in their re-entry into society; and it is counterproductive as employment is linked to lower rates of reconviction.

However, despite the societal importance of reintegration and rehabilitation, people with convictions continue to face high levels of unemployment. Government figures indicate that only around 26.5% of prisoners in England and Wales found employment after release, and approximately 60% of those under Community Payback Orders in Scotland are unemployed.

The Emergence of 'Ban-The-Box' Policies

In response to these challenges, British charities have called for the implementation of "Ban-The-Box"  policies, which aim to prohibit employers from asking about criminal records during the initial stages of the recruitment process.

By postponing the inquiry about criminal history to later stages of recruitment, employers may be encouraged to make more individualised assessments, taking into account a candidate's qualifications and skills rather than their criminal record.

However, research from the United States has demonstrated that the impact of BTB policies can vary depending on the candidate's race. While these policies have shown promise in improving the job prospects for White candidates with criminal records, they have been found to decrease opportunities for ethnic minorities, particularly Black individuals.

A Ground-Breaking Field Experiment

To address the complexity of this issue and provide empirical evidence, Martí conducted a ground-breaking audit field experiment involving over 1,000 job applications.

The experiment involved two fictitious candidates, both equally qualified, with the only difference being that one had a criminal record while the other did not. The difference in callback rates between these two groups was used to measure discrimination against individuals with a criminal record.

Martí states:

As the first field experiment of its kind in the UK and the largest in Europe, this research underscores the importance of rigorous and methodologically sound studies in the realm of criminal record stigma. Causal evidence is essential to drive evidence-based policy changes.

The Key Findings

The results of this study offer crucial insights into the challenges faced by individuals with criminal records in the British labour market:

  • Individuals with criminal records in the UK have a lower chance of success in the initial stages of the recruitment process, compared to candidates with equivalent skills and job experience.
  • The study lends support to the introduction of "Ban-The-Box" policies in the UK. White candidates disclosing a criminal record faced a lower call-back rate only when questions about prior criminality were included in job applications. This suggests that discouraging these questions during the initial stages of recruitment could improve the chances of White individuals with criminal records securing interviews and employment.
  • BTB policies should be accompanied by specific re-entry policies to support candidates with an ethnic minority background. The study found that Black candidates that disclosed a training course during imprisonment or probation on their CV faced discrimination in job openings without questions on prior criminality. However, no discrimination against Black applicants with criminal records was detected in positions with questions about prior criminality. Therefore, "Ban-The-Box" policies could have no effect on them or be detrimental. Specific policies should be taken to avoid the discrimination against individuals with criminal records from ethnic minorities.

Implications and Conclusions

This study contributes to sociological debates surrounding the impact of the criminal justice system on social inequalities. It provides concrete evidence of the intersection between the stigma of a criminal record and ethnicity in the UK, emphasising the need for policies that promote fair employment opportunities for all, regardless of their past mistakes.

The research offers a path forward to reducing the invisible stripes that hinder the reintegration of individuals with criminal records into society, making our communities more inclusive and just.

Martí concludes:

This research brings attention to the enduring consequences of contact with the criminal justice system, especially for ethnic minorities.

It provides clear and convincing evidence of the interaction between the stigma of a criminal record and ethnicity in the context of collateral effects of sentencing in the UK.

You can read the full article here or get in touch with Martí here.